higher education reform
My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.
Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:
A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system
The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.
These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.
In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.
Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.
However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.
Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.
According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.
Interest from Russia and Asia
It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.
Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.
With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.
The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.
There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.
The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.
The speed of reform
Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.
Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.
The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.
In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.
Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.
Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).
This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.
A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.
Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.
In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.
It was only a matter of time.
Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s accession to the Presidency of Uzbekistan, reforms in all spheres of life have been rapidly underway. I’ve written before about the wave of changes hitting higher education, which includes the publication of the country’s first domestic university ranking.
In the spirit of these reforms, the country has thrown itself eagerly into the worlds of ranking and competition in higher education. It is therefore unsurprising to see the publication of a new university ranking by Australian based company UniRank.
The ranking, which incorporates 65 of the country’s universities, gave points for licensing and accreditation, citations, and website visits [ru]. That’s an odd combination of indicators, not least the website hits metric for a country where internet access and use has historically been restricted and highly controlled.
Tashkent based institutions did best in the ranking, with Westminster International University (a long-running branch campus of British Westminster University) coming out on top.
The full ranking can be found on UniRank’s website.
“We have kept our traditions” – Why not everything has changed in higher education – Seminar, Feb 22, online access
After an event as momentous as the fall of the Soviet Union, it would be natural to expect significant changes as a result, whether that be at the macro-level of new states being created to the micro-level of people being forced to change profession in order to earn enough money to keep their families going in the economic crisis that followed the Union’s dissolution.
It would be logical to expect major change in higher education too, given that in the Soviet system, universities were funded and managed solely by the state – so when that centralized state disappears along with the ideology that underpinned it, you might even have predicted the collapse of higher education. This was amplified in Central Asia, where, despite rich educational legacies stretching back hundreds of years, the newly independent states inherited only the formal Soviet system of higher education that had been built up since the 1920s.
And yet, as the quote in the title of the post implies, higher education in Central Asia has not completely transformed.
In the course of my PhD fieldwork, I found out from the faculty members I interviewed that certain aspects of higher education seem to be incredibly durable. This doesn’t mean they are totally unchanged, but that certain values and ideas persist despite change.
I hope so!
(Honestly, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far into the post it suggests that you might have an inkling of curiosity, or at the very least share a tiny bit of my passion for higher education in Central Asia!)
I’d be delighted if you’d join me on February 22, 2019, so I can share more of my findings and ideas with you. I’ll be presenting as part of the Joseph P. Farrell Student Research Symposium organized by the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre at the University of Toronto. The whole symposium will be streamed online at https://zoom.us/j/661234725.
I’m on between 10.45am-12.15pm EST as part of a panel with two excellent fellow researchers in my department, Nadiia Kachynska – who will be talking about the idea of ‘research excellence’ in universities in Central and Eastern Europe – and Scott Clerk, who will present his emerging thesis research plans to study south-south development cooperation in higher education.
Here’s the schedule for the whole day: JPFSRS Final 2019
Hope to see you online then!
Uzbekistan watchers must be exhausted with the near-constant flow of news about reforms in the country, but as the reforms appear to be supporting people in the country to live better and happier lives, this is a fatigue worth accepting.
I’ve written a summary of the reforms that are affecting higher education and about a wave of new higher education institutions with plans to open. That post already has three updates based on additional news releases – a good indication of the scale and speed of change.
The latest announcement is that politics – political science for the North Americans among you – is to make a return to the university curriculum [en] later in 2019. Admissions to politics courses stopped in 2010, teaching ended in 2013 and the subject was banned in 2015 under the previous Uzbek President, who decreed it a ‘pseudoscience’. (no snarky comments from natural scientists, please!)
Politics will be back on the menu at the state-run University of World Economy and Diplomacy [ru] (UWED) from autumn/fall 2019. 20 lucky school leavers will get to join the undergraduate class, 25% of whom will also get a state scholarship to pay for their studies. UWED will also take ten students for an Applied Politics Master’s degree (20% to be funded) and a handful of PhD and Doctor of Science students too.
The presidential decree may seem unexpected, but experts have been advocating for the lifting of the ban for some time. Professor Alisher Faizullaev, a Professor at UWED, wrote in June 2017 in defence of politics [ru], pointing out the subject’s long roots in Uzbekistan and around the world. He argues that the need for political analysis had never gone away and that it would be in the country’s strategic interests to now bring the subject back.
As UWED prepares to admit its new students in the coming months and as Uzbekistan watchers consider just how much caffeine another year of reform will require, Professor Faizullaev’s parting words in his 2017 article [ru] are worth repeating:
Но есть одно очень важное условие для адекватного развития политологии в любой стране. Политология должна быть наукой, а не проявлением идеологии или конъюнктурных соображений. Государство и общество только выиграют, если политология будет развиваться именно как независимая наука.
But there is one very important condition for political science to develop appropriately – in any country. Political science must be a science, not a display of ideology or opportunism. State and society can only benefit if political science develops as an independent science.
