Somewhat beyond the Central Asian scope I normally cover, but a topic that is highly relevant around the former Soviet space is academic freedom.
I recently listened to a very interesting podcast on the topic of academic freedom in Russia. The episode focussed on a series of recent events and interventions at the elite Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
The debate centres around a TEN HOUR long Academic Council meeting – not the fact that these poor souls were trapped in the same space for such a long time, but the discussions that arose around proposed changes to internal rules that could impact on the ability of students, faculty and staff to discuss ‘political’ issues. (Political in quote marks as it’s one of the points of contention that politics is not properly defined anywhere).
The podcast is one of the first in the Naked Pravda series by the excellent Meduza news agency, which reports on Russia but safely from the confines of outside the country. It is one of the best sources of news (in Russian and in English) about Russia so as a side note, if you are a Russian reader but don’t currently get Meduza’s daily email, sign up now. It’s always on topic, very smart and funny, and will keep you up to speed on politicking po-russki.
Back to the podcast, which is in English: download it here from the podcast’s website. The link also has a good written summary of what’s discussed in the podcast in case you prefer to read than listen.
I recommend the podcast, although I note with disappointment that there were no female guests on this episode. There are more than enough qualified women out there, and it’s not difficult to find them. Naked Pravda can and should do better on that front.
My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.
Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:
A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system
The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.
These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.
In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.
Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.
However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.
Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.
According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.
Interest from Russia and Asia
It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.
Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.
With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.
The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.
There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.
The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.
The speed of reform
Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.
Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.
The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.
In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.
Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.
Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).
This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.
A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.
Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.
If you should find yourself in Pittsburgh, PA, today – October 27, 2018 – please join us at the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s 2018 Annual Conference for our roundable on Global Bolognaization: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area.
Followers of my blog may remember the call for proposals that co-convenor Aliya Akatayeva and I put out at the end of last year when we first started planning the roundtable. We had an excellent response and our original line-up of panellists included colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (and me!) all ready to share experiences and analyses of the impact of the European Union inspired Bologna Process reforms on higher education in Central Asia.
At our roundtable today, we will be taking three directions of travel to reflect the research and experiences of the three panellists who will be present:
Professor Gulnara Mendikulova, a distinguished scholar of Kazakh and world history, will set the general scene for the roundtable, considering questions such as: what is the history of the Bologna Process across Central Asia? What were the drivers for Kazakhstan to adopt the Bologna Process? What have been the challenges and opportunities presented by the reforms?
Aliya Akatayeva, Head of the Social Studies Department at Satbayev University (Kazakhstan), will focus on the knotty issue of academic freedom. Whilst academic freedom – including autonomy for universities – is a core value of the European Union higher education ‘package’, there are a number of tensions and challenges in embedding this broad principle in Kazakhstan. As one of the universities in the country that has been given some degree of autonomy under a 2017 law, she will offer a case study of the journey of Satbayev University towards academic freedom.
I will discuss Tajikistan, not (yet) a signatory to the Bologna Process but aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Kazakhstan and become one. By highlighting findings from in-depth interviews in two cities in the country, I will draw out the experiences of some of the faculty members who are on the front line in living with the new higher education reforms. Whilst many are positive about the potential of related changes to the curriculum on the quality of the learning experience, others expressed resistance and resentment towards a series of changes they felt they were not consulted on or given time to adapt to.
We’d love to see you at the roundtable – 11am today in Posvar 4217!
Before the dust had even settled on the Minister for Education’s recent announcement that Kazakhstani universities will issue their own degree certificates from 2021, the next reform agenda for higher education in the country has been laid out. Speaking at a 2 April meeting with university rectors and faculty members, Deputy Prime Minister Dariga Nazarbayeva raised the hot topics of university autonomy and academic freedom.
(Before I move on, let me remind you again that Nazarbayeva is the President’s daughter – her family name is a bit of a giveaway – just in case anyone else out there is wondering who might be in line to take Nazarbayev’s place when the eventual succession happens…)
Apparently achieving autonomy is not just the government’s task but its “dream”, according to Nazarbayeva, making what I can only see as an extremely tenuous connection between academic independence and the prospect of reduced funding from the state. Perhaps it was the eliding of autonomy with talk of greater commercialization that explains the link; but either way, it was an odd pairing.
Autonomy in a university setting would imply more robust internal governance mechanisms and greater authority to manage budgets and recruit people – including university leaders, who are currently appointed by the state. It tends not to be associated with financial cutbacks, although in the grander scheme of transforming universities into the mould of recent Western educational reforms, this drive for “Kazakhstani modernization” would not be out of step with the shifts seen in contexts such as the UK and USA.
These shifts can been neatly encapsulated by the phrase “academic capitalism” (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2009), implying knowledge becoming a commodity to be capitalized on rather than knowledge as a public good or even (heaven forbid) knowledge for its own sake.
The detail of how Kazakhstan’s universities are to be given greater autonomy and academic freedom have not yet been spelled out. To get some indication of how this might work, we need to look at what’s happening at Nazarbayev University, which I have written about several times over the last five years on this blog. One of the university’s missions is to be a model for higher education system reform in Kazakhstan, and to that end, the principles of autonomy and academic freedom are actually enshrined in legislation from 2011.
My assessment of the situation at Nazarbayev University (named after the President; his daughter’s not been around in a senior position long enough to have anything named after her yet) is that these principles are holding up, though it’s still very early days. You can find evidence of research on areas that in other Central Asian countries would most definitely not be permitted (e.g. on political opposition in post-Soviet countries) and people I’ve talked to with experience inside the university suggest that faculty recruitment is generally open and merit-based.
There are a lot of challenges for autonomous governance at Nazarbayev University though, not least stemming from Kazakhstan’s heritage of the top-heavy, bureaucratic and intrusive Soviet higher education system. And whilst the Kazakhstan government might be endeavouring to present itself both domestically and internationally as on a single-minded drive towards change, elements of that heritage still linger. Despite pronouncing the importance of autonomy and academic freedom, Nazarbayeva in her speech (read it in Russian here or in awkward and incomplete translation into English here) explicitly said that the government will “talk sternly” with those in the academy who resist changes. So much for plurality of voices and opinions!
The Kazakhstani government must be careful to bring universities on board with plans for reforms, and not get swept away in their fervour for fast results. Without genuine consensus at both policy development and implementation stages, the level of change is likely to be superficial at best.
Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
It’s all rather Soviet.. criticism, freedom of speech and free movement are all being restricted in Tajikistan. The article below from the reliably good Konstantin Parshin outlines yet another example of academic freedom being curtailed in the country. When will the government realise that this will only create more opposition?
(c) K. Parshin, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67986