Higher education in Central Asia
I was asked recently to give an overview of Central Asia’s higher education systems to a group of people who know a lot about higher education but less about the Central Asian context.
This was a great task. It really got me thinking about what someone would need to know in order to get a sense of how a higher education system operates and what some of the challenges and opportunities are within that system.
I decided to include indicators that would tell people about:
- Size: overall population, number of students, % of women;
- Money: how wealthy the country is, how much government spends on higher education, how higher education is funded;
- Organization: who are the important actors in this system, how is research organized, how international is the system;
- Big issues: what are some of the recent reforms to higher education, what worries people in that system.
My first thought was to lay out some data in a table by country (my research focus is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan so those are the three countries I used in this exercise). I did this, and it was a helpful exercise in getting clear what the key points were and how these could be summarized on one sheet of paper.
But… it looked boring! (No opportunity for cat pictures in the document either)
So I decided to harness my inner designer and try presenting these facts and stats in an infographic. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these – using images, very small amounts of text, colour, striking design and so on not only to grab attention but to try and present information in a more visually appealing way.
Some hours later and thanks to a free online tool, I had me an infographic. It doesn’t encapsulate everything that was on my fast fact sheet, and nor does it go into any detail e.g. on data sources – but that was part of the point. The idea was to help convey a few very basic ideas about higher education in Central Asia as visually as possible.
If you’re unfamiliar with higher education in these settings, does it give you an idea of how these systems might compare with other countries you know more about?
Are there important facts or figures that I could add which would make the contexts clearer?
Do the choices of images, graphs etc make sense?
I’d love for you to take a look at what I came up with and let me know what you think:
An unusually critical article was published recently in Asia-Plus – one of Tajikistan’s last remaining bastions of press freedoms – observing a worrying drop in educational standards at Kulob State University [ru], nominally one of the best in the country.
Two main causes are identified: the fact that many of the better qualified faculty have left the university (20 instructors last year alone), and the fact that those who remain are not sufficiently qualified to be able to do their job properly.
Even the university rector acknowledges that the brain drain has had a negative impact on quality at the university. As the top posts in Tajik universities are appointed by the national government, it is rare for senior leaders to speak to the press – and rarer still for them to acknowledge that the Leader of the Nation (as President Emomali Rahmon is now known, following a referendum earlier this year) may not have all the answers. Kulob is not far from Danghara, the President’s hometown, and this southern region of Tajikistan has benefited greatly from capital and other investment in recent years. Kulob State University opened its doors to a new “modern and luxurious building” on its campus [en] just a year ago.
Yet shiny new buildings do not educate students: lecturers do. The Asia Plus article is scathing about the lack of qualifications of many of the remaining instructors. Journalist Hamidi Imoniddin draws on the university’s own data showing that nearly 40 lecturers were unable to submit properly written job documents – many of whom are the university’s own graduates. Because of the lack of properly qualified instructors, the university is resorting to newer researchers who do not meet the qualification requirements (generally a PhD) and do not have much by way of work experience. Even after offering a salary raise last year, university staff in Kulob are underpaid and this is certainly contributing to the outflow of more suitable candidates for faculty leadership roles.
All of this suggests an alarming downward spiral, where students can’t get a decent higher education because the staff don’t have the skills, experience or resources (textbooks and the like) to support them, and the staff who could be inspiring the next generation are leaving the town or even their profession in the hope of a better future.
As one of the comments on the article points out, this isn’t just a problem being faced by Kulob State University. There are nearly 40 universities in Tajikistan and the challenges fleshed out in Imoniddin’s article are common the most of them. System-wide reform of the higher education system would be the main step towards making positive change, but this needs to be accompanied by a reaffirmation of the value that higher education can bring for individuals and the population as a whole for any reforms to be truly successful.
I’m pleased to report that my article ‘Challenges in contemporary higher education in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’ has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives: policy and practice in higher education!
The article builds on the interviews I undertook in summer 2014 with senior university managers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, thanks to funding from the Joan Balchin Memorial Fund.
As the reviewer put it, this is ‘an interesting study of a nation which seems to combine the negative and positive legacies of USSR-based education with the opportunities and problems of the relatively unregulated situation prevailing in most of the rest of the world.’
Watch this space for details of the publication date…
The World Bank has recently published The skills road: skills for employability in Tajikistan (full citation at the end of this post). The report argues that
Generating more productive employment is arguably the most critical challenge [for the government, against a backdrop of relative political and economic stability].
This finding comes from an extensive household survey undertaken in Tajikistan that focussed on skills, the first of its kind. There are some interesting sections in the report explaining why this skills approach was taken and just how you go about measuring and comparing cognitive skills such as working memory and graph comprehension.
