Aziz Abdukhakimov

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.