A recurring theme for higher education in Central Asia is corruption. A quick search of my blog turns up story after story that I’ve written on this topic and that would only be scratching the surface.
I know this is not only a problem for Central Asia, or even the broader former Soviet space. Just this week I was talking to a friend who’s doing amazing fieldwork in Iraq on the possible future for higher education there, but she too has found that corruption is a significant hindrance to positive change.
It’s not a new problem for Central Asia/former Soviet space either. Despite the ostensible equality of the Soviet period, the hierarchy of universities was well known (Moscow State at the narrow top of a pyramid) and well-connected / politically regime-friendly parents had a much greater chance of getting their child into a ‘top’ university than your everyday farmer or labourer.
This deeply embedded legacy hasn’t stopped Kazakhstan from attempting to claw away at some of the corrupt practices still found in its higher education system. Presumably the policy rationale here is part of the government’s push to ‘modernize’ the country to the point that it becomes a top 30 world economy.
Earlier this year, the State Service and Anti-Corruption Agency in Kazakhstan opened an office embedded in the country’s leading university, Al Farabi Kazakh National University. The office is leading a project called Sanaly Urpaq, which amongst other things is developing a corruption index [ru] for the country’s higher education institutions.
A trial at the National University surveyed students and academics on topics like the extent to which profs embody professional values and the transparency of the educational process.
After analysing all the data, Sanaly Urpaq produced an anti-corruption rating of the departments at the National University which was ‘widely discussed’ at the university’s Academic Board, according to Liter News Agency [ru].
This format of surveys followed by a departmental ranking (the Kazakhs do love their rankings) will now be rolled out across the country. The idea is that this ‘name and shame’ exercise will nudge the country’s higher education institutions into taking concrete measures to combat corruption.
I think this latest ranking exercise is significant because it’s a sign that not only does the government recognize that corruption exists, but that it understands that this is a persistent problem in higher education. The idea of embedding the project office in the country’s leading university is also novel and hopefully will encourage a shared sense of ownership of the need to combat corruption.
I would love to hear from colleagues working in Kazakh universities and institutes to know whether this project is being taken seriously by professors and university management. Both groups absolutely have to be on board for any real change to take place.
I’ve been blogging about higher education in Central Asia for nearly seven years, and it would be great not to have to write about corruption so much! So on this flimsy basis alone, I hope that this project paves the way for reform in Kazakhstan.
My new article is now out in University World News, in which I investigate a growing scandal in Tajikistan with a rash of plagiarised doctoral dissertations exposed. Vindicated in this highly embarrassing scandal include high level government officials and senior academics.
Read the full story at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20180428053554356.
Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.
On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.
All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.
Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.
Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.
There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.
For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.
The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.
The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.
One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.
The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.
Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.
Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.
Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.
That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.
The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.
Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.
Yes, you heard that right.
A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.
A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.
That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.
UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.
Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.
Whether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.
Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.
But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.
During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.
Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.
Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.
The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.
Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.
After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.
This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.
The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.
And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.
Kazakh civil servant Almat Yermagambetov wins this week’s prize for bare faced deception.
Yermagambetov handed over to the police a woman who falsely claimed she could obtain admission at Nazarbayev University and a place at a top school in return for a large amount of cash – $20,000 US to be exact. This sounds great for moves towards transparency in a country that despite significant reform still struggles to eliminate corruption.
The plot thickens, though, not when you learn that the accused flatly denies any allegation of wrong doing – but when you find out that the person who paid out the not-to-be-sniffed-at sum of $20,000 to buy admission places for his children is Yermagambetov himself. Yes, the very same civil servant who brought the corruption to light. And, yes, as the 100+ comments on the original article also note, the very same civil servant who does not appear to be facing any charges for his own highly corrupt behaviour.
You couldn’t make it up.
Thanks to news portal Nur.kz for the story – https://www.nur.kz/1319394-chinovnik-otdal-moshennice-20-tys-dlya-zach.html [ru]
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.
In my most recent post, I passed on some tips on how to get into university in Kyrgyzstan. Today I’d like to share some more advice, this time on how to pass your university exams, courtesy of Ernist Nurmatov at Radio Azattyk [Liberty].
In an article entitled “Osh: did students get grades without going to university?” [ru], Nurmatov recounts the experiences of a university instructor in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who didn’t give pass marks to students who didn’t actually turn up to class.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? You come to class, put in the hours, write your exam at the end, and hopefully pass. Don’t turn up, don’t submit assessments – don’t pass.
Apparently not at the Osh State Law Institute.
After the instructor failed some of her students for not turning up for the exam, she asked some to write an explanatory letter setting their reasons for absence. The letters she got back are shocking.
One student claims he was “cheated” by another instructor who didn’t let him pass even though he paid 6,000 Kyrgyz som (nearly USD$100) as a bribe. That’s not far off an average person’s entire income for a month.
