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.
Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]
With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.
If, however, you didn’t score highly enough on the test to gain a scholarship, you can still go to one of Kyrgyzstan’s 50 universities (more than most countries with a similar population – Denmark has 8, Scotland – 19)… but you have to pay fees. These students are known as kontraktniki (контрактники) because of the contract between the institution and the student.
For students in Kyrgyzstan, a recent article from news agency Sputnik has some top tips for those seeking to avoid becoming the angry fee-paying cat [ru] and still get to university. These include:
- Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
- Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
- Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person
But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?
Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.
Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.
How do you catch the attention of a global audience increasingly used to high participation in higher education? In the case of Kazakhstan, one journalist thinks he’s found the answer, and that is to showcase the high stakes risks some people will take just to have the chance to compete for a place at one of the country’s universities. The language might be a little overblown, but Naubet Bisenov’s article is otherwise an excellent entry point into the world of Kazakhstan’s wannabe student population. The startling fact that is hidden amidst the moral panics created is the very fact that so many young people are so keen to continue their education. Without unpacking the many reasons that this might be the case, I think that makes for quite a different yet nonetheless extremely compelling story in itself!
His article from Intellinews is reproduced below in full.
The al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty is the country’s only entrant in the QS World University Rankings’ world’s top 300 universities.
Kazakh authorities are resorting to desperate measures to stem the endemic cheating at school final examinations.
The tests will be conducted in 166 specially-equipped testing centres between June 2 and 16 to which would-be students will be escorted by police. In order to “ensure necessary security measures” the centres will be equipped with 1,399 jammers of mobile communications, 438 metal detectors and over 2,500 security cameras.
Under pressure to pass the multiple choice test, in addition to memorising answers to test problems and questions, school leavers often resort to all kinds of cheating – from smuggling mobile phones and cribs into testing centres, to sending imposters to sit the test.
Tens of thousands of banned items are seized every year. Last year items such as mobile phones, portable radio sets, calculators and cribs were seized from 20,000 test sitters before the test and 32,000 during the test. In order to smuggle mobile phones into the testing centre through metal detectors pupils were reported to have wrapped them in aluminium foil and put in condoms or have worn a special skirt with secret compartments for hiding mobiles and cribs.
The most controversial case of cheating last year was a third-year male student from Almaty who disguised himself as a girl to allegedly sit the test for his “girlfriend” in South Kazakhstan Region. However, later the police established that the 20-year-old man had not even known the girl but was asked by his friends to do the trick. If found guilty, the trickster was expected to face a fine worth about KZT400,000 (about €2,000 at the time), but prosecutors said they hadn’t brought charges against the man.
The case, which the Education and Science Minister dubbed the “zest” of last year’s university admission season, is symptomatic of the corrupt university admission system: in 2015, the National Security Service uncovered 18 imposters in Almaty Region alone who reportedly offered to sit the test to desperate hopefuls for rewards ranging between $2,500 and $3,000.
Examinations in Kazakhstan are so fiercely competitive because of the shortage of university places paid for by the government, especially at the more prestigious, and often more expensive, colleges such as Nazarbayev University and Eurasian National University in Astana, and Kazakh-British Technical University, Kazakh National University and Kimep university in Almaty. Moreover, the Soviet-era practice of requiring specific diplomas for specific jobs, means that in order to qualify for better positions Kazakh citizens must go to a university to receive the appropriate diplomas.
But at the same time, the performance of Kazakhstan’s schools and universities are still well below that of Western Europe or even Russia. According to the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) tests of schoolchildren in 2012, Kazakhstan ranked 49th against the UK at 26th, the US at 36th and Russia at 34th, with the score for maths at 432 (the UK at 494, the US at 481 and Russia at 482), for reading at 393 (the UK 499, the US 498 and Russia at 475) and science at 435 (the UK at 514, the US at 497 and Russia at 486).
In university education not a single Kazakh university was ranked among the world’s 800 top universities by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016. In QS World University Rankings 2015-2016, there are only two Kazakh universities in the top 400: the Almaty-based Kazakh National University at 275th place and Astana-based Eurasian National University at 371st.
