A swathe of regulations, rankings, mergers, acquistions, and threats of closure for poor quality universities typify the Kazakh government’s drive in recent years to increase and assure quality in its higher education system.
The latest target of the quality movement is Innovation University, which had its operating licence removed in late January 2020 after two inspections in 2019 found that the university was in breach of a number of rules.
The university, known in Kazakh and Russian by its less snappy full name, Regional Social Innovation University, is in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, 600km from former capital Almaty and a mere 130km from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent.
The Ministry of Education and Science announced that not only had the university broken various rules, but it had not put any measures in place to improve the situation after the first inspection in 2019. The Ministry further pointed out ‘gross violations‘ in admissions – accepting students that hadn’t taken the correct exams, hadn’t provided originals of the ENT (nationwide university admission exam) certificate, and so on – as well as in teaching, where it was found that published timetables for classes were not being adhered to.
As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions. A final decision was due from the Ministry in early February, but I have been unable to source this. The university’s website is still functioning and makes no mention of any interruption to its activities.
Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.
Innovation University was not particularly well known in Kazakhstan until June 2019, when local police discovered a drugs den in the university’s sports hall, finding that drugs were being consumed on university premises. Furthermore, one person was arrested in the said sports hall-cum-narco-haven for dealing drugs.
This led to the Ministry of Education carrying out an unplanned inspection of the university, finding no fewer than 63 violations of its rules and regulations for higher education institutions.
If drugs and rule-breaking was not enough, Olga Zhukova, an intrepid correspondent for Total.kz news agency, reported in August 2019 that the university was flouting the regular rules for admissions and also effectively operating a ‘cash for degree’ scheme.
On making enquiries, Zhukova was told that she could enrol in the distance education course and would be able to earn her degree in just two years. Zhukova also spoke with students at the university who reinforced what she had been told: as long as you pay your fees, you can get your degree in two years. No need to come to class or take exams. As one student told her, “It’s great! I’ve told all my friends at work to enrol!”
Zhukova notes that Innovation University was formed from the merger of three universities in Shymkent and offers a wide range of courses, but it suprisingly only has two medium sized buildings on its campus, one for the administration and one for teaching. Little wonder there are timetabling issues…
Closing down Innovation University certainly seems like a good idea in the light of the administration’s flagrant disregard for the rules and students’ eagerness to buy their way to a degree certificate.
The problem is that there are places like Innovation University all over Kazakhstan – and around the world. This one will be shut down, but there will always be someone else willing to sell you a degree. Though whether or not they also have someone on site willing to sell you drugs is another matter.
It was not an auspicious Valentine’s day for ten of Uzbekistan’s university leaders this year, with several newspapers running a story with the tantalizing title ‘10 university Rectors lose their jobs in one day‘ on February 14.
If previous leadership changes are anything to go by (see e.g. Tashkent State University of Law, Tashkent State University of Economics), there is probably more to this than the bureaucrat’s favourite reason: “they reached pensionable age”.
Hints at the reasons for the mass removals came during a meeting between the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and industry, university and research representatives at the end of January. Mirziyoyev was scathing in his criticism:
In the coming days, we’re going to fire a number of Rectors. According to information I have here, these Rectors aren’t even worthy of being security guards at their university. They lack knowledge, education, patriotism and the ability to do their job.
Mirziyoyev also said that throwing these leaders in jail wouldn’t end the corruption that remains endemic in Uzbekistan’s higher education. The whole environment needs to be changed. True.
The universities involved in the February 14 changes at the top are:
Tashkent State Pedagogical University
Jizzakh State Pedagogical Institute
Navoi State Pedagogical Institute
Namagan State University
Tashkent Chemical-Technological Institute
Karshi Institute of Engineering and Economics
Namagan Institute of Civil Engineering
Kokand State Pedagogical Institute
Tashkent District branch of Astrakhan State Technical University
Tashkent State Dental Institute
Samarkand State Medical Institute
Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
Following the firing of the Rector of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ in August 2019, another university leader has been shown the door.
Rector Bahodyr Khodiev of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE) was suspended in November 2019 on the grounds of corruption. Details of Khodiev’s alleged activities have not been made public, but this very high profile removal comes as part of the Uzbekistan government’s drive for greater transparency during the university admissions process, which now carries ‘severe penalties’ for those who violate the process.
Khodiev had been at TSUE since May 2016, although this was not his first stint there as Rector. He had previously also been in charge prior to moving over to several senior government positions in 2010.
