A recurring theme for higher education in Central Asia is corruption. A quick search of my blog turns up story after story that I’ve written on this topic and that would only be scratching the surface.
I know this is not only a problem for Central Asia, or even the broader former Soviet space. Just this week I was talking to a friend who’s doing amazing fieldwork in Iraq on the possible future for higher education there, but she too has found that corruption is a significant hindrance to positive change.
It’s not a new problem for Central Asia/former Soviet space either. Despite the ostensible equality of the Soviet period, the hierarchy of universities was well known (Moscow State at the narrow top of a pyramid) and well-connected / politically regime-friendly parents had a much greater chance of getting their child into a ‘top’ university than your everyday farmer or labourer.
This deeply embedded legacy hasn’t stopped Kazakhstan from attempting to claw away at some of the corrupt practices still found in its higher education system. Presumably the policy rationale here is part of the government’s push to ‘modernize’ the country to the point that it becomes a top 30 world economy.
Earlier this year, the State Service and Anti-Corruption Agency in Kazakhstan opened an office embedded in the country’s leading university, Al Farabi Kazakh National University. The office is leading a project called Sanaly Urpaq, which amongst other things is developing a corruption index [ru] for the country’s higher education institutions.
A trial at the National University surveyed students and academics on topics like the extent to which profs embody professional values and the transparency of the educational process.
After analysing all the data, Sanaly Urpaq produced an anti-corruption rating of the departments at the National University which was ‘widely discussed’ at the university’s Academic Board, according to Liter News Agency [ru].
This format of surveys followed by a departmental ranking (the Kazakhs do love their rankings) will now be rolled out across the country. The idea is that this ‘name and shame’ exercise will nudge the country’s higher education institutions into taking concrete measures to combat corruption.
I think this latest ranking exercise is significant because it’s a sign that not only does the government recognize that corruption exists, but that it understands that this is a persistent problem in higher education. The idea of embedding the project office in the country’s leading university is also novel and hopefully will encourage a shared sense of ownership of the need to combat corruption.
I would love to hear from colleagues working in Kazakh universities and institutes to know whether this project is being taken seriously by professors and university management. Both groups absolutely have to be on board for any real change to take place.
I’ve been blogging about higher education in Central Asia for nearly seven years, and it would be great not to have to write about corruption so much! So on this flimsy basis alone, I hope that this project paves the way for reform in Kazakhstan.
Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.
On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.
All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.
Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.
Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.
There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.
For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.
The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.
The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.
One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.
The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.
Ever wondered how university leaders get chosen?
And specifically, how this process works in Kazakhstan?
I thought so.
A recent article on Kazakh website BNews offers a great ‘Who’s Who’ at the top echelons of Kazakhstan’s higher education system in its report on the competition for the top spot at three of the country’s public universities [ru].
Who’s who in Kazakh higher education?
The report lists the names, qualifications and current positions of no fewer than 42 would-be university leaders (called Rectors in Kazakhstan), all competing for one of the three posts available.
The data was released by the Ministry of Education, which will now pass the candidates’ proposed development programmes to the university in question for a committee to review.
Those who are recommended by the committees will be interviewed by a state-wide committee, made up of representatives of the Kazakhstan Association of Higher Education Institutions, higher education trade unions, elected members of the two houses of parliament, ‘eminent academics’, representatives of the business community and ‘other social actors’. A vote taken by the committee will determine the eventual nominee.
Whilst introduced relatively recently, this selection process has already been used to appoint 16 other Rectors at public universities.
The fact that this process is publicly shared (and the article on BNEws has been ‘liked’ a whopping 22,0000 times on Facebook) and the names of the candidates made available to anyone who might be interested is very impressive. It suggests that notions of democracy are embedding into the Kazakh higher education system and in government more generally, which still faces significant challenges arising from the Soviet legacy and persistent corruption even at the highest levels.
Modelling selection processes
This is not the first process that Kazakhstan has used to select public university leaders. I’ve identified three models that have been in operation at varying points over the last 30 years:
- Soviet period: State
- Early years of independence: Academic community
- Current period: State-society
As a highly bureaucratized and centralized system, it is unsurprising that the Soviet model can be defined by the dominance of the state. During the Soviet Union, university leaders were civil servants, appointed and removed by Moscow. This system has persisted in some post-Soviet systems such as Tajikistan.
On becoming an independent state in 1991, higher education in Kazakhstan experienced a great deal of immediate change. One such reform was to allow the academic community to elect university leaders. Whilst this second model was short-lived, it has left an important footprint in how the Kazakh academic community positions itself and is positioned by the state and society.
This brings us to the current model as outlined above. I’d conceptualize this as a ‘state-society’ model, something of a hybrid between the Soviet period and that of the academic-led era of the early 1990s. The state has staked out its interest in the selection process (after all, these are public universities that are funded primarily by the state) but is making efforts to open this process out to other actors with a vested interest in higher education.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear from people based at universities in Kazakhstan to learn more about how the leadership selection process is perceived, and how democratic you think it really is.
