growth of English language
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.
The sages at the Ministry of Education in Tajikistan have decided that PhD candidates in the country should defend their theses in Russian or English [ru]. No official justification has been given for this November 8 announcement by Minister of Education Nuriddin Said.
The only exception would be for theses relating to ethnic and national issues, which would be permitted in Tajik, the national language.
News agency Radio Ozodi speculates that this move could be seen as a way of increasing the global audience for new Tajik knowledge given that there are more Russian and English speakers in the world than Tajik speakers.
On the one hand, there is some logic to this perspective. But on the other hand – and here we have a much bigger second hand – this new regulation appears highly problematic.
Having created its own Higher Attestation Committee (known by the Russian acronym VAK, from Vysshaya Attestatsionnaya Komissiya) with power to approve theses only in 2011, the Tajik government should surely look to this body for proposals on higher degree regulations.
What we’ve seen from the Tajik VAK so far is that it is open to postgraduates defending their work in their mother tongue. For most students these days, that is Tajik. Indeed, most universities now teach in the medium of Tajik, although some offer provision in Russian. Other than the University of Central Asia, I do not believe it is currently possible to study in the medium of English in Tajikistan.
This raises a second objection to the Minister’s ruling: the issue of language. It shouldn’t be assumed that postgrads know either Russian or English, or that they know them well enough to defend a doctoral thesis in another language.
Whilst the point about increasing the the audience for Tajik theses is fair, this would reduce the status of Tajik and Tajik knowledge. It places lower value on Tajik in the national education system at a time when the use of Tajik is rapidly increasing in the country.
One academic interviewed by Radio Ozodi suggested that learning another language should not pose a problem. Language learning, he said, is part of your development. Many people in Tajikistan have knowledge of two languages (a common combination is Tajik and Russian) and those from the Pamir region usually have at least two – their own dialect, Tajik, and then English and/or Russian.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a national predilection for learning languages. Russian, Tajik and English are all quite different from one another: it’s not like, say, French and Spanish or Spanish and Italian which share a number of commonalities.
Another issue is resources. As one current postgraduate noted in the Radio Ozodi article, the time and cost of translating a thesis (assuming you write it in Tajik and then translate to Russian or English) is an “expensive pleasure”. Translating one page of text from Tajik to Russian costs around US$10, so imagine the cost of translating a whole thesis and remember at the same time that the average salary in Tajikistan is a little over US$100.
Radio Ozodi also points out that the number of highly qualified people in Tajikistan is growing, with over 2,500 people holding a Kandidat Nauk (Soviet-era PhD equivalent) and over 200 with a Doktor Nauk (the highest qualification in the Soviet system, similar to the European habilitation).
It doesn’t leap to any connection between the Minister’s ruling and what it sees as a “fashion trend” to a higher qualification, but perhaps makes an implicit assumption that there’s a connection (otherwise, why mention these number and talk about the growth as a “fashion trend”?).
So instead let me leave you with the words of “Librarian”, one of the commentators on the article:
…теперь поняли, что диссертация на таджикском языке дальше нашего аэропорта никуда. ДА ВАК Таджикистана желать остаються лучшего как говорят Русская рулетка кто больше ставит ставки тот и играет. За это время сколько дураков и лжеученых защитились за деньги. Мин образования все молчит и набивает карманы. Нашей стране давно это понять пора!
…now they understand that a dissertation in Tajik won’t get you further than the airport. Yes, Tajikistan’s VAK wants to remain the best [but] as they say, Russian roulette: whoever puts the highest stake will win. And during that time, so many idiots and pseudo-scientists have defended their theses for money. The Ministry of Education keeps quiet and lines its pockets. It’s long been time for our country to understand this!
This is an interesting story from reliable Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg on how the state is employing its expertise to create an alternative space in the Western dominated internet. Ostensibly a factual account of the Ministry of Education’s input into developing Kyrgyz language information on Wikipedia and Google Translate, it could equally be argued that this has deeper implication for the way Kyrgyzstan sees itself in the world. Rather than allow others to tell the country’s story, the government of Kyrgyzstan is taking its destiny into its own hands, allowing for its own narrative (of how the language should operate, of the country’s history etc) to come through. Another interesting observation is the top-down nature of these projects, where in many other countries input into web 2.0 projects like Wikipedia and Google Translate are organic developments by motivated individuals or groups. That could tell us something both about the Kyrgyz state’s level of confidence and trust in the population, and/or equally about the aspirations of Kyrgyz people to contribute to traditionally English-language dominated websites.
Here’s the article, reproduced from and copyright 24.kg:
Education Ministry of Kyrgyzstan contributes to development of Wikipedia in state language
20/10/15 07:58, Bishkek – 24.kg news agency, by Kanykei MANASOVA
The Education and Science Ministry of the Kyrgyz Republic has joined the development of Wikipedia in state (Kyrgyz) language. The ministry reported.
According to it, the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic provided Wikipedia developers with a list of 50,000 words including grammatical categories for posting on the portal, created within compiling the frequency state language dictionary “Kyrgyz Tilinin Zhyshtyk Sozdoru.” There is also created the Kyrgyz language version of Google Translate, which is developed by the Director of Our Heritage Foundation Chorobek Saadanbekov.
At present, the Ministry of Education and Wikipedia developers established cooperation and outlined plans for further implementation of the tasks to improve the status of the state language. Earlier, the National Library hosted a presentation of Wikipedia in the Kyrgyz language.