Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
On the back of recent news that a number of universities in Kazakhstan are to be reorganized and some merged, rumours are now spreading that at least one of the proposed mergers will not in fact go ahead.
According to Dilara Aronova, a journalist for northern Kazakhstan’s regional news outlet Kostanay News, social media has been abuzz (well, perhaps not exactly ‘buzzing’, unless you share my all-encompassing love for higher education gossip) with rumours that a politician has opposed the move for the State Universities of Kostanay in the north and Taraz in the south to join with their local State Pedagogical University counterparts.
Senator Edil Mamytbekov, a native of Taraz, spoke out at the time of the October 2019 government announcement on the reorganizations and his words have been widely interpreted to understand that the underlying aim of the two mergers was to close the pedagogical universities.
The Ministry of Education was quick to respond that there were no plans to close either university and that the mergers are designed to pool financial resources and enlarge the two newly created regional universities.
Putting the matter firmly to rest, a working group at Kostanay State has already started planning the merger, and the university’s Rector issued a statement saying that any discussions about the cancellation of the merger were simply rumours.
So that’s that then. The government reforms steamroller on…
The Kazakh government has typically paid a very active role in the organization and governance of higher education in the country. Over time the particular policy instruments du jour have changed depending on the main aim being pursued by the state. Of late, there has been an uptick in the number of university mergers as well as the (pseudo-)privatization of the many state funded universities and specialized institutes.
In the most recent round of reorganization in October 2019, 25 universities have been affected. The top-down directive switches their status from ‘republican state enterprise*’ (i.e. state funded) to ‘non-profit joint stock company’. This isn’t quite an act of privatization as the new status transfers all shares in the new company to the Ministry of Education and Science!
This status of non-profit joint stock company (NPJSC) is unusual: joint stock companies tend to be profit-making, which make sense given their ability to make the company’s stocks available to buy and sell. According to the Kazakhstani Law on Non-Profit Organizations (2001), a non-profit organization may be created as a joint stock company or in several other formats (e.g. religious association, public association, foundation).
NPJSCs are described in article 16 of the law as ‘a legal entity that issues shares with the aim of attracting funds to conduct its activities whose income used exclusively for the development of this company’. It may not issue preference shares, derivative and converted securities and it cannot later become a profit-making organization.
The economic aim of the status change appears to be to move the burden of funding these universities away from the state, although if as suggested the only shareholder so far is the Ministry of Education, this must be a long-term goal. It appears there is a secondary (also longer term) mission to diversify ownership of these universities through the transition to a shareholding organization, but without the ability to make profit from the shares, it’s not clear to me which individuals or companies might like to part-own a university.
The October reorganization also envisages the merger of a number of universities – Taraz State Pedagogical University is to be brought together with Taraz State University to become Taraz Regional University; the same fate awaits the State and State Pedagogical universities of Kostanay. In addition, various so-called ‘daughter state enterprises’ – research institutes and laboratories – of the Al-Farabi National University are to be folded into the university.
As usual, it’s a blur of activity in Kazakhstan, with the latest changes reflecting the state’s continued interest in higher education and its creativity in applying new legal and organizational statuses to universities. For more background, check out other posts I’ve written on this topic at Universities for sale in Kazakhstan, Privatizing Kazakhstan’s universities, Mergers and acquisitions in Kazakhstan’s universities and I’d close some universities if I could – Kazakh Ambassador to Canada.
*In Russian, this is республиканское государственное предприятие на праве хозяйственного ведения, often shortened to РГП на ПХВ which translates more specifically as ‘republican state enterprise on the right of economic management’ – can any legal experts out there help explain this in lay terms?
Recommended article – “Educational research in Central Asia: methodological and ethical dilemmas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” by Dilrabo Jonbekova
Published in well rated peer-reviewed journal Compare, Dilrabo Jonbekova’s 2018 article examines the challenges and opportunities open to researchers of Central Asia, studying both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ researcher perspectives (and the blurring of the lines between these two groups).
Jonbekova, a faculty member at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, is well placed for a study like this, being able to draw on her own research expertise as well as professional background and contacts to recruit respondents for this paper.
She argues that researchers face various ‘methodological dilemmas’ when conducting research in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The dilemmas are multifarious, sometimes connected and sometimes not. They range from poor internet access in rural areas to self-censorship in more constrained political environments. As a result, some methods become problematic – surveys may get low response rates, focus groups could be ineffective and secondary data may be unreliable or inaccessible.
In addition to methodological dilemmas, Jonbekova also highlights ethical dilemmas facing researchers. These too have multiple roots and consequences, whether this is a fear of signing a written consent form or selective choice of research owing to safety concerns.
Whilst Jonbekova finds that these findings were fairly consistent across the three countries she compares, she also notes similiarities with dilemmas facing researchers in other contexts such as the Middle East. On balance, as might be expected, ‘outsider’ researchers face greater barriers than ‘insiders’ in conducting research in Central Asia, but no one was immune from challenges.
This article is well worth reading in its entirety (please contact me or the author if you are unable to access it directly) as it adds valuable perspectives to our understanding of the specifics of doing research in Central Asia as well as the suite of challenges and opportunities faced by researchers doing on the ground work across a range of contexts.
