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”.
Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming state visit to Kyrgyzstan [en], a flurry of announcements and events are celebrating and seeking to extend Kyrgyz-Russian educational relations.
The two countries maintain relatively good ties compared to other Russian-former Soviet bilateral relations.
In terms of language, Russian is still fairly widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has confirmed that Russian will retain its official status [en] in Kyrgyzstan. This helps as Kyrgyzstan sends 16,000 students to study in Russian universities every year. However, students flows between the two countries are not even [en]: only 1,500 Russians come to Kyrgyzstan to study.
The Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University [en/kg/ru] (named after Yeltsin [en], no less) is, I believe, the oldest of the six such bi-national universities, having been established in 1993 following decrees signed as early as 1992. Despite various scandals over the years, it continues to be considered one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
One of the areas for discussion when Putin and Jeenbekov meet will be the countries’ mutual involvement in regional associations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) [en/ru] (Kyrgyzstan currently holds the presidency) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [ru].
This may explain why Jeenbekov, addressing the first Kyrgyzstan-Russia Rectors’ Forum, on March 27, prounounced the need to reinvigorate the common educational space [ru] that had been envisaged by some of the ex-Soviet countries back in the 1990s.
The Forum was attended by 31 Kyrgyz university leaders and 40 of their Russian counterparts. As well as listening to various speeches (see the excitement on the delegates’ faces here [ru]), a raft of bilateral institutional agreements are being prepared for signature during Putin’s visit.
This includes an agreement with Russia’s top higher education institution, Lomonosov Moscow State University. I don’t have the detail of the agreement and whether it goes beyond the usual diplomatic pleasantries, but LMSU’s Rector has suggested that a branch campus [en] be opened in Kyrgyzstan*.
This would point towards much deeper cooperation between the countries more akin to that seen in neighbouring Tajikistan, where there is not only a bi-national Slavic University (opened 1996, not named after Yeltsin) but a branch of LMSU [ru] (founded 2009) as well as several other leading Russian higher education institutions.
Another interesting outcome of the Forum was the suggestion that Kyrgyzstan might join a Moscow-led international university ranking ‘The three university missions‘ [en/ru]. According to the Kyrgyz Minister of Education Gulmira Kudaibergenova, this would allow for a deeper and more objective analysis of the situation of Kyrgyzstan’s higher education institutions and connect them to their global counterparts.
Kyrgyzstan has thus far not dabbled too deeply in the murky world of university rankings. It recently employed a Kazakhstan based organization to set up a national ranking but as yet has not made the same kind of pronouncements that Kazakhstan, Russia and the like have about wanting to push one or more of its universities into the global top 100/200/etc. (I’ve written more about the trials and tribulations of university rankings in Central Asia as part of a comparison with Central & Eastern Europe and Latin America – watch out sometime later this year for that publication.)
Finally, along with the raft of bilateral agreements, expect to hear more about Kyrgyzstan’s involvement with Russian-led regional university associations such as the Eurasian Association of Universities, Shanghai Cooperation Organization Network University and CIS Network University.
These are all attempts to create a regional space where, for example, qualifications are mutually recognized and there are greater opportunities for student and faculty mobility (just like other regional groupings such as the European Union’s Bologna Process). It’s a growing area of interest for the ex-Soviet countries, and very soon I’ll have an exciting announcement to make about higher education regionalism in this space, so watch out for that too.
*Added on March 28: Apparently, LMSU has attempted to open a branch campus in Kyrgyzstan multiple times [ru] since 2004 but has been thawrted each time – not through any fault of Moscow’s, LMSU Rector Sadovnichiy was quick to point out… Maybe the latest attempt will be seventh time lucky.
In a post in September 2018, I detailed the extensive reforms being undertaken or planned for Uzbekistan’s higher education system. The reforms cover everything from legislation to recognize (and encourage the growth of) privately operated universities and institutes to new government funding streams to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2018 was also an important year for higher education in Uzbekistan with the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest university, now called the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan [ru]. History buffs can read more about the formalization of higher education in Central Asia in my May 2017 post.
One of the main outcomes of the rapid reforms undertaken in 2018 seems to be a new wave of institutional growth. Although it’s been less than four months since I published my post on reforms in Uzbekistan, I have read a number of news stories and press releases about the opening of new higher education institutions (HEI) in the country.
For the most part, these new institutions are branch campuses of foreign universities. Branch campuses are relatively low risk, high return propositions for the host country and for the home university.
Students get their degree from the home university without necessarily ever having to go to the main campus (although there are usually options for exchanges and visits) and have the comfort of knowing that the degree comes from an established institution with a good (almost always) reputation.
Whilst the university will have to invest in infrastructure and resources, it’s a great deal less effort to run a small campus – often with 1,000 students or fewer – and to import pre-existing courses and materials than to build an institution from scratch. For the host country, expanding international branch campuses is an easy way to tick the ‘are you internationalizing your higher education system’ box that everyone seems to have on their to-do list.
Uzbekistan has long been home to international branch campuses, from the UK’s Westminster University to Italian Turin Polytechnic University and South Korean Inha University. For many years, these were the only permissible forms of private higher education. Now, they are being joined by a number of other campuses, diversifying the system further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent shared history, Russia is steaming ahead with at least six new branch campuses [ru]. This more than doubles the current number of Russian branch campuses in Uzbekistan (four). Many of these are extremely well known and have excellent reputations, so it is not a trivial matter that they are deciding to set up shop in Uzbekistan:
- Moscow State Institute of International Relations – often known by its Russian acronym MGIMO (МГИМО)
- Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, a film school also often known by its Russian acronym VGIK (ВГИК)
- Moscow Power Engineering Institute, which already has a branch campus in Tajikistan
- Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology
- Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism
As well as the Russians, the Koreans are also increasing their presence in the country [ru] by opening a campus of Ajou University, a top engineering institution. India is set to open its first Uzbek campus [ru], a branch of well-known Amity University. And there are ongoing rumours about unnamed French and British institutions [ru] expressing their higher education interests too.
