foreign policy

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.

The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.

Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.

Hm. Something’s not quite right here.

It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?

As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!

Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.

The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.

Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.

In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.

This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.

Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.

This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.

The use and abuse of honorary titles in academia

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I recently reported on a new China-led university alliance, and noted the increasing influence of China in Central Asia.

So I thought it was good timing to note that Kyrgyz career diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev was recently awarded an honorary academic post by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The award of Honorary Professor at the Chinese Diplomatic Academy (attached to the Ministry) came in recognition of Abdyldaev’s contributions to building relations between the two countries. Abdyldaev is a fluent Chinese speaker and lived for many years in China as a Soviet diplomat/Kyrgyz ambassador.

The use of honorary titles in academia is common around the world’s higher education systems. The award of such titles can be used by higher education institutions as a way to recognize an individual’s achievements, their contribution to the institution/community, or to symbolize something the institution wants to tell you about its values and principles. They can also be a way to build or cement a relationship with the individual (or whoever/whatever it is that the individual represents).

Witness, for example, the award of honorary doctorate to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev from Japan’s Tokai University and Korea University, both in 2010. In both cases, the awarding universities stressed the importance of country-to-country and institution-to-institution cooperation and the Kazakh government’s Bolashak scholarships, which have provided good funding for many students to study in both countries.

In the case of the Kyrgyz-Chinese connection noted above, the honorary title goes beyond institution to the level of the state. This is not surprising in a higher education system that remains very closely tied to the state, more so than in other jurisdictions where individual institutions have more autonomy to decide on their own awards.

In systems where universities have more autonomy, institutional values and principles through honorary awards are sometimes expressed in other ways. The University of Oxford’s famous denial of an honorary doctorate to Margaret Thatcher in 1985 demonstrated academics’ rejection of Thatcher’s social policy, which was seen as damaging UK science, education and health.

I don’t expect any such actions from Central Asian universities (yet?) but there’s certainly an interesting piece to the higher education jigsaw in considering the ways that institutions around the world use symbolic expressions like honorary degrees and titles that remains under-explored.