Kyrgyzstan

Academic diplomacy aims to bolster Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations

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Grumpy Cat has mastered the art of diplomacy

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.

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Map of Central Asia (c) http://www.allcountries.org/maps/central_asia_maps.html

 

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Map of the Ferghana Valley (c) http://www.exploretheworldmaps.com/fergana.html. Created by Eric Olason

 

 

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins

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After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.

The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.

For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!

The ironic fate of Soviet nostalgia

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Poster for the Soviet classic, “The irony of fate”, where the big joke is that all cities share the same street names

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the days of free education, jobs for life, and street names that were the same in every city, then it seems you’re not alone.

Sputnik News today reports the results of a poll of over 12,000 people across 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who were asked whether life was better in the USSR than after it collapsed in 1991. On average, over 50% of those aged 35-64 agree that life was better before. This compares to an average of just under 30% of those aged 18-24 who felt the same – though how they might know this without having been born during the Soviet Union escapes me.

The breakdown of the results by country is interesting, particularly looking at unlikely outliers Uzbekistan and Moldova. In Uzbekistan, apparently almost no one misses the good old days, in stark contrast to its extremely economically successful neighbour Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan purports to have similar levels of nostalgia as Kazakhstan, despite enjoying a reputation as “Central Asia’s most stable state”. I’m not saying that political and economic success/stability as an independent country necessarily affects results, but I do feel surprised by the lukewarm response from older Tajiks based on my own extensive research and contacts in the country.

Comments on the Sputnik News website express a similar range of confusion and scepticism. Indeed, Sputnik News – a Russian government spin-off – is regularly accused of spouting Russian-friendly propaganda. Certainly, the way the statement is worded is highly subjective: why not flip the question and ask whether life is better now than it was during the Soviet Union? And why are the voices of those who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed given equal weight to those who lived a good part of their life with a different passport – and where are the over 65s?

Revitalizing the idea that times were better in the old days is not new – just look at the ongoing “ostalgie” stories about East Germany. If you have the time to explore this further, I strongly recommend Alexei Yurchak’s absolutely beautifully named 2005 book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. It focusses on the 1960s-1980s, the many paradoxes of Soviet life and telling the story of the last Soviet generation – the very same people who now seem to be so nostalgic…

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(c) Sputnik News, August 17 2016

 

Kyrgyz athletes encouraged to “do it like Iceland” at Rio Olympics

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Footballing minnows Iceland stunned the world (or at least the parts of it that care that much about the beautiful game) in June by defeating England and knocking them out of the Euro 2016 championships, in the process progressing to the quarter finals for the first time in the nation’s history.

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Iceland’s fans performing the thunder clap at Euro 2016

Their victory instantly became part of modern footballing legend. When fellow underdogs Wales returned home defeated but triumphant after achieving a semi final place, their team led thousands of supporters in the “Icelandic thunder clap“, proudly echoing the stomps heard all over Iceland in the days before.

Word of Iceland’s triumph has spread far and wide, this week connecting with Central Asia as Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev counselled his small team of 19 Olympians ahead of their departure for Brazil. According to dpa/Europe Online, Atambayev told the sportspeople to “Do it with team spirit. Do it like tiny Iceland“. He went on to say “We have no oil resources, but we have our people who can accomplish great feats. May you be lucky in your pursuit for medals.”

Good luck to Kyrgyzstan, all the other Central Asian nations – and of course Iceland – at this year’s Olympics!

Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia

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After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.

I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20160707140807406

I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.

How to pass exams in Kyrgyzstan

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In my most recent post, I passed on some tips on how to get into university in Kyrgyzstan. Today I’d like to share some more advice, this time on how to pass your university exams, courtesy of Ernist Nurmatov at Radio Azattyk [Liberty].

In an article entitled “Osh: did students get grades without going to university?” [ru], Nurmatov recounts the experiences of a university instructor in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who didn’t give pass marks to students who didn’t actually turn up to class.

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A cat meme is worth a thousand words (not dollars, of course)

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? You come to class, put in the hours, write your exam at the end, and hopefully pass. Don’t turn up, don’t submit assessments – don’t pass.

Apparently not at the Osh State Law Institute.

After the instructor failed some of her students for not turning up for the exam, she asked some to write an explanatory letter setting their reasons for absence. The letters she got back are shocking.

One student claims he was “cheated” by another instructor who didn’t let him pass even though he paid 6,000 Kyrgyz som (nearly USD$100) as a bribe. That’s not far off an average person’s entire income for a month.

Another, who had to stay at home to look after his parents, claims he paid the local equivalent of USD$75 to one of the university’s most senior officials, who then told him he didn’t have to come in to take the exam.

Naturally, the university completely denies the allegations. One senior official is quoted not once but on two separate occasions as saying “There’s nothing illegal about that” in defence of the university’s actions.

The instructor who bravely refused to pass these students has taken up her case with the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies but in the meantime she has been sacked, according to her because of this incident (again, the university denies this).

