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.
On the back of recent news that a number of universities in Kazakhstan are to be reorganized and some merged, rumours are now spreading that at least one of the proposed mergers will not in fact go ahead.
According to Dilara Aronova, a journalist for northern Kazakhstan’s regional news outlet Kostanay News, social media has been abuzz (well, perhaps not exactly ‘buzzing’, unless you share my all-encompassing love for higher education gossip) with rumours that a politician has opposed the move for the State Universities of Kostanay in the north and Taraz in the south to join with their local State Pedagogical University counterparts.
Senator Edil Mamytbekov, a native of Taraz, spoke out at the time of the October 2019 government announcement on the reorganizations and his words have been widely interpreted to understand that the underlying aim of the two mergers was to close the pedagogical universities.
The Ministry of Education was quick to respond that there were no plans to close either university and that the mergers are designed to pool financial resources and enlarge the two newly created regional universities.
Putting the matter firmly to rest, a working group at Kostanay State has already started planning the merger, and the university’s Rector issued a statement saying that any discussions about the cancellation of the merger were simply rumours.
So that’s that then. The government reforms steamroller on…
Мой отчет о политике в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане теперь доступен на русском языке. Его можно найти на сайте Университета Центральной Азии (заказчик проекта) илл скачать здесь.
Огромное спасибо УЦА за перевод! If you prefer it in English, you can find my report on higher education policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan here.
Данный отчет преследует две цели. Первая – рассмотреть сферу высшего образования в Центральной Азии, делая особый акцент на Кыргызстане, Таджикистане и Афганистане. Вторая цель – предложить политические решения, способные помочь этим государствам сделать их системы высшего образования более инновационными с опорой на науку и технологии. Отчет состоит из двух разделов. В первом разделе рассматриваются некоторые общие тенденции и вызовы в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане.
Выделены основные проблемы и возможности, стоящие перед системами высшего образования и обществами стран региона, с точки зрения государственных приоритетов, сформулированных в общедоступных документах и материалах. Во втором разделе на основе обзора текущей ситуации делается переход к будущему планированию.
В отчете изложены факторы, способствующие инновациям в системе высшего образования, и приведены примеры того, как это делалось в других местах. Наконец, в тексте предлагается ряд предложений в сфере политики высшего образования для трех государств, которые направлены на развитие научно-технического потенциала, что, в свою очередь, может заложить основу для внедрения инноваций в Афганистане, Кыргызстане и Таджикистане. Рекомендации, представленные в отчете, сгруппированы в план, охватывающий пять областей: нормы, навыки, исследования, научная культура и бизнес. Целью стратегического плана является поддержка развития науки, технологий и инноваций в сфере ысшего образования.
What are the challenges and opportunities in higher education in Central Asia and Afghanistan?
What kind of government policies can introduce innovation?
How can science and technology capacity be promoted?
For more on these important questions and some ideas about further developing science, technology and innovation in Central Asia and Afghanistan, please take a look at my newly published report for the University of Central Asia.
Currently available in English, I am told a Russian version will also be available soon.
Here’s a direct link to the report in pdf format: UCA-IPPA-Wp51 – ENG
I welcome your thoughts and feedback on the propositions in the report.
Just weeks after the release of Uzbekistan’s first national university rankings, it has emerged that the country’s Ministry of Justice has demanded the rankings be annulled.
This is almost unheard of: one state department publicly admonishing another. The Ministry of Justice must have serious concerns to go public with its beef against the Ministry of Higher and Vocational Education and the State Inspection agency that together compiled the rankings.
From the limited information [ru] I have been able to find, the Ministry of Justice has voided the rankings on three main grounds: legal-technical reasons, incorrect use and application of data, and lack of communication.
On the first factor, the Ministry claims that the rankings were not registered with them, nor were they subject to legal review, thus violating the requirements for the adoption of regulations. As such, the rankings cannot have any legal force or be legally binding.
