Academic profession

A summer of learning: Fieldwork, conferences, and more in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

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It’s been rather quiet on the blog of late.

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A sneak preview of a new addition to my Central Asian university photo gallery. This beauty is the Kyrgyz State Technical University, formerly the Polytechnic Institute.

Don’t worry – I haven’t run out of ideas to keep the blog going. On the contrary, I probably now have too many. I also have a LOT of new photos of universities to add to my photo gallery (see the bottom right part of the homepage). Bet you can’t wait for that!

The reason for the lower than usual level of activity is that I’ve been doing fieldwork for my PhD thesis over the last two months.

This has involved meeting with over 30 wonderful academics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and spending a time with each of them discussing their personal experiences of working in higher education since the late Soviet period.

I have learned so much from my respondents and am incredibly grateful to each of them, not just for their time, but also for their willingness to share their own stories with me. Once I am back in Canada next month, I will need to spend time reflecting on these interviews and making sure I do justice to the rich data I have been able to gather.

All the interviews have been anonymised so I can’t thank people publicly – but they know who they are. Thank you. Спасибо.

In addition to doing these interviews, I’ve also been selected to present at three conferences, one in each country.

At the joint ESCAS-CESS conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, I organized a panel on The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education, presenting the paper Conceptualizing change in post-Soviet higher education. I also convened a roundtable on to discuss the future for higher education in the post-Soviet space. Read more about the conference here.

In July, I was invited to present at a conference on Tradition and change in a contemporary world in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a very fitting theme for my thesis work on change (and stability), although at the request of the conference organizer, the paper I presented drew on my earlier comparative work on the UK and Canada and was entitled Connecting history with contemporary identity in higher education. The article that this paper is based on can be found here.

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Presenting at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, August 2017

Finally, here in Astana, Kazakhstan, I am pleased to have presented today (19 August) at the first annual conference of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.

My paper was Public policy and higher education reform in Central Asia, which discusses how the world-class university has become a global public policy strategy for higher education.

Although this is an excellent example of policy convergence, I argue that Kazakhstan’s strategy in creating Nazarbayev University offers a creative shift to this world-class university model: one that embraces the dominant global university model whilst at the same time transforming it to be useful and applicable for other purposes. You can read my related article on this subject here.

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Nazarbayev University, impressive as heck.

The conference was themed around good governance and attracted a diverse array of international presenters. Each of the presentations I was able to see added something new to my understanding of governance and public policy, from thinking about the state as a supplier of institutions for economic diversification in Kazakhstan (by Zhanat Murzakulova) to learning more about the implications of informal institutions for post-Soviet education systems (by Dr Dina Sharipova), and a lot more in between.


And last but not least, in amongst all the interviews and conferences and photographing university buildings, it’s been absolutely wonderful to catch up with family and friends. Being dispersed so globally can have its downsides, so it makes the moments of being together even more special.

What a great summer.

Can’t pay? Won’t pay? Russian goverment fails to pay salaries and stipends in Tajikistan

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Russian-Tajik Slavonic (also called Slavic) University, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Once known as Tajikistan’s most prestigious higher education institution, the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University (RTSU) in the country’s capital Dushanbe, has certainly fallen from grace in recent years.

Last October, I reported on a sad and disturbing story about a student at RTSU being set upon by fellow coursemates, ostensibly simply for speaking up in class.

The lustre of the joint partnership between former master Russia and its humble (and generally obliging) servant Tajikistan has been decisively dulled in the light of a recent report from Fergana News [ru] claiming that faculty members have not been receiving salaries and students have not been able to obtain stipends for three months now. Some students are now so hard up that that they can’t even afford to take public transport to get to university, according to the article.

This inaction on the part of the Russian state has been put down to the “economic crisis” in Russia. This “crisis” has been brewing for a couple of years, bringing together causes and effects: declining global oil prices, sanctions imposed after the annexation of the Crimea, reduced investment, high inflation and currency devaluation (see this February 2016 article from RFE/RL [en] for more). Its impact is already felt in Tajikistan, where anywhere up to around 1 million of the 8 million population are attempting to make a living as migrant workers in Russia, and from where remittances sent back home plummeted by nearly 50% in 2015 [en].