In the future, I expect to see the direction of travel flip, and for new privately run and operated HEIs to be opened by domestic actors. This might be Uzbeks with international experience and/or education, or perhaps these new institutions will be a mix of state initiated and privately run, along the lines of a number of HEIs in Kazakhstan.
A first step in the homegrown diversification of higher education is already underway, with reports that a new joint Uzbek-Belarusian institute will open in 2019 [ru]. It will be based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and will focus on applied courses. In turn, ongoing educational cooperation between the two states will also be marked by a new joint faculty in Tashkent. This will be run by the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics with the Tashkent University of Information Technology.
I expect there will be more to report on new HEIs in Uzbekistan soon!
**Update: January 26, 2019** My prediction that there would be more to report soon has already proven correct. Sputnik Uzbekistan has just issued a story saying that China will be opening a multi-faculty university in Tashkent [ru]. No details yet about who exactly ‘China’ is, whether this will be a bi-national university or a branch campus, but it’s a really interesting development to see China involved in providing higher education outside its own borders. This will be, I believe, the first Chinese presence beyond Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.
**Update 2: January 27, 2019** And here’s more on this already! Now Malaysia is getting in on the act, planning to open a branch of the Technological University of Malaysia in Khorezm [ru]. This is another exciting development, as it brings a well-established and well-ranked institution to Uzbekistan and more importantly, shifts the focus away from the capital Tashkent.
**Update 3: February 7, 2019** Webster University (USA) will be offering an MBA in Uzbekistan from the 2019/20 academic year after its President signed an agreement with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the US. And, while not necessarily leading to a new institution, Tashkent University of Information Technology has signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with East Kazakhstan State Technical University [ru], meaning that Uzbekistan’s ‘near abroad’ neighbours are getting in on the act too.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before the rapid internationalization* of higher education in Central Asia made its ways outside the region’s borders, moving away from the current focus on internationalization within the region.
There are examples of internationalization reaching Central Asia littered all over the place. Here are just a few to illustrate the multitudinous growth: the first US branch campus to set up in Uzbekistan, the recently founded English-medium instruction International University of Humanities and Development in Turkmenistan, the recruitment of foreign faculty to work in Kazakhstani universities (a review of a new article on this is coming soon to the blog), and the introduction of Master’s degrees in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a new level of degree that would in the old system have slotted between the old five year “spetsialist” degree and PhD-equivalent Candidate of Science.
Like other states and regions, the countries of Central Asia are now thoroughly exposed to the range of ideas, influences and processes flowing through higher education systems around the world.
What differentiates one state or region from another is how it decides to deal with those flows, and how much power, legitimacy and money it has available in making those decisions.
Kazakhstan has long stood out from its Central Asian neighbours in terms of the attention given to higher education. As I have argued elsewhere, the state takes higher education seriously and the extensive activity in this sector demonstrates the importance of higher education to the country.
In that context, it is unsurprising that a Kazakh university has become the first in Central Asia to establish a branch campus [ru]** outside the region.
The South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University has opened an office in Brussels, Belgium, with the aim of opening a full branch campus in the future. The university also hopes to build international partnerships, support “integration into the international education space” and “promote the image of education and science of a Kazakhstani higher education institution abroad”.
These are lofty ambitions. It is interesting to see the reputational/brand-building element, as this suggests that the initiative is not just to be beneficial to the institution but to the Kazakh higher education system more generally. This stands out from other similar initiatives where the common motivation tend to centre on the benefits for the institution opening the branch campus – financial gain, opportunity to support exchange of their academics and students, etc.
South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University also has ambitions to open offices at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Aveiro, Portugal.
We should applaud the initiative of this Kazakhstani institution to bring Kazakh higher education to Europe and its efforts to broaden academic mobility beyond the longstanding “North to South” flow of students to what they perceive as “better” academic systems.
I just hope that in this rush to “internationalize”, higher education systems and institutions retain distinctiveness. By copying models and ideas seen elsewhere, we can’t help but become more similar to one another. That might be seen as beneficial if it uniformly raises the quality of higher education, the options available to students regardless of their geographic location, and the ability to share and produce knowledge.
But if we forget our histories and we no longer care about having a diversity of different types of institutions in different parts of the world, then I worry that higher education will lose the ability to inspire, engender and build on creativity. Without creativity, there will be no discovery, and without discovery our world would become a very small and limiting place.
*By internationalization – a now over-used term that runs the risk of becoming a catch-all term like globalization – I mean exposing higher education institutions, curricula, faculty, students and structural arrangements to ideas from other systems. For Central Asia this mainly means harmonization with European higher education standards propagated through the Bologna Process, although the American higher education system also provides a strong model.
This exposure to outside ideas is taken on board locally in three different ways (I am grateful for “finding” new institutional theory, which gives me the ability to identify and summarize this). Firstly, ideas can be voluntarily adopted by individuals/institutions/their states. Secondly, they can be taken on because there is a feeling of “catch up” (our system is less good than X’s system, we’d better adopt Y change in order to avoid the risk of falling behind) or stemming from a desire to join an imagined international higher education community. Thirdly, there may a coercive element to the adoption, usually as a condition of receiving funding from an outside body for reform – such as the World Bank/Russian government funded project in Tajikistan to implement changes to the system of admissions to higher education.
**Branch campus – see Wikipedia for a decent explanation