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:
I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.
So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?
After recent reports of unsanitary and unsafe living conditions at a Kazakh university in the western city of Atyrau comes a new report of questionable accommodation standards – but this time at the country’s oldest (and one of its most prestigious) universities, Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University [ru].
Complaints have been made about the irregular supply of water, overcrowded dorm rooms and – the scourge of renters everywhere – bedbugs.
One student’s video evidence of the conditions has been rejected by university administrators, who flatly deny any problems in the accommodation. They suggested that instead, perhaps someone wanted to cast aspersions on the university’s reputation.
Despite initially being denied entry to the dorms, a TV film crew were nevertheless later able to access the building. They confirmed that rooms were being packed with double the number of people than should be permitted, and also saw bugs in the kitchen.
Forced onto the back foot, the building manager issued a statement claiming that they weren’t bedbugs, “just ordinary insects”. And if they did turn out to be bedbugs, promises to bring in sanitary inspectors were quickly made.
Students around the world are often subject to less than optimal living conditions, often because of rogue landlords. It’s less common to see issues of the type raised by here in university-run accommodation, which is one of the reasons the story is newsworthy.
It’s also interesting to see a critical piece on higher education in the Kazakh press, which in general is supportive of the state’s efforts towards higher education.
Many of the comments posted on Tengrinews, which pitched this story as “Kazakhstan’s oldest university at the centre of a scandal” [ru], did not hold back in their openness.
One anonymous commentator neatly summed up their frustration at the difference between the image and the reality of Kazakhstan:
Вот Вам и действительность нашей страны. Вот Вам и состояние системы образования в целом. ЭКСПО, Назарбаев Университеты, НИШ, Астана и другие понты.
[And there’s the reality of our country for you. The education system summed up. Your EXPO, Nazarbayev University, Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and the other show projects.]
Another felt that this was a reflection of all that is wrong with the university:
Отвратительный ВУЗ. Сам лично убедился, что там все прогнило, начиная с ректората. При сдаче экзаменов в магистратуру, к примеру, место предоставили человеку, даже не сдававшему экзаменов. Проректор просто сказал – нам так надо, до свидания. Финпол спит.
[A disgusting university. I’m convinced that the whole university is corrupt, starting with the Rector [Provost/Vice-Chancellor]. For example, during the admissions period for their Master’s programmes, they’ve already given places to candidates who haven’t even taken the admissions exam. The Vice-Rector just said, that’s how it is, goodbye. The financial police are asleep.]
I will leave you with Alan’s comment. In true Soviet-era fashion, Alan has addressed the issue through an anekdot, a wry joke that tends to mock or mask the truth. The joke concerns the new hierarchy of higher education in Kazakhstan, from the new and uber-prestigious Nazarbayev University in the new capital of Astana to formerly flagship institution Kazakh State University and from there to Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University, the subject of the “scandal”:
Анекдот про студентов Каждый учащийся в Назарбаев университет летает на каникулах в разные страны имеет дом шикарную машину, Каждый учащийся в КАЗГУ Имеет квартиру машину, Каждый учащийся в АГУ имеет право на жизнь
[Here’s a joke about students. Every student at Nazarbayev University flies to different countries for the holidays, and they have a house and a fancy car. Every student at Kazakh State University has an apartment and a car. Every student at Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University has the right to live.]
With a plethora of institutional offerings, deciding what, where and how to study are perennial questions for prospective students around the world.
Here’s what Yelena Pak of Kazakhstan’s Delovoi [Business] Kazakhstan news agency [ru] suggests you should look out for if you’re going to apply in Kazakhstan.
University rankings are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, which seeks to ‘modernize’ its economy and society and to that end has joined pretty much every quantifiable measure of progress on offer.
Pak notes that Al-Farabi Kazakh National University takes national pride of (236th) place in the global QS World University Rankings. As she notes, this ranks Al-Farabi higher than the University of East Anglia in the UK, Miami U in the US and St Petersburg State University.
A number of other Kazakh universities have ‘progressed well’ in the rankings, says Pak. These include Gumilov Eurasian National University, Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University and Abai National Pedagogical University.
Kazakhstan now has its own national university ranking system produced by the independent Kazakh Quality Assurance Agency. This covers around a third of the country’s universities. Pak suggests that applicants also take a look at these ratings.
Study abroad or at home?