The strong conclusion of the report is that there are serious skills gaps in Tajikistan. Both the causes and the impact of these gaps are multifarious. As an example, the authors identify points throughout the life course where opportunities to enhance skills are currently being missed. During the early years of life, access to pre-school or equivalent early years education is not available to enough children. Once people have left education (and women are leaving education significantly earlier than their male counterparts), difficulties in finding work and a paucity of work-based training are contributing to a growing mis-match between the skills employers are increasingly demanding and the experiences that employees are able or willing to offer.
Given that the causes and outcomes are so extensive, the authors make a series of recommendations – they call this a ‘skills map’ to boost employability and productivity in Tajikistan:
(From page 51 of the report)
This is a richly detailed report that makes use of some very valuable new primary data, and is well worth reading. This brief summary should hopefully whet your appetite!
Ajwad, Mohamed Ihsan , Hut, Stefan, Abdulloev, Ilhom, Audy, Robin, de Laat, Joost, Kataoka,
Sachiko, Larrison, Jennica, Nikoloski, Zlatko and Torracchi, Federico (2014) The skills road: skills
for employability in Tajikistan. World Bank, Washington, USA. Available at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60024/1/__lse.ac.uk_storage_LIBRARY_Secondary_libfile_shared_repository_Content_Nikoloski%2C%20Z_Nikoloski_Skills_Road_Tajikistan_Nikoloski_Skills_%20Road_Tajikistan_2014.pdf.
Here’s the critical quote from this World Bank press release reporting on the end of a five year Russian government funded project:
…improved education is fundamental to alleviating poverty and improving economic competitiveness
So says their Tajikistan country project manager Patricia Veevers-Carter. The purpose of the project was to introduce a standard university admissions test in Tajikistan, along the lines used by other countries and introduced in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 2002.
The admissions test is part of the remit of the National Testing Centre (NTC) established by the Tajik government in 2008. The NTC intends to undertake other assessments to inform educational policy and contribute towards the improved education that the World Bank underlines as being of such critical importance to the country’s development.
The early results are impressive: a 30% increase in the number taking the admissions test between 2013 and 2014. That figure masks a poor female participation rate at only 33% of the total number, which, sadly, is in keeping with the current enrolment breakdown by gender.
In the Kyrgyz case, it has been said that the university admissions test is a ‘a success story in the struggle to
eliminate corruption and nepotism from post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan’s education system’ (Smith, 2012), moving away from the informal practice of either paying under the table for admission or getting in because someone you know is able to negotiate a place for you.
So there may be lessons for Tajikistan to learn from the Kyrgyz experience, but there is still a long way to go before improvements to higher education in Tajikistan become fundamentally embedded. Starting with admissions, reforms are needed throughout the student journey, from funding to corruption to post-study employment.
Smith, M, Kyrgyzstan Trying to Systematize University Admissions, Curbing Corruption, EurasiaNet, 29.05.2012
This summer I spent nearly a month in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, both on holiday and also doing some research on university administration and management in Central Asian universities. More on the latter in a future post but in the meantime, today’s post is a “postcard” from me highlighting just a handful of Bishkek’s many higher education institutions.
For fact-lovers out there: Kyrgyzstan has a total of 52 recognised universities, 31 state and 21 privately run, of which 30 are in the capital city. In 2011, there were 230,000 students. Not bad going for a country with a population of coming up to six million – comparable in size to Denmark (8 universities), Finland (14 universities) and Scotland (19 higher education institutions)…
(The title is an attempt at a multi-lingual play on words: “Вузы Бишкека” translates as “Bishkek universities” but the word for universities – вузы – is pronounced ‘vuzi’, i.e. similar to views. Hope that clarifies matters!)
From wandering scholars to strategic partnerships: the experience of British universities in Central Asia
My new article ‘From wandering scholars to strategic partnerships: the experience of British universities in Central Asia‘ is out this week in new publication Perspectives on Central Asia. Published by Eurasian Dialogue, Perspectives is ‘a quarterly bulletin dealing with the many aspects of life in Central Asia. This innovative publication provides Central Asia specialists and enthusiasts with perspectives on the region from an array of different academic disciplines.’
Here’s the abstract of my article:
‘Universities around the world are increasingly seeking to establish partnerships with higher education institutions in Central Asia. This article, written by a British higher education practitioner, builds on the author’s research into higher education in the UK and in Central Asia by exploring some of the key benefits and drawbacks of such partnerships from the perspective of British universities. An exclusive interview undertaken with the Registrar of Nottingham University offers a more detailed view of how one British university, which, although not operating directly in Central Asia, has engaged extensively with universities in other parts of Asia.’
The issue is available to download here: Perspectives_on_Central_Asia_nr4-ESpp11-15 or at http://eurasiandialogue.org/downloads/Perspectives_on_Central_Asia_nr4.pdf; my article is on pages 11-15.