In a post in September 2018, I detailed the extensive reforms being undertaken or planned for Uzbekistan’s higher education system. The reforms cover everything from legislation to recognize (and encourage the growth of) privately operated universities and institutes to new government funding streams to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2018 was also an important year for higher education in Uzbekistan with the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest university, now called the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan [ru]. History buffs can read more about the formalization of higher education in Central Asia in my May 2017 post.
One of the main outcomes of the rapid reforms undertaken in 2018 seems to be a new wave of institutional growth. Although it’s been less than four months since I published my post on reforms in Uzbekistan, I have read a number of news stories and press releases about the opening of new higher education institutions (HEI) in the country.
For the most part, these new institutions are branch campuses of foreign universities. Branch campuses are relatively low risk, high return propositions for the host country and for the home university.
Students get their degree from the home university without necessarily ever having to go to the main campus (although there are usually options for exchanges and visits) and have the comfort of knowing that the degree comes from an established institution with a good (almost always) reputation.
Whilst the university will have to invest in infrastructure and resources, it’s a great deal less effort to run a small campus – often with 1,000 students or fewer – and to import pre-existing courses and materials than to build an institution from scratch. For the host country, expanding international branch campuses is an easy way to tick the ‘are you internationalizing your higher education system’ box that everyone seems to have on their to-do list.
Uzbekistan has long been home to international branch campuses, from the UK’s Westminster University to Italian Turin Polytechnic University and South Korean Inha University. For many years, these were the only permissible forms of private higher education. Now, they are being joined by a number of other campuses, diversifying the system further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent shared history, Russia is steaming ahead with at least six new branch campuses [ru]. This more than doubles the current number of Russian branch campuses in Uzbekistan (four). Many of these are extremely well known and have excellent reputations, so it is not a trivial matter that they are deciding to set up shop in Uzbekistan:
- Moscow State Institute of International Relations – often known by its Russian acronym MGIMO (МГИМО)
- Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, a film school also often known by its Russian acronym VGIK (ВГИК)
- Moscow Power Engineering Institute, which already has a branch campus in Tajikistan
- Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology
- Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism
As well as the Russians, the Koreans are also increasing their presence in the country [ru] by opening a campus of Ajou University, a top engineering institution. India is set to open its first Uzbek campus [ru], a branch of well-known Amity University. And there are ongoing rumours about unnamed French and British institutions [ru] expressing their higher education interests too.
In the future, I expect to see the direction of travel flip, and for new privately run and operated HEIs to be opened by domestic actors. This might be Uzbeks with international experience and/or education, or perhaps these new institutions will be a mix of state initiated and privately run, along the lines of a number of HEIs in Kazakhstan.
A first step in the homegrown diversification of higher education is already underway, with reports that a new joint Uzbek-Belarusian institute will open in 2019 [ru]. It will be based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and will focus on applied courses. In turn, ongoing educational cooperation between the two states will also be marked by a new joint faculty in Tashkent. This will be run by the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics with the Tashkent University of Information Technology.
I expect there will be more to report on new HEIs in Uzbekistan soon!
**Update: January 26, 2019** My prediction that there would be more to report soon has already proven correct. Sputnik Uzbekistan has just issued a story saying that China will be opening a multi-faculty university in Tashkent [ru]. No details yet about who exactly ‘China’ is, whether this will be a bi-national university or a branch campus, but it’s a really interesting development to see China involved in providing higher education outside its own borders. This will be, I believe, the first Chinese presence beyond Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.
**Update 2: January 27, 2019** And here’s more on this already! Now Malaysia is getting in on the act, planning to open a branch of the Technological University of Malaysia in Khorezm [ru]. This is another exciting development, as it brings a well-established and well-ranked institution to Uzbekistan and more importantly, shifts the focus away from the capital Tashkent.
**Update 3: February 7, 2019** Webster University (USA) will be offering an MBA in Uzbekistan from the 2019/20 academic year after its President signed an agreement with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the US. And, while not necessarily leading to a new institution, Tashkent University of Information Technology has signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with East Kazakhstan State Technical University [ru], meaning that Uzbekistan’s ‘near abroad’ neighbours are getting in on the act too.
New publication: Review of ’25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity’
I have a new book review out.
Sometimes, a book comes along just at the right time. The recent publication of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity was that book in 2018 for me.
The book is the main end product of an exhaustive and huge-scale project led by the Higher School of Economics in Russia over the course of several years, and as I say in my review, the book is truly an impressive achievement.
Each of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union gets a chapter dedicated to developments in higher education since 1991. Alongside these empirical chapters, there are two conceptual chapters laying out the overall framework of the book and setting the post-1991 shifts into the historical context of the Soviet Union. This was indeed a formative period for higher education, even in the republics that had much older histories of higher education and a number of pre-existing universities.
Of course it’s a tough ask to summarize the main points of a >400 page book in 1,500 words but my review is an attempt to do just that. I’m pleased to say that the publisher has made a number of copies of the review available free of charge; to download my review, click here.
And then, I hope, the review will whet your appetite to delve into the whole book, which can be downloaded totally free from the publisher’s website (or bought in hard copy for 30 Euros).