The votes have been counted and the results are in and… well, it turns out that Kazakhstan’s higher education is not as corrupt as you might have thought.
According to a report in Arna Press [ru], students in East Kazakhstan were generally pretty satisfied with their ability to progress through higher education without resorting to bribes.
Over 1,100 students at universities and technical/vocational training institutes in the region completed a survey organized by the East Kazakhstan Region State Agency for Civil Service and Anti-Corruption [ru]. Just 23 of that number – around 0.02% – said that they had bribed a professor, 40 reported using personal or family connections to get around the rules and only 72 admitted to cheating (e.g. using their mobile phone in exams, plagiarising others’ work).
When asked how effectively they thought their universities were dealing with corruption, over half of students said ‘extremely well’, the most positive response on the 5-point scale; only 6.5% gave an extremely negative answer. Fewer than 3% said they regularly encountered situations that could only be resolved through corrupt means whilst nearly 70% said this had never happened to them. And over 80% of those surveyed said they had not come across ‘unfair practices’ (giving bribes or gifts, use of personal connections etc).
Those are extremely pleasing reports for the government, which has committed itself to rooting out corruption from higher education. It has even developed a corruption ranking of universities to name and shame poor performers.
Perhaps the survey results are an indication of deep change in higher education in Kazakhstan, which since Soviet times has been plagued by various forms of corruption. It really would be something if a student could get through a degree without having to know the right people or come from the right family, or have to dig deep into their pockets where cash is not necessarily available in the first place – that is to say, to get a qualification based on what you know, not who you know or whether you can afford to do it.
But these results run counter to the opinion of almost every person in the country I’ve ever spoken to about higher education. I’ve been told and have read about countless stories of corruption from its mildest instances to troublingly deep problems.
It would be easy to reach the conclusion that these survey results [ru] are just as corrupt as the system continues to be. Yet the optimist in me dares to hope that even if there’s some skewing in the outcomes, the prospects for able students without money or connections might just be getting brighter in Kazakhstan.
I’ve been meaning to repost an article from The Diplomat on civil society in Kazakhstan for a while. With news of more arrests today after activists have unfurled banners and quoted the constitution, the topic of civil society in Kazakhstan is becoming a hot one.
Tantalizingly entitled How can Kazakhstan revitalize its civil society?, author Sergey Marinin points to education as one key response to the question. Specifically, Marinin emphasizes the role that the growing number of Western educated Kazakhs can play in supporting the development of civil society, which has historically been more closely associated with the state in Kazakhstan than identifiable as a separate arena.
As Marinin says,
“Politically disenchanted youth lean toward civic activism because the state excludes them from official decision-making processes”
Thus, Marinin offers a ‘win-win solution’: employ graduates returning to Kazakhstan to teach in higher education institutions (HEIs)*, deploying the experience of living and studying in Western contexts to support the development of critical thinking among students and non-Soviet management practices among faculty and staff.
*Marinin does not mention that around half of Kazakhstan’s HEIs are now privately run or that there are ongoing waves of privatization in the sector, meaning that higher education is, on paper, no longer a state sector staffed by civil servants. However, in practice, the state still retains a high level of steering control over the sector.
With the historic changes at the top of the political order unfolding before our eyes after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and until recently only President of Kazakhstan, this is a moment of hope for proponents of civil society. Could the forthcoming presidential election open up opportunities for the non-state sector to make its views heard?
It’s not only Marinin who thinks that citizens with study abroad experience might hold the key to unlocking civil society in the former Soviet space. University of Oxford academic Maia Chankseliani has found links between student mobility and democratic development when students from the former Soviet region head to Europe and the US (see also her summary of the article in The Conversation).
However, despite major investment by the Kazakh government and students’ families in study abroad to the West, Chankseliani finds that most students from Kazakhstan – along with the other Central Asian states – head to Russia if they study abroad. And the more students go to Russia, the stronger the (negative) effect is on democratization.
Moving beyond the study abroad destination, emerging research by Aliya Kuzhabekova and colleagues at Nazarbayev University has found that students returning from a spell abroad are finding it difficult to access local networks as they readjust to being back in Kazakhstan. Instead, study abroad returnees working in higher education are beginning to set up their own informal networks and alliances, coming together to help make their voices heard.
I reported on another type of grassroots movement being organized by those who are still abroad just recently: #scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad
Kuzhabekova et al’s study and movements like the PhD Girls’ Union add important nuance to the state/civil society (or authoritarian/democratic) debate. These examples demonstrate how people – well educated, with experience of living abroad, and often young – are attempting to advance civil society in Kazakhstan within the framework of a state that continues to be extremely powerful.
Despite these shoots of hope, it is clear that those advocating for civil society have a long road ahead. Overt attempts to propound democratic ideals such as hanging up banners with extracts from the constitution have not gone down well. At all.
Will the Kazakh state ever be open to civil society?
Well, it could be if Tokayev – Nazarbayev’s likely successor in this June’s presidential elections – turns out to be more like neighbouring Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev who everyone thought would continue the repressive actions of his predecessor Karimov but appears to have taken a more radical reform path.
However, whilst Nazarbayev is still around (where Karimov was not), it looks like there won’t be any real change in direction in Kazakhstan. The space for civil society remains small. It is actions led by study abroad returnees within that space may be what hold the key to eventually leading change from within.