Thus the students and faculty members are caught up in a bigger struggle, and likely viewed by the Russian government as insignificant in comparison to the other issues Russia faces. The academic profession in Tajikistan has been hit hard over the last 25 years – salaries and working conditions have diminished, with many lecturers needing to seek private employment or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Corruption in the form of payment for admissions and bribes for results is rampant. As a result, the quality and reputation of higher education is frequently questionable.

The disregard being shown to RTSU faculty and students is yet another blow for higher education in Tajikistan. With more than a hint of resignation mixed with frustration, one anonymous lecturer summed this up succinctly in the Fergana News piece:

Мы уже привыкли к таким задержкам в январе-феврале, но обычно в марте нам выплачивали всю задолженность. А в этом году денег до сих пор нет. Каждую неделю обещают. Зарплаты и так невелики, да еще и не получаем вовремя.

We’re used to payment delays in January and February, but we usually get everything we’re owed in March. But this year there’s been nothing. Every week they promise to pay. The salaries aren’t even high and we still don’t get paid on time.

Like many others, I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the Russian government alleviates what must be becoming an increasingly pressured and uncomfortable environment at RTSU as soon as possible.



It’s not all about the money – making academia more attractive in Kyrgyzstan

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Academics working in one of Kyrgyzstan’s many state funded universities get a bonus in their monthly pay packet if they have a higher degree of Candidate of Sciences or Doctor of Sciences. Quick contextual note: Kyrgyzstan still follows the Soviet system (which itself is heavily influenced by the German higher education model) of awarding two doctoral-type degrees. The Candidate of Sciences is closest to the PhD and the Doctor of Sciences is a higher degree, similar to the habilitation used in some countries. 

But that bonus doesn’t count for much when it equates just to US$4 or US$8 – even allowing for lower overall salaries and cost of living in Kyrgyzstan. This has spurred Kyrgyz parliamentarian Alfia Samigullina to call for a salary increase, which she claims will increase the prestige of the academic profession in the country.

Writing for Kyrgyz news agency, journalist Anastasia Bengard interviewed a number of academics to ask whether a salary boost would indeed lead to higher standing for academia. The article is at and also copied below [en].

Without denying that a (healthy) salary increase would make some difference, the academics interviewed also raised a number of other issues that in their view would enhance the profession. Their top tips were:

  • Greater integration and coordination between higher education (especially science) and the country’s economic and social goals;
  • Moral support from the government demonstrating the value it places on these higher degrees;
  • Careful recruitment of candidates with a genuine desire to use their higher degree as more than a certificate;
  • Improved quality of academic provision;
  • Support for under-studied or currently less popular subjects.

Do these ring true for the setting you work in? What would you add to the list to make the academic profession a (more) desirable career route?

Academic degrees. For the sake of prestige and salary?
25/02/16 12:38, Bishkek – news agency, by Anastasia BENGARD

Deputy of Parliament Alfia Samigullina took care of the low prestige of science. “The Candidates of Sciences monthly get extra 300 soms, and the Doctors of Sciences – 600 soms for their academic degrees. Therefore, the prestige of science is very low. It is necessary to increase salaries, and then, probably, the prestige of science will grow and more people, including the field of arts and sports, will be ready to defend the candidate and doctoral theses,” the MP said. news agency asked  the people how to raise the prestige of science and whether a good salary is enough to change the situation for the better.

Aiylchi Sarybaev, Doctor of Economic Sciences, Professor:

– Salary increase alone is not enough. It does not solve anything at all. Science must be tied to the social and economic problems of the country, to the government’s program for the development of various sectors. It is necessary to use the achievements of science and technology in real companies and organizations. Then there can be their development. In the meantime, we have the research work and the real economy completely separated from each other. We are developing chaotically, primitively, in the wild market economy. Science and technology achievements are not in demand because we have virtually no real economy; there is no stability in the country and in the government.

Salary increase is equivalent to rising of pensions or benefits. It’s not 300 soms, or 600, these are the vestiges of the past period, the socialist one. We must move to a new payment system based on the results of work. For example, someone has defended his thesis 30-40 years ago, and he is increased premium all the time. We shouldn’t do it in such a way.