And what about the three models I’ve proposed? Do these make sense? What have I missed?
Finally – what about the voice of students, many of whom now make a financial contribution to their higher education? To what extent are they represented in the three models?
I’m sharing a post I wrote for the Centre for Canadian & International Higher Education‘s blog about the University of Central Asia. The post was published today at https://ciheblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/a-multinational-university-in-central-asia/ and is also copied below:
A Multinational University in Central Asia
It’s the early 1990s and 15 new countries have emerged from the colossal historical moment that was the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of these new countries have never experienced statehood with their current set of borders before – including the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
With the collapse of a huge unified political and economic system, questions of nationhood and national culture exist alongside a great number of urgent problems for these new countries. Unemployment is growing – as much as 30% in some countries – and as many as 40-70% of the population are falling below the poverty line. How can the new national governments create economic opportunities when jobs have vanished overnight?
And yet at the same time, the new nation states inherited a legacy of well-developed social infrastructure that was particularly strong in healthcare and education. In Central Asia, for example, the first universities and Academies of Science (research institutes) were created during the Soviet era. Whilst the region has an incredibly rich heritage of learning and discovery stretching back more than a millennium, the 20th century saw the founding of the first formal institutions of higher education here.
It is into this context of economic crisis but highly developed education and social institutions that the University of Central Asia (UCA), a new institution equally based in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, came into being. And it was UCA’s story that the university’s Chancellor Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha came to share with a large audience a joint CIHE/Munk School seminar held at OISE on March 2, 2018.
The story of the University of Central Asia
From 1995, agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a major international secular private foundation with a presence in 30 countries worldwide, began working with the Central Asian governments. At their request, agencies of the AKDN began to provide food assistance, education, and financial services. As the 1990s progressed and the economic situation stabilized across the region, education rose up the agenda as a priority area. A successful Humanities Project, initiated in Tajikistan in 1997 under the auspices of AKDN funding (and still running today), showed that innovation in higher education could work.
In 2000, the UCA was created. It is believed to be the only regional university in the world to be founded by international charter signed by the three host countries; the charter has since been lodged with the United Nations. It joins a tiny number of other regional universities such as the University of West Indies and the University of the South Pacific.
A key aim of the UCA is to “create job creators, not job seekers”, according to Dr Kassim-Lakha. UCA is striving to fulfil this mission in a number of ways:
- Providing very low cost continuing education across a widely disbursed area, including in neighbouring Afghanistan. Courses are vocationally oriented, covering subjects such as Business English, Accounting, and Car Mechanics;
- Undergraduate education with two majors at each of the three UCA campuses. Two campuses – in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and Khorog, Tajikistan – are operational; the Kazakh campus in Tekeli is expected to open within the next five years. Right now, there are just under 200 students and at capacity, UCA hopes to host 1,200 students on each campus. Graduate education will follow in the future;
- Research in areas of relevance to the mountain societies that host UCA. The Mountain Societies Research Institute and Institute for Public Policy and Administration are already producing some interesting outputs;
Across all its activities, UCA is striving to engage the communities and countries around it. This ranges from a new Mountain University Partnershiplinking up UCA to existing higher education institutions in the towns it is operating in to substantial financial support for the majority of its undergraduate students.
The cost of creating a new university
Even though tuition fees are minimal compared to other higher education systems – US$5,000 plus $3,000 for accommodation and living costs – this is well beyond the means of most prospective students. Huge financial subsidies mean that most students are only paying a fraction of the true cost of their education, which Dr Kassim-Lakha put at $28,000.
A huge amount of money has been put into the UCA initiative. There’s the financial subsidies for students, the cost of construction – the campuses have each cost nearly $100m to build – before you start to account for ongoing running costs.
Some of that cost has been met by generosity from Canada. To date, around C$20m of funding has been channeled from Canadian government agencies and non-governmental organizations into the creation of UCA, and Dr Kassim-Lakha expressed the university’s deep gratitude towards the Canadian people for this support. As well as direct funding, there are already concrete partnerships in place with the University of Toronto, Seneca College, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, each supporting UCA to develop a specific area of its curriculum.
Nevertheless, and perhaps understandably, working out how the university will be financially sustainable in the future is the issue Dr Kassim-Lakha said that keeps him up at night.
In the very specific former Soviet context it is based in, there are also potential challenges arising from an autonomous university attempting to set its own future direction within national higher education frameworks that remain heavily state-centric and bureaucratized.
And actively choosing to build a tri-campus university in small and remote mountain towns, as UCA has done, adds another dimension to the challenge. The guiding rationale for doing so – to reduce political, social and economic isolation – means that the university and other AKDN agencies are not just building a university, but a whole framework around it: from providing continuing education courses to qualify local people to work on the building sites to creating physical infrastructure such as building roads and pipelines.
UCA is an incredibly ambitious and exciting new endeavour. If the quality of its graduating students – the first of whom will reach the workplace in 2021 – come anywhere near matching the quality of financial investment and effort placed into creating UCA, then the results could be transformative for the mountain societies and the countries they are located in.
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.