Khodiev has been replaced by Kongratbay Sharipov who has come over from the Ministry of Higher and Professional Education to take charge at TSUE. Sharipov left school at 15 to work as a mechanic, turning to teaching in the late 1980s and turning fully to academia as Uzbekistan became independent in the 1990s. In the 2000s he appears to have combined academic work with business operations – in 2009 alone he had positions as both the general manager of new projects at GM Uzbekistan and was briefly the rector of Turin Polytechnic University!
Watch this space to see who’s next to go in the anti-corruption drive in Uzbekistan.
Several weeks after news broke that the head of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ had been fired, a new appointee has taken up the mantle.
Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL)’s Rector Yesemurat Kanyazov was fired not just from his university leadership position but also from his other job as Deputy Minister of Justice. The official reason now given was that Kanyazov was leaving for another role – Deputy Director of the Intellectual Property Agency at the Ministry of Justice, according to sources.
Taking the helm at TSUL is 36 year old Rahim Hakimov. Hakimov has a doctorate in law [the higher-than-a-PhD level Doctor of Sciences degree] and is a graduate of TSUL, from which he graduated with a Specialist degree [like a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s] in 2005. He joins TSUL from government, having previously served on the defence and security committee as a member of parliament.
Like his predecessor, Hakimov has also been given the dual role of Deputy Minister of Justice. Let’s see whether he has more effect in clamping down on the corruption that has given his new workplace the not so illustrious title of ‘most corrupt university’ in Tashkent.
PS Today is my blog’s 8th birthday! Having set out in 2011 to share stories about Central Asia and the former Soviet space and links to higher education, I’ve been true to form over the years. The blog has been viewed nearly 50,000 times to date and well over 1,000 of you subscribe to receive updates from the site. My top post – in terms of how many times it was viewed and shared on other sites – remains my bruising critique of the Tajik government’s introduction of a dress code for university students, High heels for higher learning.
Thank you very much indeed for reading the blog. Here’s to the next eight years!
Catching up on recent higher ed news, here’s a story from Uzbekistan that speaks both to the ongoing wave of education policy reforms in that country as well as to the persistence of corrupt practices in higher education.
At the end of August 2019, the Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL) Yesemurat Kanyazov was dramatically fired from his top position. The resignation was ordered by no less than the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The reason(s) for his removal from the university post were not given. Kanyazov had been at the helm of TSUL since 2013 having previously developed a career in government. Indeed, at the same time as being Rector of TSUL, he also held the position of Vice Minister of Justice. It’s not clear whether Kanyazov has managed to hang on to this job either.
At the time of writing this piece, TSUL’s website is still showing Kanyazov as its Rector and there are no news stories about his departure…
The votes have been counted and the results are in and… well, it turns out that Kazakhstan’s higher education is not as corrupt as you might have thought.
According to a report in Arna Press [ru], students in East Kazakhstan were generally pretty satisfied with their ability to progress through higher education without resorting to bribes.
Over 1,100 students at universities and technical/vocational training institutes in the region completed a survey organized by the East Kazakhstan Region State Agency for Civil Service and Anti-Corruption [ru]. Just 23 of that number – around 0.02% – said that they had bribed a professor, 40 reported using personal or family connections to get around the rules and only 72 admitted to cheating (e.g. using their mobile phone in exams, plagiarising others’ work).
When asked how effectively they thought their universities were dealing with corruption, over half of students said ‘extremely well’, the most positive response on the 5-point scale; only 6.5% gave an extremely negative answer. Fewer than 3% said they regularly encountered situations that could only be resolved through corrupt means whilst nearly 70% said this had never happened to them. And over 80% of those surveyed said they had not come across ‘unfair practices’ (giving bribes or gifts, use of personal connections etc).
Those are extremely pleasing reports for the government, which has committed itself to rooting out corruption from higher education. It has even developed a corruption ranking of universities to name and shame poor performers.
Perhaps the survey results are an indication of deep change in higher education in Kazakhstan, which since Soviet times has been plagued by various forms of corruption. It really would be something if a student could get through a degree without having to know the right people or come from the right family, or have to dig deep into their pockets where cash is not necessarily available in the first place – that is to say, to get a qualification based on what you know, not who you know or whether you can afford to do it.
But these results run counter to the opinion of almost every person in the country I’ve ever spoken to about higher education. I’ve been told and have read about countless stories of corruption from its mildest instances to troublingly deep problems.
It would be easy to reach the conclusion that these survey results [ru] are just as corrupt as the system continues to be. Yet the optimist in me dares to hope that even if there’s some skewing in the outcomes, the prospects for able students without money or connections might just be getting brighter in Kazakhstan.
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.