An option taken up by around 10,000 Kazakhs a year is to seek higher education abroad. Most head to neighbouring Russia, which not only shares a border with Kazakhstan but also membership of the Eurasian Economic Union and (for now at least) a common alphabet and language.
Other Kazakh students are scattered around the world, drawn by factors including availability of subjects and specializations that are not offered at home, the chance to study and live in a different culture and so on.
Pak bemoans the lack of information on university websites on the cost of study and living. This would certainly be a helpful addition for applicants who have not yet firmed up their study options.
Whilst tuition fees are now commonplace in Kazakhstan, it is still possible to study for free if you perform well enough on the Unified Entrance Examination. In 2017, the Ministry of Education will be giving out vouchers, the idea being that students can then apply the voucher (effectively a full fee waiver and a guarantee of the student’s high quality) at any institution in the country.
Pak points out that the university rankings Kazakhs are becoming so fond of are not very good at telling you about quality.
By this she infers the quality of the program (course), the depth and breadth of linkages between the university and other partners, and graduate career prospects.
This may be a temporary oversight. With the rush to measure and assess universities, it is surely only a matter of time before university choice in Kazakhstan is spelled out in even more detail.
I wonder, though, whether this will leave prospective students just as confused as they are now, only this time suffering from too much, rather than too little, information!
In an expected but still noteworthy move, the Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan has now officially been merged with Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University (known by its Russian acronym as KazNITU). Announced in 2015, the merger is the brainchild of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev [ru] that aims to strengthen the engineering and technical specialties found in both institutions. To smooth the acquisition from the side of the junior partner (KBTU), the President has appointed Iskander Beisembetov – formerly Rector of KBTU – as the Rector of the newly enlarged institution.
Other than a short story covering the merger in Forbes Kazakhstan [ru] in April 2017, there is very little outward evidence of the change. The only mention I could find on the universities’ websites about the merger was a small link to KBTU’s website next to KazNITU’s on the latter’s homepage, and the story noted above from November 2016 about the appointment of the Rector.
Both institutions have interesting histories. KBTU was an early initiative of President Nazarbayev in higher education, being founded in 2000 by agreement with Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (as an aside, this helps set into perspective the longer-term working relationship maintained by the two leaders, which has been reported on rather incredulously from the West as if it was something more recent). KBTU has always been a specialist science and technology university and leads national rankings in these areas.
In contrast to KBTU’s positioning as being part of a ‘new generation’ of universities, KazNITU in its various iterations is one of the oldest higher education institutions in Kazakhstan, with a history dating back to 1934. Founded as the Kazakh Mining and Metallurgical Institute, it now has a mission much like KBTU’s, namely, to be a leading provider of high quality teaching and research specialising in technological education.
For the two institutions, it looks like – for the moment, at least – very little will change. But for the higher education system in Kazakhstan, this represents an important moment. Mergers reflect a change in the way institutions are governed and the context within which they operate. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, mergers are often symbolic of a shift towards a managerial logic in higher education. Out are the old practices of academic collegiality and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (and at whatever cost), ushering in instead governance by tuition fee in a (pseudo-)market environment.
The good governance of universities is critical to their effective running, and there are doubtless cases where the introduction of new forms of governance (that may include mergers and acquisitions, as well as the closure of institutions) has helped universities and the system they operate in. Yet there are also concerns that the imposition of externally driven reorganizations may reduce institutional autonomy and differentiation or damage academic morale. And whether they improve the university’s core ‘business’ of teaching and research is, as well-known British higher education scholar Michael Shattock has argued, unproven.
Shattock, M. (2006). Managing good governance in higher education. Open University Press.
More MOOC madness?
The trend in higher education for MOOCs – massive open online courses – shows no sign of abating.
In 2016, an estimated 58 million students around the world signed up for a MOOC. 23 million of these students (an impressive 40%) enrolled in a MOOC for the first time. Over 700 universities are involved in offering nearly 7,000 MOOCs. Check out ClassCentral’s 2016 report for more MOOC-tastic stats.
As Ben Wildavksy has argued, this is much more than ‘MOOC Ado About Nothing‘ (groan away – it’s his line, not mine!).
Now that the first wave of MOOC enrollment has passed, access begins to open up to a wider audience, following the same pattern as the disbursement of the internet (first to the elites who could afford a computer as an expensive piece of tech, later spreading to society more broadly). The metaphor is apt given that the internet is a crucial reason for the birth and growth of MOOCs.