Whether you believe Mamatova, the students, or the university officials, there is so much that feels wrong about this situation. Why is that young people feel they have to get a degree so much that they’ll even consider paying for it? How has bribe-taking become so normalized and how might this trend be reversed? What are the implications for the quality of education and of the nation’s graduates? What is going on with the national economy that going abroad to work has become so common? Why are cultural and economic conditions in universities such that an instructor or official will accept a bribe? What happens to others who might now be too scared to shine a light on such rampant corruption?

The picture may be frivolous (and hopefully drew you in to read this far – if so, please read the original article in Russian or my edited translation below) but the issues it belies are serious. The cat in the picture may be saying “don’t ask questions” but I am encouraging you to do just the opposite.

====The article====

“Osh: did students get grades without going to university?”

Loosely translated by Emma Sabzalieva; original article (c) Ernist Nurmatov for Radio Azattyk

An instructor at Osh State Law Institute Syuita Mamatova claims that 100 students are being allowed to progress to the next year of study without actually having been to class. These students are working abroad in Russia and paying to receive grades instead of studying. The university administration completely denies these allegations.

Mamatova says that the number of students who take the final exam but don’t turn up for classes is growing. She teaches a class in Banking law where she says around 20 fourth year (in a five year system) students never turned up. When she asked the administration to remove from the class, she got no answer.

Mamatova says that as a rule, instructors aren’t able to record these students as absent, but that she did. Mamatova also took her quest for justice one step further by informing the Rector’s office in writing that these students were being expelled from her class. Yet instead of expelling them, Mamatova claims that the Rector Egemberdi Toktorov and First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov told her to give the students marks.

When Mamatova refused, she was fired. She then turned to the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies. Claiming she was put under pressure, she gave marks to students who did produce final assignments or other work in lieu of attending class. However, she refused to give grades to anyone who had not come to class at all and says that this is why the Rector fired her. As a pretext, the administration claimed they didn’t have enough hours for her to work.

Mamatova is convinced that senior administrators and other instructors are covering for these students and that they took umbrage at her interfering with them receiving money from students for grades.

As insurance, Mamatova took statements from students who did not attend in which they explained their absence. Some students admitted that they were working abroad and paying for their grades instead of studying.

Final year student Aybek Taalaibek uulu said in his letter: “I didn’t attend any of the 22 hours of teaching or any of the 14 seminars for Banking law. I was in my village. But I gave 6,000 som [a little under USD$100] to the teacher Gulzirek Anarbayeva and asked to be let through the course. But she cheated me and didn’t let me pass. This year I had to go to Moscow to earn for my family and Aysinai Alymbayeva promised to let me pass, but she didn’t. I was cheated.”

Nurlan Asanov, another final year student, wrote: “I didn’t attend because I was at home looking after my parents. I gave 5,000 som [USD$75] to First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov and asked him to let me pass. He told me it was all sorted out and I could skip the state exam. I apologise for not attending the Banking law classes.”

The university management refutes Mamatova’s allegations. First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov had the following to say: “We don’t have any students who don’t attend exams. Everyone comes and studies. If there are students who for some reason or another can’t make class, they make up for it either through independent work or reports. Nobody takes money from anyone. All students go to class and take exams by themselves. In the specific case Mamatova is referring to, the letters she presented were written under duress. These students had various reasons that they weren’t able to attend. Their parents have come to me and complained. It’s true that I phoned Mamatova and asked her to give them marks for the catch-up work the students did. All of them had written up to 20 short projects and she gave them marks. There is nothing illegal about that.”

Mamatova also claims that the university gave out documents to 120 Kazakh students who were not studying at the Institute. Again, First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov denies this and accused Mamatova of incompetence: “We had an agreement with a university in Almaty [Kazakhstan] for 120 Kazakh students to join our courses by distance learning. I went to Almaty myself to oversee the admissions process. After six months, they all decided of their own accord to transfer to a different university. We didn’t give them documents saying they’d completed their studies with us, just a letter explaining what they had done during that time. There’s nothing illegal about that.”

Osh State Law Institute’s Rector Egemberdi Toktorov was not available for comment.

Around 5,000 students are enrolled at the Institute. As two undergraduate courses are being wound up this year, a little over 3,000 students remain.

How to get into university in Kyrgyzstan

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Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]

With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.

If, however, you didn’t score highly enough on the test to gain a scholarship, you can still go to one of Kyrgyzstan’s 50 universities (more than most countries with a similar population – Denmark has 8, Scotland – 19)… but you have to pay fees. These students are known as kontraktniki (контрактники) because of the contract between the institution and the student.

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Translation from Russian: “The teacher joked… Funded students [on the left] and fee-paying students [on the right]”
For students in Kyrgyzstan, a recent article from news agency Sputnik has some top tips for those seeking to avoid becoming the angry fee-paying cat [ru] and still get to university. These include:

  • Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
  • Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
  • Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person

But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?

– elephantinthelivingroom2

Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.

Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.