International academic relations
Whereas their Uzbek counterparts are being sent home from studying abroad, Kyrgyz students are heading to Russia in ever greater numbers. From 1,300 in 2006/07, there were 5,700 Kyrgyzstanis studying in Russia at last count in 2016/17.
But in the style of the classic Russian gameshow What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), let’s find out more.
The most popular Russian cities and universities for Kyrgyz students are not in the major metropoles of Moscow and St Petersburg, but in the country’s regions. The Siberian city of Tomsk – one of the closest to Kyrgyzstan, just north of Kazakhstan and a mere 2,300km away – has the top two – Tomsk State University and Tomsk State Architecture and Building University.
Following the Tomsk pair, the next most popular are a duo in Moscow – the Higher School of Economics and the Russian People’s Friendship University, and then Kemerovo State University. Kemerovo is just down the road from Tomsk and its popularity is probably linked to its convenient location.
The Russian Minister for Education Valeriy Falkov is pretty happy about this given the government’s emphasis on developing higher education in the regions.
Kyrgyz students in Russia are more likely to study medicine and an array of technical subjects and hybrid courses such as agrobusiness.
Students from around the former Soviet space are these days not necessarily drawn to Russia because of the historic ties from their Soviet legacy. Nevertheless, there persists a sense – particularly in economically poorer states like Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan – that Russian education is ‘better’ than the domestic system based both on its history as well as comparatively higher investments in the system. Furthermore, there are still plenty of Central Asian students being educated in Russian who can manage the language of instruction.
That said, it’s just as likely that the current generation of Kyrgyzstani 18 year olds – who were born a good decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – are attracted by scholarships that are offered not just on admission but for placing highly in competitions and olympiads organized by Russian universities. A number of education fairs held annually in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia/ex-Soviet region also help recruit students to Russia’s higher education system.
The upward trend of international students in Russia is gaining some attention in the academic and practitioner worlds, and for good reason. Of the 5+ million students studying abroad, Russia is now the sixth most popular destination country. The number of international students in Russia has grown by 9% per year on average over the past 15 years; the government has an ambitious plan to increase numbers from the current figure of 220,000 to 700,000 by 2025.
Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.
The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.
Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.
Hm. Something’s not quite right here.
It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?
As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!
Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.
The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.
Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.
In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.
This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.
Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.
This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.
The honeymoon period of Uzbekistan’s now not-so-new President Mirziyoyev just keeps on going. Even hardened critics of what was once a solidly authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan are having to admit that the reform-driven new leader, who took the reins after the death of longstanding President Karimov following his death in December 2016, may be serious about making serious and positive change in the country.
I have already reported on a historic recent trip by Mirziyoyev to the United States as one indication of the country’s new openness and readiness to engage with the world.
Today, I want to focus on Uzbekistan’s relations with neighbour Tajikistan. Historically frosty at best, the two countries mainly seem to disagree about water and borders – but of course the relationship is more complex than that. Yet in recent months, international roads that have long been closed are beginning to open and there are a small but growing number of direct flights between the two countries. There is a buzz around the possibilities for bilateral tourism and trade, the turnover of which has already doubled.
Following a state visit by Mirziyoyev to Tajikistan this March, his Tajik counterpart Rahmon has this week made a return visit. The agenda for the two day visit was wide-ranging, with talks and agreements planned spanning commerce to music. It was the first official visit by a Tajik leader to Uzbekistan since 1998, according to news agency Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
In the field of education, bilateral relations have been warming up since before this week’s official state visit. At the start of this month, an agreement between Tajikistan’s top ranked National University and Uzbekistan’s Samarqand State University was signed. It’s quite a broad agreement to cooperate on research, but is an important addition to Tajik National University’s existing partnerships with states universities in the Uzbek cities of Andijon, Ferghana and Tashkent.
Hopefully the relationships between universities and colleges in both countries will continue to improve, paving the way for greater exchanges of people and ideas. And improving cooperation in education may also help underpin a strong foundation for the countries’ broader bilateral relations.
A good news story to end the week!
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?
Rifts between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are well documented, particularly in the border areas around the Ferghana Valley. The two most recent disputes that reached the international press came in March 2016 and August 2016. The geographical complexity of this area of Central Asia is visible in the second map below, which places the Ferghana Valley at the heart of these three countries. Here you can begin to see some of the intersections – including nine exclaves, little pockets of land belonging to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan that sit like little islands within another of the three states.
It is rare for politicians in the region to extend overtures aimed at appeasing these tensions. Somehow each spate of conflicts is overcome, but it leaves behind distrust and uncertainty. Yet in a break to what you could call a “new tradition” of non-diplomacy, it has been heartening to see Uzbekistan ostensibly opening up to Tajikistan in recent weeks since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. A relaxation of visa arrangements and better inter-country travel opportunities have been mooted, both of which would represent a significant (and positive) shift in the countries’ relations.
Nonetheless, relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to remain fraught, particularly when it comes to matters pertaining to the Ferghana Valley area. If leaders cannot use politics to overcome these disputes, it seems there might be an opening for other state actors such as universities to make important moves towards engendering better neighbourly relations between the two countries. Academic diplomacy, as this is known, can create a safer space for governments to find ways to work together through what has been called “international meetings of minds“.
This week in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, a delegation from Uzbekistan was welcomed in an initiative led by Osh State University [ru]. This was a return visit after a Kyrgyz delegation went to the Andijan region of Uzbekistan at the start of October, culminating in the signing of a memorandum of cooperation.
The Uzbek delegation, which included Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Adham Ikramov, met with Osh SU students, visited the university’s medical faculty and enjoyed cultural events. Speaking at the university, Ikramov noted that good relations between the two countries should inform the long-term development of their mutual cooperation. In particular, Ikramov noted that Uzbek universities could learn from the way Osh SU has been developing e-learning. Accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister, Rector of (Uzbek) Andijan State University Akram Yuldashev expressed his hopes that the visit would reinforce relations between the countries and bring young people together. This might lead to future cooperation, such as holding conferences or undertaking joint publicity activities.
The clear success of these two visits, at least on paper, gives hope that the strategy of “international meetings of the minds” could prove to be an effective way to start to rebuild trust and common bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.