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Higher education reforms in Uzbekistan

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Once the ball of higher education reform has started rolling, where will the chasing end?

In an interview with Gazeta.uz [ru] published on 18 September, Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Aziz Abdukhakimov offers some insights into higher education reforms in the country. The list is impressively long, indicative of broader reform trends taking place across government and in society as a whole.

In higher education, I’ve already flagged Uzbekistan’s growing interest in cooperation with neighbour and former arch-enemy Tajikistan, the release of the first national university ranking and the role of higher education in the country’s international relations.

Now let’s add to those efforts the reforms described by Abdukhakimov earlier this week:

  • Autonomy – there’s a proposal for Rectors (Vice-Chancellors) to be elected by faculty under an open vote. This makes the state one step further away, and the open voting is intended to avoid the possiblity of what Abdukhakimov calls ‘clan politics’ entering the higher education system. However, Abdukhakimov notes that the state will retain the right to veto the choice of Rector in state universities, so let’s not get carried away with too many ideas about academic freedom and the like;
  • Decentralization – universities are to bring in their own managers to deal with finance and local administration, and should establish governing bodies (usually called boards of trustees in former Soviet systems) to oversee their affairs;
  • Expansion – universities will be allowed to recruit more students (within the limit of the number of faculty they have and capacity of their facilities – classrooms, dormitories etc) and offer a wider range of course ‘in order to respond to the demands of the market more flexibly’;
  • Income – connected to the point on expansion above, universities will be able to admit students who did not achieve the required admissions test score by charging them tuition at between 1,5 and 3 times the amount of the regular fee. Whilst Abdukhakimov does not encourage universities to admit students who did not meet the requirements [ru], it’s hard to see how the prospect of extra income that these ‘super-contract’ [ru] students will bring with them will deter HEIs;
  • Privatization – the legal system will recognize private higher education institutes (HEIs) and the government is planning tax breaks and other incentives to encourage more such HEIs to open. The government also wants to encourage more public-private partnership HEIs e.g. by offering state-owned buildings for privately run use;
  • Internationalization – the country wants more international students and has ambitions – rather like Kazakhstan – to become a regional education hub. Abdukhakimov asserts that these international students will then return home to be brand ambassadors for Uzbekistan, ‘which is very advantageous for the country’s image’;
  • Choice – new admissions processes will be introduced allowing prospective students to apply earlier and to more HEIs than the current system permits;
  • Access – the state will fund a small number of students from disdvantaged or rural backgrounds to attend privately run universities (a grant system already exists in publicly funded HEIs). Former military personnel will be able to get funding from a specific grant scheme rather than applying to the main grant pot;
  • Commercialization – the state is going to invest in 80 HEIs and provide free places so that they can turn into what Abdukhakimov calls ‘Universities 3.0’. Beyond teaching and research (as making up 1.0 and 2.0 if you want to think about it like that), these HEIs will emphasize the commercialization of knowledge – so I’m imagining the government is thinking of US models like Stanford or MIT that has many highly successful spin-off companies and opportunities for students to be involved in social and business entrepreneurship.

The interview is followed by a fairly lively discussion which mainly focusses on the financial aspects. The idea of ‘super-contracts’ [ru] is new and is quite clever if you think about it from the government’s point of view. By legitimizing practices they know are already happening (I too have heard about this in other universities in neighbouring countries – e.g. you pay a ‘double contract’ – two years’ fees – for the first year of study if you didn’t quite make the grade), the state gets to take the credit for giving HEIs more flexibility and income, all the while arguing that this low stakes because if the students aren’t smart enough to make the admissions cut-off, they’ll probably drop out – but not before paying at least a year’s worth of fees. But on the other hand, as one commentator suggests: “The name ‘super-contract’ makes it sound like an achievement, but really it’s just a straight path into university for rich idiots’.

There’s an awful lot to digest in this short summary of the Uzbekistan government’s plans, and it’s an exciting time for those of us (OK, for me!) interested in how higher education is changing in the Central Asia region. Almost all of what Abdukhakimov is proposing puts Uzbekistan squarely in the growing group of nations seeking to conform to what they see as ‘global best practices’ in higher education, which basically means attempting to emulate the US research university system and neoliberal funding models where higher education is seen as primarily a private good.

Many of the ideas for reform are also underway in neighbouring countries, although as far as I know, the ‘super-contract’ is unique to Uzbekistan. I’m planning to discuss the prospects for regional integration in the Central Asian higher education systems in a future blog post, and something I will consider there is the extent to which the convergence on the type of reforms being pursued helps or hinders those prospects.

There’s much more to say about the direction Uzbekistan is choosing to travel in when it comes to higher education, but that’s enough for today.

Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarships

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Got a degree but don’t want to use your qualification working out in the middle of nowhere without your family and earning a pittance?

If you’re a graduate of a Tajik university and you’ve had funding from the state to support your studies, the ruling of a regional court this week is that if this rural employment opportunity doesn’t appeal, TOUGH LUCK. You either go or you repay your scholarship instead.

State scholarship students are contractually bound to work in a job that’s in line with their area of study for three years after graduating and this judicial reinforcement of the rules underlines that there’s very little tolerance in Tajikistan for anyone who disagrees with the government’s thinking.