Another, who had to stay at home to look after his parents, claims he paid the local equivalent of USD$75 to one of the university’s most senior officials, who then told him he didn’t have to come in to take the exam.
Naturally, the university completely denies the allegations. One senior official is quoted not once but on two separate occasions as saying “There’s nothing illegal about that” in defence of the university’s actions.
The instructor who bravely refused to pass these students has taken up her case with the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies but in the meantime she has been sacked, according to her because of this incident (again, the university denies this).
Whether you believe Mamatova, the students, or the university officials, there is so much that feels wrong about this situation. Why is that young people feel they have to get a degree so much that they’ll even consider paying for it? How has bribe-taking become so normalized and how might this trend be reversed? What are the implications for the quality of education and of the nation’s graduates? What is going on with the national economy that going abroad to work has become so common? Why are cultural and economic conditions in universities such that an instructor or official will accept a bribe? What happens to others who might now be too scared to shine a light on such rampant corruption?
The picture may be frivolous (and hopefully drew you in to read this far – if so, please read the original article in Russian or my edited translation below) but the issues it belies are serious. The cat in the picture may be saying “don’t ask questions” but I am encouraging you to do just the opposite.
Loosely translated by Emma Sabzalieva; original article (c) Ernist Nurmatov for Radio Azattyk
An instructor at Osh State Law Institute Syuita Mamatova claims that 100 students are being allowed to progress to the next year of study without actually having been to class. These students are working abroad in Russia and paying to receive grades instead of studying. The university administration completely denies these allegations.
Mamatova says that the number of students who take the final exam but don’t turn up for classes is growing. She teaches a class in Banking law where she says around 20 fourth year (in a five year system) students never turned up. When she asked the administration to remove from the class, she got no answer.
Mamatova says that as a rule, instructors aren’t able to record these students as absent, but that she did. Mamatova also took her quest for justice one step further by informing the Rector’s office in writing that these students were being expelled from her class. Yet instead of expelling them, Mamatova claims that the Rector Egemberdi Toktorov and First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov told her to give the students marks.
When Mamatova refused, she was fired. She then turned to the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies. Claiming she was put under pressure, she gave marks to students who did produce final assignments or other work in lieu of attending class. However, she refused to give grades to anyone who had not come to class at all and says that this is why the Rector fired her. As a pretext, the administration claimed they didn’t have enough hours for her to work.
Mamatova is convinced that senior administrators and other instructors are covering for these students and that they took umbrage at her interfering with them receiving money from students for grades.
As insurance, Mamatova took statements from students who did not attend in which they explained their absence. Some students admitted that they were working abroad and paying for their grades instead of studying.
Final year student Aybek Taalaibek uulu said in his letter: “I didn’t attend any of the 22 hours of teaching or any of the 14 seminars for Banking law. I was in my village. But I gave 6,000 som [a little under USD$100] to the teacher Gulzirek Anarbayeva and asked to be let through the course. But she cheated me and didn’t let me pass. This year I had to go to Moscow to earn for my family and Aysinai Alymbayeva promised to let me pass, but she didn’t. I was cheated.”
Nurlan Asanov, another final year student, wrote: “I didn’t attend because I was at home looking after my parents. I gave 5,000 som [USD$75] to First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov and asked him to let me pass. He told me it was all sorted out and I could skip the state exam. I apologise for not attending the Banking law classes.”
The university management refutes Mamatova’s allegations. First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov had the following to say: “We don’t have any students who don’t attend exams. Everyone comes and studies. If there are students who for some reason or another can’t make class, they make up for it either through independent work or reports. Nobody takes money from anyone. All students go to class and take exams by themselves. In the specific case Mamatova is referring to, the letters she presented were written under duress. These students had various reasons that they weren’t able to attend. Their parents have come to me and complained. It’s true that I phoned Mamatova and asked her to give them marks for the catch-up work the students did. All of them had written up to 20 short projects and she gave them marks. There is nothing illegal about that.”
Mamatova also claims that the university gave out documents to 120 Kazakh students who were not studying at the Institute. Again, First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov denies this and accused Mamatova of incompetence: “We had an agreement with a university in Almaty [Kazakhstan] for 120 Kazakh students to join our courses by distance learning. I went to Almaty myself to oversee the admissions process. After six months, they all decided of their own accord to transfer to a different university. We didn’t give them documents saying they’d completed their studies with us, just a letter explaining what they had done during that time. There’s nothing illegal about that.”
Osh State Law Institute’s Rector Egemberdi Toktorov was not available for comment.
Around 5,000 students are enrolled at the Institute. As two undergraduate courses are being wound up this year, a little over 3,000 students remain.