admission to higher education
Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
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.
It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.
This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.
(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)
In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.
The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:
-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?
-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?
-Can this area satisfy your needs?
-Can you make a living from this area?
The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.
With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.
Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.
The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.
People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.
Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.
The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.
Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.
I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.
Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.
And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.
And so the cycle continues…
I’m excited to share the results of new original research on corruption in Uzbek higher education, written by Albina Yun. Yun is a graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbek State World Languages University. She is a higher education professional currently working at Westminster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Yun’s research, written up as a policy brief for the OSCE Academy, is a hard-hitting account of the crippling effect of corruption on the quality and accessibility of higher education in Uzbekistan. It is one of very few works in this area: not only in its focus on corruption in the Uzbek context, but also generated by a locally based researcher.
Whilst the Uzbek government took an important step forward by implementing its first anti-corruption action plan in 2015, Yun is quick to point out that corruption in higher education remains systemic, “a massive issue with prejudicial effects” (p. 15). The results of corruption lead to graduates entering the employment market with inadequate academic and professional skills, and hugely undermine the transformative role that higher education can play at individual and societal level. The normalization of corruption both by students and faculty members/administrative staff is a major concern.
Ultimately, as Yun observes, unless measures are taken from the top down to address corruption, the very future of Uzbekistan may be at risk.
Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]
With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.
If, however, you didn’t score highly enough on the test to gain a scholarship, you can still go to one of Kyrgyzstan’s 50 universities (more than most countries with a similar population – Denmark has 8, Scotland – 19)… but you have to pay fees. These students are known as kontraktniki (контрактники) because of the contract between the institution and the student.
For students in Kyrgyzstan, a recent article from news agency Sputnik has some top tips for those seeking to avoid becoming the angry fee-paying cat [ru] and still get to university. These include:
- Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
- Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
- Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person
But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?
Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.
Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.
How do you catch the attention of a global audience increasingly used to high participation in higher education? In the case of Kazakhstan, one journalist thinks he’s found the answer, and that is to showcase the high stakes risks some people will take just to have the chance to compete for a place at one of the country’s universities. The language might be a little overblown, but Naubet Bisenov’s article is otherwise an excellent entry point into the world of Kazakhstan’s wannabe student population. The startling fact that is hidden amidst the moral panics created is the very fact that so many young people are so keen to continue their education. Without unpacking the many reasons that this might be the case, I think that makes for quite a different yet nonetheless extremely compelling story in itself!
His article from Intellinews is reproduced below in full.
The al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty is the country’s only entrant in the QS World University Rankings’ world’s top 300 universities.
Kazakh authorities are resorting to desperate measures to stem the endemic cheating at school final examinations.
The tests will be conducted in 166 specially-equipped testing centres between June 2 and 16 to which would-be students will be escorted by police. In order to “ensure necessary security measures” the centres will be equipped with 1,399 jammers of mobile communications, 438 metal detectors and over 2,500 security cameras.
Under pressure to pass the multiple choice test, in addition to memorising answers to test problems and questions, school leavers often resort to all kinds of cheating – from smuggling mobile phones and cribs into testing centres, to sending imposters to sit the test.
Tens of thousands of banned items are seized every year. Last year items such as mobile phones, portable radio sets, calculators and cribs were seized from 20,000 test sitters before the test and 32,000 during the test. In order to smuggle mobile phones into the testing centre through metal detectors pupils were reported to have wrapped them in aluminium foil and put in condoms or have worn a special skirt with secret compartments for hiding mobiles and cribs.
The most controversial case of cheating last year was a third-year male student from Almaty who disguised himself as a girl to allegedly sit the test for his “girlfriend” in South Kazakhstan Region. However, later the police established that the 20-year-old man had not even known the girl but was asked by his friends to do the trick. If found guilty, the trickster was expected to face a fine worth about KZT400,000 (about €2,000 at the time), but prosecutors said they hadn’t brought charges against the man.
The case, which the Education and Science Minister dubbed the “zest” of last year’s university admission season, is symptomatic of the corrupt university admission system: in 2015, the National Security Service uncovered 18 imposters in Almaty Region alone who reportedly offered to sit the test to desperate hopefuls for rewards ranging between $2,500 and $3,000.
Examinations in Kazakhstan are so fiercely competitive because of the shortage of university places paid for by the government, especially at the more prestigious, and often more expensive, colleges such as Nazarbayev University and Eurasian National University in Astana, and Kazakh-British Technical University, Kazakh National University and Kimep university in Almaty. Moreover, the Soviet-era practice of requiring specific diplomas for specific jobs, means that in order to qualify for better positions Kazakh citizens must go to a university to receive the appropriate diplomas.
But at the same time, the performance of Kazakhstan’s schools and universities are still well below that of Western Europe or even Russia. According to the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) tests of schoolchildren in 2012, Kazakhstan ranked 49th against the UK at 26th, the US at 36th and Russia at 34th, with the score for maths at 432 (the UK at 494, the US at 481 and Russia at 482), for reading at 393 (the UK 499, the US 498 and Russia at 475) and science at 435 (the UK at 514, the US at 497 and Russia at 486).
In university education not a single Kazakh university was ranked among the world’s 800 top universities by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016. In QS World University Rankings 2015-2016, there are only two Kazakh universities in the top 400: the Almaty-based Kazakh National University at 275th place and Astana-based Eurasian National University at 371st.
Next year the exam season could be even more competitive because the Kazakh government has cut the number of student grants that will be given to those enrolling in universities. The government set the number of student grants to be offered to university hopefuls at 31,700 grants in the next academic year against 32,788 grants this academic year.
The decrease in the number of student grants to cover tuition averaging KZT346,000 (€927) is explained by the lower number of school leavers this year – 121,091, with 86,991 taking part in the test, compared to 124,346 and 87,783 in the previous academic year.
The number of school leavers reflects a decrease in the birth rate in the country in the 1990s as a result of the economic crisis caused by the breakup of the USSR: it gradually decreased from 22.2 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 14.80 in 1998 and 14.47 in 1999 but started increasing from 14.90 in 2000 to 22.73 per 100,000 people in 2015. This will eventually translate into an increase in the number of school leavers in the near future.
The government also plans to change the current system that combines school leaving exams with university entrance ones in a single test, in order to reduce stress Kazakh university hopefuls endure in the summer after finishing school. School leavers will now sit two exams – one to leave school and another to enter university.
Critics says the current system puts too much pressure on pupils who need to score at least 50 out of 125 in the five-subject 3.5-hour-long test to enrol to university as tuition paying students, 55 to medical universities and 70 to prestigious national universities.
Whether qualified students receive grants or not depends on the number of grants allocated for particular specialisations and the number of hopefuls who apply for them. This year for the first time, the government will allow those who fail to score the minimum to resit the test for a fee of KZT2,242 (€6).
The average score was 79.4 in 2015, 2.5 points higher than in the previous year, with 14,420 scoring over 100 (17.4% of all test sitters) and five girls scoring 125 out of 125. The share of those failing the test was 18.6% in 2015 against 23.1% in 2014.