On the second factor, there are claims that data presented in the rankings was either incorrect or misleading:
- The number of international faculty in the rankings are alleged to be incorrect: some universities included what the Australians call FIFO professors (fly-in fly-out i.e. there to teach a particular subject or class rather than based at the institution longer-term) – the implication being that this massaged their rating upwards;
- The rankings are not proportional and value quantity over quality. The use of quantitative indicators favours larger universities, who appear to be doing ‘better’ when measured against e.g. number of faculty members or degree programmes;
- The focus of the rankings was apparently ‘one-sided’, focussing only on research activities (this does not seem to correspond with the indicators I am aware of, which also include items such as ICT resources).
On the point about lack of communication, the Ministry complains that the rankings were not shared with universities before they were published, nor were universities informed that the rankings were going ahead. This is apparently out of line with ‘international standards’ as developed by the Berlin principles on rankings of higher education institutions and the International Ranking Expert Group.
What happens next is unclear. I don’t see any response from the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education, though that may be forthcoming. It is not evident that the rankings have been officially withdrawn, or whether there is any prospect of resolving the issues flagged by the Ministry of Justice and coming up with a revised version.
This bizarre case raises a larger issue about inter-governmental policy coordination, which in this case appears non-existent. Are departments talking with each other; are there forums for them to do so? This is not an Uzbekistan-specific issue, as some of my other research has shown.
The story also demonstrates that rankings are being taken seriously as a policy solution in Uzbekistan. This is shown by the Ministry of Justice taking such interest in the detail of the ranking and in the fact that it is connected to the work of international bodies dealing with rankings.
It would be fascinating to be behind the scenes at the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education right now to see how (if) they are going to take this forward, but unless any reader has inside information to share, we will be limited to what our imaginations might suggest about the current machinations of Uzbek policymaking.
The Kazakh Minister of Education and Science Dr Aslan Sarinzhipov has this week laid out the steps identified by the national government to improving human capital and therefore economic prosperity in 21st century Kazakhstan.
In May 2015, the government identified five areas of institutional reform, which collectively have 100 steps that must be achieved before completion of the National Plan. The five areas are:
- forming a professional state apparatus;
- strengthening the rule of law;
- supporting industrialisation and economic growth;
- bolstering identity and unity; and
- building an accountable government
(source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
The language of reform is typical of the neoliberalism that has been sweeping the world since the latter years of the 20th century: words such as ‘modernisation’, ‘economic prosperity’, ‘highly qualified’ offer clear markers as to the aims of the government. Dr Sarinzhipov’s statement abounds with ideas drawn from and enabled by processes of globalisation – Kazakhstan seeks to draw on expertise from Japan, Korea and Finland where global measures have demonstrated success in areas such as school achievement, and a review of major national government scholarship schemes has been drawn on to drive forward changes in Kazakhstan’s own national scheme, the Bolashak Scholarship Programme.
Sarinzhipov outlines a number of specific measures in education and science that will enable his domain to work towards the National Plan. These include:
- Moving from an 11 to a 12 year education system
- Greater use of other languages (including English) throughout the school and postcompulsory levels
- Provision of new facilities and science clusters
- Training for professional staff either abroad or provided by brought-in international experts
- Streamlining of the Bolashak Scholarships: the range of universities where Kazakh students can study will be further restricted to institutions classified as world-class in global rankings systems
Whilst the language and the desire to emulate can be seen in national government reform packages around the world, and where many of the reforms are common across postsocialist systems (e.g. the increase in compulsory schooling to 12 years), I would argue that Kazakhstan’s plan for education and science has a number of factors that differentiate it.
The primary differential, in my view, is that the driving force for change appears to be the national government, where in many other nations reform is driven by international agencies, in particular those that offer financing such as the World Bank group. That is not to say that international organisations have not influenced the government’s strategy, either through their continuing involvement in the country or indirectly by senior level officials (Sarinzhipov is an example) having worked for these organisations and therefore having been exposed to their ways of working.
This view can be substantiated by the importance being placed on embedding the Mangilik El [ru] (Eternal Nation) values system throughout the education system. Rather than simply taking on the (perceived) best features of other countries, Kazakhstan’s plan sets these into a firmly identified national context. Nation building for this and other postsocialist countries may seem overtly ideological to those from countries with a longer independent history, but in the context of contemporary Kazakhstan this strategy is seen as a way to unify the concept of a nation – one that generate economic prosperity and social and cultural capital through the implementation of the National Plan.