I was asked recently to give an overview of Central Asia’s higher education systems to a group of people who know a lot about higher education but less about the Central Asian context.
This was a great task. It really got me thinking about what someone would need to know in order to get a sense of how a higher education system operates and what some of the challenges and opportunities are within that system.
I decided to include indicators that would tell people about:
- Size: overall population, number of students, % of women;
- Money: how wealthy the country is, how much government spends on higher education, how higher education is funded;
- Organization: who are the important actors in this system, how is research organized, how international is the system;
- Big issues: what are some of the recent reforms to higher education, what worries people in that system.
My first thought was to lay out some data in a table by country (my research focus is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan so those are the three countries I used in this exercise). I did this, and it was a helpful exercise in getting clear what the key points were and how these could be summarized on one sheet of paper.
But… it looked boring! (No opportunity for cat pictures in the document either)
So I decided to harness my inner designer and try presenting these facts and stats in an infographic. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these – using images, very small amounts of text, colour, striking design and so on not only to grab attention but to try and present information in a more visually appealing way.
Some hours later and thanks to a free online tool, I had me an infographic. It doesn’t encapsulate everything that was on my fast fact sheet, and nor does it go into any detail e.g. on data sources – but that was part of the point. The idea was to help convey a few very basic ideas about higher education in Central Asia as visually as possible.
If you’re unfamiliar with higher education in these settings, does it give you an idea of how these systems might compare with other countries you know more about?
Are there important facts or figures that I could add which would make the contexts clearer?
Do the choices of images, graphs etc make sense?
I’d love for you to take a look at what I came up with and let me know what you think:
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?
Held at the stunning new purpose-built campus of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, ESCAS-CESS was the largest international conference of Central Eurasian regional studies scholars ever to be held in the region.
I organized a panel and convened a roundtable, contributing to the eight sessions dedicated to education during the course of the conference. You can see the program here.
Panel: The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education
Together with presenters Dmitry Semyonov* and Daria Platonova of the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia, Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US and Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland, we discussed our research on the forces that have driven changes in the size, the shape, and the governance arrangements of higher education systems in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet space.
We collectively aimed to advance our understanding of how change happens in higher education and the implications these changes have had in particular post-Soviet settings.
My paper analysed how change in higher education since 1991 in Central Asian countries has been conceptualized, responding to a gap in the understanding of how theories of change are applied to higher education.
The paper was based on a document analysis of 34 purposively selected peer-reviewed English language academic journal articles published between 1991 and 2017. Articles were identified through the use of words such as ‘change’, ‘development’, ‘post-Soviet’, ‘reform’, ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ in the title, abstract, keywords, or introduction.
As I study shifts and continuities in higher education through the theoretical lens of institutional change, I analysed the articles using a typology of modes of change I adapted from Streeck and Thelen**. This delineates both the process of change (as being on a scale between incremental and abrupt) and the outcome of change (as being on a scale between continuity and discontinuity).
Below is the visual I used to show how I mapped the articles on to the typology. During the presentation, I went through each of the quadrants in more detail to explain the rationale for placing the articles there and give some indication of the content / viewpoint that you might expect to find in each.
Roundtable: From Soviet to European to Global? Future Directions for Higher
Education in Central Eurasia
Over the last 25 years, the broad narrative of higher education reform in Central Eurasia has been a shift away from a Soviet model towards a model aligning with many European policies. More recently, efforts at adopting global norms are emerging.
Of course, such a concise synopsis overlooks the many intricacies of change in the very different Central Eurasian states. Furthermore, it might suggest that such a Soviet-European-Global ‘transition’ is not only linear, but that it (inevitably) leads from one starting point to one shared destination.
Thus, the aim of the roundtable was to question these assumptions from multiple perspectives. Some of the questions we focussed on were:
Is it meaningful to compare higher education across Central Eurasia?
Is there a crisis in the academic profession?
Who and what is higher education for?
Joining me at the roundtable were Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US, Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland and Zumrad Kataeva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia.
It was an excellent conference: interdisciplinary, a mix of newer and more established researchers, new contacts and old friends, and a chance to try out some of my PhD research through my panel presentation.
Were you at ESCAS-CESS? How did you find it?
*Shortly after publishing this blogpost, I received the tragic news that Dmitry died on 17 August 2017 following a car crash. Dmitry was a great young researcher with a promising future and his death is simply terrible news. My condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues at the Higher School of Economics.
**Streeck & K. Thelen (2005) Beyond continuity: Institutional change in advanced political economies
After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.
The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.
For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!
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.
After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.
I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:
I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.
During the past week I’ve been attending and presenting at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in magnificent New York, and wanted to use this blog post to follow up and share some reflections from an excellent conference.
ASN is a large conference with two overarching sets of themes. Firstly, topic-based, covering nationalities, nationalism, ethnicity and migration. The second area is regional, with almost all events focussed on the Balkans, Eurasia, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. The three day conference has over 600 panellists organized into around 150 panels/events, and there is also a film festival although I didn’t manage to get to any showings this time.
As you might appreciate, I focussed on panels with a Central Asia remit. I managed to get to nine panel sessions (plus my own!) and fit in some one-on-one meetings as well over a jam packed few days. The presentations were wide ranging, covering everything from an historical comparison of 19th century imperial education strategies used in the US on the Sioux and the Russians on the Kazakhs to being gay and religious in contemporary Kazakhstan.