One of four Tajik graduates who’s been ordered to repay their scholarship explains that he declined the school teaching job offered to him because it would have meant leaving his family and children to work in a rural area and on top of that, not earning enough to provide for his children. From that perspective, you can understand why he chose to overlook the clause in his scholarship contract he’d agreed to several years before.

The idea that scholarships are provided conditionally is not unusual – the British government, for example, requires its Chevening Scholars to leave the country at the end of their studies and has the power to cancel UK visas should the scholar apply to stay after completing their studies. In addition, many private foundations and organisations offering scholarships to study abroad do so with the provision that the scholar will return at some point in the future, thus bringing back the benefit of their learning and experiences to their home country (though they don’t have the enforcement power of a government that also manages visas!). Fair enough, you might say.

This case, however, doesn’t come across quite as reasonably as the examples I have just given. Fundamentally, until and unless the labour market improves in Tajikistan, the supply of good jobs for university graduates is slim, which can force graduates to look for opportunities that don’t directly connect to the subject they studied. The connections between subject of study and employment sector are no longer as closely aligned as they were under the centrally planned Soviet system, which controlled not just the flow of jobs but the supply of subjects in each university.

In parts of the world, it is common for graduates to seek work that may not instinctively seem to connect with what they studied at university, but in fact the connections lie in the applicability of the skills the graduate has learned during their study. And there are some jobs that you can’t do a degree in, like many of the jobs in university administration. So, for example, someone with a history degree might end up working as a university manager (like me): whilst I don’t work on the university’s archives or do other directly historical-related work, I do employ the analytical, writing, teamwork and other skills I learned as an undergraduate.

Another reason that this case doesn’t sit comfortably relates to the low salaries of state employees, including teachers. Many graduates who would otherwise be well qualified to work in schools are deliberately choosing work in other areas, notably the private sector and aid/development organisations in Tajikistan because the salaries and conditions are a great improvement on the meagre pay packet the state is able to offer.

Now that this case has been to court and the court ruled in favour of the government, Tajik students should think carefully before signing their names on the dotted line of a state scholarship contract.

My translation of the original article by Alexander Shabalin [ru] that appears in News-Asia this week (and has been syndicated to a number of other agencies) is below, and attached with the original Russian version here: Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship money.

Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship funding for not working in line with area of study

Alexander Shabalin, © News-Asia, http://www.news-asia.ru/view/society//8427

Translation © Emma Sabzalieva

24 June 2015

Four Tajik university graduates have been accused of not working according in line with their area of study (referred to in the region as ‘specialism’) after finishing university. The Sughd Regional Court has ordered the young people to repay 32,000 Tajik somoni (USD$5,000) to the government.

The court found the four graduates of Khujand University guilty of not having completed a government requirement of working in their specialist area (i.e. the industry most closely linked to the subject studied at university). One of the graduates, Abdushukur Ustoboev, who completed a degree with the specialism ‘Folk Art’ at the Faculty of Painting and Graphics at Khujand State University, said that he had to turn down work as an art teacher in a rural school because of the salary, which was so low he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. He also noted that he wasn’t in a position to repay the 8,000 somoni (USD$1,300) payment ordered by the court.

“I understand that the government has supported our education, but you also need to understand that I am not prepared to repay the money following the court order. I was told to work in a remote rural school as an art teacher for three years after graduating and to live there without my family and children. I didn’t do it, and now I’ve been prosecuted for it,” said Abdushukur Ustoboev.

The Tajik Ministry of Education requires university students receiving state scholarships to work for three years after graduating in a job allocated to them according to their area of study. This requirement is in place because the government wants to get a return on its financial investment in the students’ education – and in this case, this meant sending them to work in schools in remote mountainous regions of the country. According to official figures, there is a shortage of more than 600 school teachers in a range of subject areas in the Sughd region.

Mamura Yusufzoda, Press Secretary for the Rector of Khujand State University, said that there was no one to teach the specialisms studied by the four graduates who came before the court (painting and graphics, geo-ecology, biology and chemistry) to in schools outside of large towns in Tajikistan. As a result, the university decided to take tougher measures against any students who didn’t want to take up work in their specialist area. According to the figures held by the university’s lawyers, 40 out of 500 completing students at Khujand State University refused to work according to their specialism in 2014. The university’s lawyers also reported that, before enrolling at university, every state-funded scholarship student signs a contract which explains their obligation to work for three years in a place where they can use their specialism. Only after that time does the graduate have the right to receive their degree certificate.

Poor prospects for Uzbeks studying in Kyrgyzstan

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I’m reporting today on a EurasiaNet story about missed opportunities for Uzbeks studying and wishing to make a living in Kyrgyzstan. The full story is below, (c) EurasiaNet with the original available at http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67908.

This is a problem created in the Soviet era when boundaries between republics were less relevant and the overarching ‘unity of the people’ propaganda message veiled some of the ethnic and national differences that have sprung as if from nowhere since independence 20 something years ago. Yet it remains a problem, exacerbated by recent conflict in the south of Kyrgyzstan and poverty.

 

Kyrgyzstan: Uzbeks Dropping Out of School at Alarming Rate

The educational aspirations of ethnic Uzbeks in and around Osh appears to be declining. (Photo: Dean C.K. Cox)