– That is to say, some people have got degrees, but have invented nothing?

– Of course. So, there is an eternal pensioner constantly requiring assistance.

Ainura Arzymatova, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor:

– Prestige is at the same level as before: we have a lot of people who defend candidate and doctoral dissertations. But another question is when it is done not for the development of science itself, but for the personal image. Number of PhDs has increased, but there is no quality. I think that we have chosen wrong priorities. It is necessary to improve prestige through the quality and its control. There are reforms in the field of attestation of scientific personnel now. In June 2015, for example, it was decided that those who want to defend the candidate and doctoral theses should publish articles outside Kyrgyzstan. This factor, to some extent, will stop the flow of theses. Previously, someone published an article at Batken University, and it was considered to be a publication, but it has not been read. Now, articles should be published in international journals. So the people, who really want to deal with science, will come to it.

Under the conditions of poor budget, we need to raise wages to those who need it – teachers and doctors. Or it’s better to build a hospital. Not a single hospital has been built for 25 years. There are bestial conditions in the clinics. Money should be directed to priority sectors. People become scientists even without higher wages. Although, the salary is really tiny.

Tabyldy Akerov, lecturer, Candidate of Historical Sciences:

– One salary is not enough: it is usually increased only by 15-20 percent. It is necessary to develop a whole program to improve the prestige of science in order the graduates, who have achieved good results, be able to stay in the sphere and continue their education, and devote their life to science. One needs a lot of money to defend a master’s thesis. No one wants to research certain topics, for example, the Middle Ages and ancient history. It is very difficult to study the history of the Kyrgyz of ancient times: there are no sources. But today, the universities close or combine their departments. The National University used to have eight departments and it trained good professionals then, but today there are only four departments. And what specialists will we get then? What kinds of reforms can we talk about?

Everyone wants to defend his thesis quickly, and therefore he takes easy topics. Now it is impossible, as it was in the Soviet Union, to study one theme for 5-10 years. Today, there are market conditions, one need to feed the family, to solve social issues. And of course, young people do not want to engage in science in such conditions. We need to completely overhaul the education system, in order to have ministers, who are competent, but not “managers who can make reforms.”

Alexander Katsev, Head of the Department of International Journalism at KRSU:

– Science does not depend on the salary. But, of course, it is needed. If a person is engaged in some kind of mining machines, he needs the money to design them. If he is a humanitarian, he needs money for books. Russian universities have the so-called payments for books – $ 15 have been paid per month to a person to buy books. It’s not about the salary. We need to create conditions in which one would like to be engaged in science, in which the authorities want to publish the results of my research activities, my training load should be so that I could work with the students, and do science, that is to write books.

Mambetov Shergazy, Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor:

– Taking into account the work of scientists and their contribution to the scientific field, it would be a good idea to increase the payments. These people, as a rule, have no additional income, or business, or anything else. But it does not depend on our wish.

– And what has inspired you to engage in scientific activities?

– Internal calling. I am a PhD for 40 years already. Social spheres are changing, and there should always be the pursuit of science. It is a necessity for the development of society.

Tolobek Abdrakhmanov, principal of the Kyrgyz State University named after Arabaev:

– Financial encouragement is one of the points. 300 or 600 soms – how much is it now? So I think the question is correct. But in parallel there must be other leverages – moral, financial incentives and financing. Science is almost not funded in our country. Everything is done on the enthusiasm alone.

-What do moral incentives imply?

– I have not heard for a long time that someone got the title of Honored Worker of Science. At the same time, a lot of people received the title of Honored Worker of Culture and Honored Artist. Universities, by the way, are also working on incentives. In our university, we pay extra 3,000 soms for candidate, and for doctorate – 6,000 soms. Those, who have defended their candidate theses, get one-time premium in the amount of 30,000 soms, and for doctoral one – 50,000.

 – How would you comment on the statement that academic degrees are bought?

– There are those who buy, well, at least, there were some. Someone who has the money can buy also a deputy mandate, master and doctoral degree for prestige. And does the university or academic staff have money for that? They work and conduct researches honestly.