What follows are some personal reflections on three individual presentations and two panels, as well as my top ten conference tips for presenters – all based on my observations from ASN (though naming no names where I’m suggesting improvements!).
Three notable presentations
Hélène Thibault: Impact of labour migration on matrimonial arrangements in Tajikistan
In an interesting and somewhat controversial presentation, Hélène Thibault of the Université de Montréal in Canada suggested that second marriages can be “emancipating” for Tajik women, particularly if their first experience of matrimony was unsuccessful. Marrying for a second time can be seen as a way to ensure economic security and ensure moral respectability. However, Thibault also argued that the growth in polygyny (her preferred term for Tajikistan as it refers to a man with multiple wives rather than polygamy in which either the man or the woman could have multiple spouses) could be described as “adultery reframed” – legitimising men undertaking multiple relationships rather than carrying out affairs in private.
Adrienne Edgar: Names and Naming in Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Central Asia
Well-known Soviet historian Adrienne Edgar spoke with great expression as part of a packed out panel on language, cultural production and national identity. To begin with, I thought her topic was going to be quite simplistic: how did families of mixed Russian and Central Asian heritage (the most common ethnic mixing) choose their babies’ names? But as she explained the results of this oral history project it became apparent that there was much more to a name: in Edgar’s words, naming was a “low cost but clear way to express identity and preferences”. How you named your child spoke volumes about how you imagined them fitting into the society around them (and indeed, how you as parents imagined that society to be).
Rico Isaacs: Exit, Voice, Loyalty…and Sanctions: Options and Strategies for Opposition Movements in Kazakhstan
In this presentation, Rico Isaacs outlined how he has applied Hirschman’s 1970 frame of Exit/Voice/Loyalty to understand the situation for the opposition in Kazakhstan. Here, exit means leaving the regime, system or country; voice means making your complaints known publicly or privately, and loyalty (to which Isaacs added sanctions) was noted as being a particularly valued concept in Central Asia. These stages aren’t linear and none, some or all may happen in varying degrees at different times. But the bottom line is that in 2016 Kazakhstan, the opposition is “moribund”, according to Isaacs, so the focus needs to shift to understanding where the spaces for dissent (if not outright opposition) can be found.
Two fascinating panels
Panel: Normative Orders and Kazakhstani Practices: Outcomes of Contestation in a Post-Soviet Field
Zhaniya Turlubekova: Political Institutions in the Fight against Drug-Trafficking: How Kazakhstani Law Enforcement Fights Transnational Crime
Aslan Sataibekov: Gay and Religious: The Contexts of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan
Raikhan Satymbekova: Female Political Representation and Barriers that Women Face in Politics
Ainur Jyekyei: Why Kazakhstan Increased Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, While Poland Decreased under the Kyoto Protocol from 2005-2012
This was one of the best panels I attended, made up of Master’s students from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Each of the presenters discussed the findings from their Master’s thesis and you can see from the titles above that they did not shy away from hard-hitting and important topics. All four presenters were incredibly well prepared, had good slides, kept to time, and gave thoughtful answers to the audience questions. Stand-out findings were from Zhaniya Turlubekova, who argued that modern Central Asian states are “too weak” to prosecute relatively new types of transnational crime such as drug trafficking, and from Aslan Sataibekov who managed to secure interviews with gay and religious Kazakhstanis even though the gay community aspires to remain secretive in order to minimise attention paid to them by government and society at large.
Panel: Teaching, Branding, Remembering
Leah Haus: Ideas, Institutions, and School Curricula: A Comparative Perspective
Hannah Moscovitz: Nation-Branding Through International Education: Exploring the Sub-National Context
Anna Kyriazi: The Education of National Minorities: A Thematic Analysis of Claims, Arguments, and Justifications
Sabrina Sotiriu: Online/Offline Scottishness: Strategies, Values, Norms and Procedures
My other contender for favourite panel, this session used education as a way of exploring identities in comparative settings. None of the presenters were using the former Soviet states as case studies and this made it even more fascinating for me, a chance to rest my Central Asia hat and put on my comparative and education hats instead! I enjoyed the range of approaches to comparison, which covered historical approaches, discourse analysis, interviews and quantitative data. I also found the way each presenter interacted with the others – even though they didn’t know each other – and the quality of discussion after the talks to add a great deal of value to the session.
Top ten conference tips for presenters
- Do be clear about what’s new and/or important in your study. You care a lot about your topic so you need to tell your audience why they should care too.
- At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
- Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
- If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
- Similarly, do limit how much information goes onto each slide and try to break up text with visuals or at the very least bullet points – you don’t want your audience trying desperately to read a large chunk of text and not listening to you.
- If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
- Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
- Do stick to the topic that got you accepted to the conference – if it’s really not possible then communicate with the conference organizers and fellow panel members about the alternative options. [Don’t announce a change of topic as you begin your presentation!]
- Do submit your paper by the deadline to give your panel discussant (assuming you have one) and co-presenters as much time as possible to read and think about what you have written.
- If the conference has a Twitter feed (ours was #nationalities2016) and you are OK with using Twitter, then upload a few tweets as the conference progresses. It’s a nice way to show your engagement and support fellow presenters.