Next year the exam season could be even more competitive because the Kazakh government has cut the number of student grants that will be given to those enrolling in universities. The government set the number of student grants to be offered to university hopefuls at 31,700 grants in the next academic year against 32,788 grants this academic year.
The decrease in the number of student grants to cover tuition averaging KZT346,000 (€927) is explained by the lower number of school leavers this year – 121,091, with 86,991 taking part in the test, compared to 124,346 and 87,783 in the previous academic year.
The number of school leavers reflects a decrease in the birth rate in the country in the 1990s as a result of the economic crisis caused by the breakup of the USSR: it gradually decreased from 22.2 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 14.80 in 1998 and 14.47 in 1999 but started increasing from 14.90 in 2000 to 22.73 per 100,000 people in 2015. This will eventually translate into an increase in the number of school leavers in the near future.
The government also plans to change the current system that combines school leaving exams with university entrance ones in a single test, in order to reduce stress Kazakh university hopefuls endure in the summer after finishing school. School leavers will now sit two exams – one to leave school and another to enter university.
Critics says the current system puts too much pressure on pupils who need to score at least 50 out of 125 in the five-subject 3.5-hour-long test to enrol to university as tuition paying students, 55 to medical universities and 70 to prestigious national universities.
Whether qualified students receive grants or not depends on the number of grants allocated for particular specialisations and the number of hopefuls who apply for them. This year for the first time, the government will allow those who fail to score the minimum to resit the test for a fee of KZT2,242 (€6).
The average score was 79.4 in 2015, 2.5 points higher than in the previous year, with 14,420 scoring over 100 (17.4% of all test sitters) and five girls scoring 125 out of 125. The share of those failing the test was 18.6% in 2015 against 23.1% in 2014.
Once known as Tajikistan’s most prestigious higher education institution, the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University (RTSU) in the country’s capital Dushanbe, has certainly fallen from grace in recent years.
Last October, I reported on a sad and disturbing story about a student at RTSU being set upon by fellow coursemates, ostensibly simply for speaking up in class.
The lustre of the joint partnership between former master Russia and its humble (and generally obliging) servant Tajikistan has been decisively dulled in the light of a recent report from Fergana News [ru] claiming that faculty members have not been receiving salaries and students have not been able to obtain stipends for three months now. Some students are now so hard up that that they can’t even afford to take public transport to get to university, according to the article.
This inaction on the part of the Russian state has been put down to the “economic crisis” in Russia. This “crisis” has been brewing for a couple of years, bringing together causes and effects: declining global oil prices, sanctions imposed after the annexation of the Crimea, reduced investment, high inflation and currency devaluation (see this February 2016 article from RFE/RL [en] for more). Its impact is already felt in Tajikistan, where anywhere up to around 1 million of the 8 million population are attempting to make a living as migrant workers in Russia, and from where remittances sent back home plummeted by nearly 50% in 2015 [en].
Thus the students and faculty members are caught up in a bigger struggle, and likely viewed by the Russian government as insignificant in comparison to the other issues Russia faces. The academic profession in Tajikistan has been hit hard over the last 25 years – salaries and working conditions have diminished, with many lecturers needing to seek private employment or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Corruption in the form of payment for admissions and bribes for results is rampant. As a result, the quality and reputation of higher education is frequently questionable.
The disregard being shown to RTSU faculty and students is yet another blow for higher education in Tajikistan. With more than a hint of resignation mixed with frustration, one anonymous lecturer summed this up succinctly in the Fergana News piece:
Мы уже привыкли к таким задержкам в январе-феврале, но обычно в марте нам выплачивали всю задолженность. А в этом году денег до сих пор нет. Каждую неделю обещают. Зарплаты и так невелики, да еще и не получаем вовремя.
We’re used to payment delays in January and February, but we usually get everything we’re owed in March. But this year there’s been nothing. Every week they promise to pay. The salaries aren’t even high and we still don’t get paid on time.
Like many others, I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the Russian government alleviates what must be becoming an increasingly pressured and uncomfortable environment at RTSU as soon as possible.