Central Asia

ESCAS-CESS 2017 Conference report

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opening ceremony
Opening ceremony of ESCAS-CESS 2017, held at the beautiful new campus of the American University of Central Asia

The first joint conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was, it is fair to say, a roaring success.

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.

The panel was adeptly chaired by Zumrad Kataeva of HSE in Russia and some excellent discussion points were raised by Bohdan Krawchenko, Director of the University of Central Asia.

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.

Typology with mappings.png

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.

AUCA conf
Taking a brief coffee break and enjoying the views at ESCAS-CESS 2017

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

 

 

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins

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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!

“We are losing our future”: Corruption in Uzbek higher education

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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.

Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia

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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:

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20160707140807406

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.

Reflections on Association for the Study of Nationalities World Convention, New York, April 2016

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Me standing next to some impressive stats at the ASN conference!

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

  1. 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.
  2. At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
  3. Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
  4. If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
  5. 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.
  6. If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
  7. Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
  8. 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!]
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

One of The Guardian’s top blogs

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Irreverent, funny and informative – higher education does the internet really well.

So says The Guardian’s Higher Education Network, which has today named my blog as one of its favourite social media accounts: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/mar/23/follow-the-leaders-the-best-social-media-accounts-for-academics.

What an excitement and a privilege, particularly looking at who else is featured on their list! Many thanks to The Guardian for this recognition, and for the additional motivation to keep sharing news, views and analyses about education, society and politics in Central Asia.

I’d better get back to work…

Central Asia in 2016 – part 1

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Following on from my post at the beginning of January 2016, Central Asia: what lies ahead?, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this month to thinking about the situation in the region in the coming year. I plan to do this at both a macro (state, regional) level as well as considering the implications at a meso (institutional) level, focussing where possible on higher education. This plan is facilitated by reports and news stories that have already been coming my way.

I open the series with an article from Kazakhstan-based Astana Times of 18 January that does a wonderful job of setting the global picture for the region. In the article,

Top Kazakh Think Tank Anticipates 10 Most Important Events in Central Asia in 2016

journalist Aiman Turebekova reports on the findings of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan (which I wish used the English acronym KISS rather than its actual abbreviation, KazISS!), which an organization has the aim of providing analytical support to the President.

The KazISS report focusses on global events that could have important implications for the political and economic development, stability and security of Central Asian countries. This is beautifully presented through an infographic which I have copied below, and is (c) KazISS. The infographic offers an immediate visual interpretation of the extent to which the world interacts/intersects with Central Asia, and thus the importance of what is happening globally to what happens in Central Asia. An English translation of these headlines and the full Astana Times story [en] can be accessed on the Astana Times website or downloaded as a pdf here: Top Kazakh Think Tank Anticipates 10 Most Important Events in Central Asia in 2016 18.01.16.

The ten headlines, using the same numerical order as in the infographic, are:

  1. The deterioration of conditions in world markets and the slowdown in economic growth in Central Asian countries
  2. Finding new means of economic cooperation in Eurasia
  3. Expanding Chinese investment presence in Central Asia
  4. Continuing instability in Afghanistan and implications for the regional security agenda
  5. The increased terrorist threat arising from the Syrian conflict
  6. Increased efforts by Central Asian countries in the field of regional security
  7. Next election cycle in Central Asian countries
  8. A new stage in the development of regional transport and energy projects
  9. Iran’s return to regional processes
  10. A decision on Kazakhstan’s bid for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018

Breaking these points down, we can identify three overarching themes that relate to the regional, global and national levels:

  • Regional: The importance of regional cooperation, both at the level of the Central Asian countries and in partnership with other regional players such as Russia, China and Iran. The Central Asian countries have varying degrees of influence in the direction of regional processes (2, 3, 6, 8, 9);
  • Global: The impact of transnational activities and processes, where the Central Asian countries may have limited ability to effect or control change (1, 10);
  • National: Political and security concerns arising both from external factors such as terrorism and Syria and ongoing instability in Afghanistan, as well as internal factors such as forthcoming elections (4, 5, 7).

The analysis draws extensively on the Kazakh experience (the other Central Asian countries, for example, have little direct involvement in Kazakhstan’s bid to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member) and this serves as a reminder that whilst we frequently think about the five Central Asian countries in their regional form, that they are all at different stages from one another, with different contexts and varying priorities. It’s a bit like describing France and Poland or Spain and Sweden in the same breath simply because they are all members of the European Union. This should not undermine the importance of analysis at the regional level, but help us recognize that we must also understand what is happening at the individual country level.

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