MOOCs speak your language
One of the most interesting trends in 2016 is the growth in regional providers of MOOCs, which attracted around 25% of all new learners last year. Most of these courses are offered in languages other than English.
The days of the arena being dominated by North American providers and English language medium of instruction may well be numbered, especially with the entry of Chinese language providers to meet the huge education market in China.
Bilim (knowledge) for all
It is on the coat-tails of this regionalization movement that the recent launch of Kazakhstan’s own Open University, Қазақстанның ашық университеті [kz], can be located. OpenU, as it is billing itself, has set itself the lofty aim [kz] of increasing the intellectual level of the country by delivering high-quality online courses.
Courses will be developed by leading Kazakhstani academics and are aimed at high school students (an interesting target audience often overlooked by other MOOCs), university students and those who for some reason are unable to access face-to-face higher education.
All ‘interested citizens’ are also invited to join in too, so the mission is highly inclusive. As with other MOOCs, all OpenU courses are free.
The founders of OpenU
Although pitched as a university, OpenU is in fact a joint project, created by the public fund WikiBilim [bilim = knowledge in Kazakh] with KCell, a leading Kazakhstani mobile phone provider, as the main sponsor.
The initial university partners are:
Four more courses are due to go live in April and a further three this May. Most courses are around five weeks long with one session a week.
In a country where (multi-)language policy is a major issue, it is interesting that 80% of the course content is being offered in Kazakh. That said, English and Russian language subtitles are planned for all video content, which will enhance accessibility.
What can you study?
The initial courses, like the global pattern for MOOCs, focus on computer science and business/management.
Students can sign up for courses in Matrices and Determinants, Public-Private Partnerships, Web Programming Fundamentals, Fourier Analysis [Maths], Robotics and Introduction to Computer Science Using Java [all kz or ru].
The course creators have outstanding academic credentials. Professor Askar Zhumadildayev, for example, holds a Doctor of Science degree (equivalent to the ‘habilitation’ in some other contexts, i.e. a more advanced degree than the PhD) in Mathematical Physics and is an academician of the Kazakh National Academy of Sciences.
Zhumadildayev is committed to this new style of learning: “Если эти лекции посмотрят даже 20 человек, я буду счастлив. Все должно развиваться постепенно. Это настоящая академичная наука и настоящие знания, это полезно” (“Even if only 20 people watch these lectures, I will be happy. Things should develop gradually. This is genuine science and genuine knowledge – it’s useful.”)
The project’s founders hope that the OpenU courses will provide a means for students in regions of Kazakhstan to learn from the country’s great academics [ru], who tend to cluster in the two main cities of Astana and Almaty.
Surfing a new wave of MOOC innovation
There are three reasons why I believe that OpenU offers a new way of thinking about MOOCs that may help to refresh the format and generate a third wave of MOOC development.
I would argue that the first wave lasted until 2012, with the massive rise and popularization of the MOOC. The second wave of 2013-2016 was characterized by the personalization of MOOCs, where provision became more oriented around individual needs in terms of scheduling, credentials being made available and so on.
So what makes OpenU a breath of fresh air in the increasingly jaded world of MOOCs?
- The pedigree of the course creators is stunning. Whilst you can certainly find other MOOCs offered by ‘star’ academics, the concern of many universities when they rushed to joined the MOOC bandwagon was to generate course content. Less attention was paid, at least in the early days, to quality and delivery. OpenU’s collaboration with a range of universities and its focus on working with leading academics means that quality is being put first.
- The partnership between a non-profit public organization, WikiBilim, and a corporate, KCell, is an extremely interesting model. Rather than a single university trying to create its own MOOC platform, or the wholesale adoption of an outside model (Coursera, EdX etc), the OpenU model creates a different type of structure through which partner institutions can offer selected courses. This is advantageous for the universities in terms of resource sharing and also for the prospects for publicity (and thus potential future student recruitment) it offers.
- OpenU has not been set up to offer degrees [ru], as is now possible through the combination of some MOOCs. Rather, it is an ‘educational upgrading’ experience to support growth in educational quality not just for individual learners but also for universities in Kazakhstan. The idea is that they may adopt some of the course content as part of their own curriculum in order to draw on expertise available within the country but not within their own institution.