higher education reform
In a series of moves that have been tentatively welcomed by Central Asia-watchers, Uzbekistan has been enjoying a resurgence of international support under the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Mirziyoyev’s highest profile international visit so far was a trip this week to the United States. Covered in good detail by English language outlets including the latest excellent Majlis podcast, an exclusive interview in The Diplomat with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Justice, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his three day visit led to a wealth of pronouncements and new bilateral agreements being signed. Concluding the visit, there has been general agreement – as you might expect from any good diplomatic visit – that things are looking optimistic for the future of Uzbek-US relations (even if parts of the American press is still struggling to pronounce the Uzbek leader’s name).
Of interest for international academic relations are two agreements, both signed at state level. The first will launch an Uzbekistan-based programme to “support partnerships between U.S. universities and higher education institutions across Central Asia”; the second provides for financial support to expand English language teaching in Uzbekistan. The English programmes will be targeted at teachers and students at school and university level, journalists and professionals.
The Memorandum of Understanding on institutional partnerships provides several points for discussion and reflection. Partnerships in higher education are normally signed on an institution-to-institution basis either as a very general agreement to cooperate or with specific aims in mind (e.g. to run a joint degree programme). It is less common to see agreements signed at bi-national level; in this case, it looks like the two governments have a specific programme in mind that will facilitate the entry of American higher education institutions into Central Asia.
This links to another observation: that the partnership here extends beyond Uzbekistan, even though the visit of Mirziyoyev has otherwise had an exclusively bilateral nature. The press release on the two agreements does not go into further detail so we will have to wait and see how this programme pans out once we have more information.
With all the fanfare surrounding this overseas trip and the enthusiastic proclamation of the US government’s press release that these are “landmark” agreements, it would be easy to think that Uzbekistan’s education system has been isolated from the international academic community. To some extent, this is true, as was the case for other sectors of society under the rule of previous President Islam Karimov. For example, the European Union’s Bologna Process of degree harmonization and partnerships has had less impact in Uzbekistan than its Central Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector has actually been relatively international since the country became independent in 1991.
One of the region’s longest running international universities, the British Westminster International University in Tashkent, has been operating since 2002, offering teaching solely in the medium of English. A suprisingly wide range of other partnerships are also in operation, from Italy’s Turin Polytechnic University (opened in 2009) to recent (2014) South Korean entrant Inha University. Thus far, international academic relations such as these congregate in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is noteworthy that all of these were set up under inter-governmental agreements during the reign of Karimov.
I’d suggest two conclusions from all of this.
Firstly, this week’s visit by Mirziyoyev is a sure sign of the further reintegration of Uzbekistan into the global community, and it will be interesting to observe how these connections are (re)formed in similar and different ways to his predecessor Karimov. Such international relations are not new for Uzbekistan, but represent a new wave of outreach and partnerships.
Secondly, in terms of higher education, I think we are about to witness Uzbekistan building on its existing international ties and seeking greater convergence with the so-called “global academic community”, a phrase beloved of the Kazakhstans of this world. Thus, Kazakhstan now brings out its own university rankings and seeks to establish world-class universities in order to try and become more competitive with a model of higher education it observes globally.
Based on the country’s 2017-2021 Development Strategy [ru], it does indeed look like the current plan for Uzbekistan is towards this type of convergence. On higher education, the strategy callls for:
повышение качества и эффективности деятельности высших образовательных учреждений на основе внедрения международных стандартов обучения и оценки качества преподавания, поэтапное увеличение квоты приема в высшие образовательные учреждения
enhancement of the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions based on international education standards and assessment of teaching quality, gradual increase in the admission quotas to higher education institutions
This raises much deeper questions about the nature of higher education worldwide. Is there such a thing as a globalized idea of the university? If there is, what are the implications for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the many other countries seeking to emulate it? And for international academic relations, what is the future of partnerships such as those signed this week between the US and Uzbekistan if countries can produce their own globalized university?
If you missed the webinar on higher education transformations in Eurasia that I participated in recently, fear not! The webinar is now available online and you can enjoy it (again, and again) at your leisure.
Please go to https://fccdl.in/Hq5jfVQxo to watch the webinar.
First to present is Dariya Platonova of the Higher School of Economics National Research University in Russia. This presentation is on the expansion and institutional transformations of higher education systems in post-Soviet countries.
The second presenter is Aliya Kuzhabekova of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. The presentation is on building research capacity in Kazakhstan: from challenges and strategies of local scholars to contributions of international faculty.
Last but not least was my presentation on faculty perceptions of European higher education reforms in Tajikistan. Watch me from minute 30-45.
In my presentation, I talked about how the Bologna Process is being implemented in Tajikistan, a theme that turned up in most of my thesis interviews in summer 2017 although it wasn’t an area I was specifically investigating. I shared some of opinions offered by the academics I interviewed about these reforms and offered some emerging themes that I would be keen to discuss further.
One interviewee offered a superb metaphor to describe the implementation of European education reforms:
We put on a European dress on a fully Tajik body…
That person went on to say:
We didn’t look at quality, we didn’t change content or philosophy. We reported to the donor, we did everything on paper. But we haven’t done anything in practice.”
A lot of food for thought just from those brief sentences.
Happy to share my presentation if it’s of interest, though it mainly consists of quotes from interviewees. Do watch the webinar if you can!
As ever, I spent too much time introducing my topic so had to miss out a discussion of a really interesting recent PhD thesis by Gulnara Tampayeva from 2016. Dr Tampayeva’s thesis “The Implementation of the Bologna Process in Kazakhstan Higher Education: Views from within”, explores similar issues to my presentation but from the Kazakh context. You can access her thesis here and I recommend it.
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.