higher education reform
I thought so.
You need to subscribe to a great blog run by students at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, which has published posts on all these themes and much more. Stories are short, evidence-based and offer some great insights into two areas.
Firstly, there are articles that enhance empirical understanding of education at all levels, with a particular focus on the Kazakh situation. Secondly, the blog offers some interesting insights into the contemporary Central Asian student experience by allowing students to choose (within a framework) what they are writing about, how they express themselves, and how their articles are received and discussed by others.
The number of higher education institutions in Kazakhstan – a country with a population of 17 million – rocketed up from 55 in 1991 to a peak of 182 just a decade later. Many of these were very small institutes, privately run and focussed on teaching. A number of these naturally fell away in the subsequent years, but there were still a whopping 126 higher education institutions in operation in 2015 – one for every 135,000 people! Since 2012, the government has been taking measures to optimize both the quantity and quality of higher education [ru] in Kazakhstan as I showed in a blog post from 2013, The state of higher education in Kazakhstan:
EurasiaNet.org: Kazakhstan has almost 150 higher education institutions for a population of about 17 million… How is Kazakhstan trying to change this perception that there are too many degrees being awarded, but not the labor market to support the thousands of yearly graduates?
Dr. Mukash Burkitbayev, Vice Rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University [my emphasis]: You’re right, there are so many universities for a [population] of 15 million. It is too much. Our minister of education understands this situation and now they are making a special policy. They make more requirements for the universities for the scientific material base, for quality of the staff. If the universities do not meet with such requirements such kind of a university will be closed or it will [be joined with another]. This is the main activity of ministry of education. And life demonstrates it, which university should be top; which university should be closed…
The quality of higher education remains a hot topic in Kazakhstan, so it was little wonder that the Kazakh Ambassador to Canada, Konstantin Zhigalov, expressed his views on this issue at a public roundtable on Kazakhstan’s achievements, missed opportunities, and future prospects over the last 25 years hosted at the University of Toronto this month.
Higher education has been a priority of the Kazakh state since becoming independent in 1991. A flagship programme, the Bolashak Scholarships [ru], have sent 12,000 Kazakhs to study abroad since its inception in 1993. The word Bolashak means Future in English – an apt reminder of the power of education to drive a country forward. As the situation within Kazakhstan has stabilized and with the emergence of a distinct middle class, another flagship programme, Nazarbayev University, is on the rise. Both initiatives are designed to nurture the academic elite and offer generous financial support to the brightest students to pursue cost-free higher education in a top quality setting.
These two grand projects seem to get much of the (still sadly limited) international attention paid to Kazakhstan’s higher education system, which drove me to ask the Ambassador about the challenges for the rest of the system. What are the opportunities for the majority of students who won’t get a Bolashak scholarship or entry to Nazarbayev University?
And that’s where Ambassador Zhigalov talked about the importance of raising quality across the board. This means continuing to close down institutions that are not meeting the government’s requirements and creating mergers between institutions. Beyond this, measures are being taken to reform the system in line with international norms such as the Bologna Process, engender competition through developing a national rankings system, endeavouring to place two universities amongst the world’s best, enhancing accreditation systems, and continuing the drive towards “modernization” which has been a watch word in national strategies for many years.
These are challenging targets, but the consistent efforts towards achieving these reforms are clear and commendable. Whether or not you agree with the direction of travel, it is hard to disagree that the higher education system in Kazakhstan is on the journey of its life.
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.
A World Bank-funded project in Tajikistan that I first wrote about last year has now seen the implementation of a Unified Entrance Examination for university admissions under the remit of the National Testing Centre, a recent report notes. The purpose of the exam is two-fold: it aims both to widen participation in higher education and also remove some of the scope for corruption that has previously been widespread.
The first cohort of applicants to start university having taken this exam began their studies in September 2014. The good news is that 41% of those enrolling are female, compared to 30% the previous year. There’s some way to go before Tajikistan can compare to OECD countries, where the majority of university graduates are now female, but it’s certainly an encouraging move for greater gender equality.
A further angle that the National Testing Centre has focussed on is awareness raising in rural communities, of which not only are there many in Tajikistan, but many of which are hard to access owing to poor infrastructure and the mountains that cover 93% of the country’s landmass.
The 30% increase in the number of candidates applying to university can be seen as a sign that the first aim has in part been met (though I couldn’t find data on whether there had been an increase in traditionally under-represented groups in Tajik universities other than the gender point made above).
The second objective of making the admissions process more transparent is reported positively in the World Bank article using first person testimony from students who took the exam. The concept that admission to university is based on what you know, not who you know, sets students up for a more positive experience of higher education where their talents, not their means, are recognised. It will take many more years to remove other elements of corruption from higher education, but this is a positive step if the country wishes to train skilled graduates and retain them in Tajikistan to develop its longer term potential.
The ever reliable EurasiaNet had a nice piece recently on the growth of ‘inferior’ universities in Kyrgyzstan. There’s not been any recent news on higher education in the country so the report is able to take a longer term and slightly more analytical perspective. Some of the facts that are used appear to be lifted directly from comparisons I drew in my recently published article on challenges for higher education in Kyrgyzstan (e.g. the comparison to countries with similar populations). It’s a compliment to know that your work is being read and that it has stimulated the author of the EurasiaNet article to investigate further. The government is not pushing hard for reform, so the more pressure that is applied by researchers, the media and others, the better chance there is of pushing higher education reform up the agenda.
Read the article at:
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