For a small country with a population of a little over 6 million, Kyrgyzstan has an awful lot of universities – 68 at last count. For comparison, Singapore (population 5.8m) has exactly half as many and El Salvador (identical population to Kyrgyzstan) has 26 universities.
As with many countries in the former Soviet space, the number of universities and institutes (collectively, higher education institutions, or HEIs) rocketed in Kyrgyzstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even so, growth in the higher education system in Kyrgyzstan was phenomenally high, increasing by 325% in the first 15 years of independence. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, the increase over the same period was a more modest 197% (!).
Higher education growth in Kyrgyzstan came in both the pre-existing public sector as well as the nascent private higher education scene, and these days, the split between public and private HEIs is more or less 50-50.
With so many universities competing for students and limited state resources, Sputnik Kyrgyzstan recently published a fascinating interview with a senior administrator at one of the country’s leading institutions, Kyrgyz National University (KNU) on how the university gets and spends its money. This level of detail is often very difficult to glean from universities or Ministries of Education, so it adds quite significantly to our understanding of how higher education in a major state university in the former Soviet space is funded.
KNU is a public university according to its history and current legal status, but in fact only gets 7% of its funding from the state.
As one of the biggest universities in the countries, they have over 17,500 students on their books and it’s these students who basically keep the university propped up. 92% of students are fee-paying, meaning that only a small minority are funded by the state (through various scholarships for e.g. high academic performance in secondary/high school or family/social status).
The biggest source of income by far is the 485 million som a year the university generates from tuition fees – equivalent to US$7m. Not bad considering that tuition fees didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago.
From the state, KNU receives 40 million som a year (US$600,000) in the form of funding for students in receipt of government scholarships. The university allocates 60-70% of this on salaries and employment taxes.
Other income is minimal in comparison: 12 million som a year (US$170,000) in rent from its four dormitories, and 6 million som (US$85,000) from its residence in Issyk Kul (a popular lakeside holiday destination) and from eight dissertation councils.
In total, KNU is generating 543m som or US$7.85m in income a year.
Tuition fees and student numbers
Fees at KNU range from 31,000 som per year (about US$450) on ‘cheap’ courses such as physics, chemistry and Kyrgyz philology up to 46,000 som (around US$650) for economics courses in the Kyrgyz-European Faculty.
Each faculty has some wriggle room in setting its fees – some are planning to increase theirs by up to 10%, whereas others are actually decreasing them. This has been the case in physics and meteorology, where KNU has struggled to fill both fee paying places as well as state funded spots.
Total student numbers at KNU are considerably higher than at many universities, but have nevertheless dropped quite dramatically. Whereas around 28,000 students were fee paying 3-4 years ago, that number has almost halved to today’s figure of 16,330.
State sponsored places have also been reduced from 2,100 to 1,346. However, the university does not believe that the government will totally withdraw scholarship funding.
As a state university, KNU has some limits on how it can spend the tuition fee income. They are required to allocate 80% to salaries and the remaining 20% for local taxes, staff/faculty travel, physical resources (furniture etc) and infrastructure maintenance.
A senior lecturer can expect to receive around 6,000 som a month from the state funding (a paltry US$85), which KNU then supplements depending on the lecturer’s teaching load and level of qualification (PhD/Candidate and Doctor of Science qualifications would entitle to you a higher pay grade).
The university doesn’t say what the total monthly pay packet looks like for senior lecturers, but the average monthly salary in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital (where KNU is located), is US$285. Let’s hope that senior lecturers are not too far off that figure.
KNU pays 144 million som (US$2m) to the state in various taxes each year, as well as a whopping 564 million som (US$8m) for electricity, water, and communal and other services.
I can’t calculate the total expenses per year as it’s not clear from the article whether the 20% of fee income in taxes is included in the 144m figure noted in the previous paragraph. And either I’ve misunderstood someting or there’s a typo in the services figure: if it really is 564m som a year, that’s more than the total income and presumably would mean the university would run very quickly into bankruptcy.
Those queries aside, the availability of data like this sheds important new light on higher education financing in Kyrgyzstan. For me, the big takeaway is how little of the university’s funding actually comes from the state despite its appellation as a public university and, as a result, just how dependent KNU is on tuition fee income and therefore students’ continued desire to study at the university.
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.
As some of you know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of a brilliant initiative for girls and young women in Kyrgyzstan called the Kyrgyz Space Program.
The Kyrgyz Space Program is aiming high: specifically, into space. They plan to build and launch Kyrgyzstan’s first ever satellite – and to do so with an exclusively female team. In early 2018, the Kyrgyz Space Program was launched [ru] with the support of media outlet Kloop, which continues to be a partner of the project.
Since then, the program has recruited and trained a core team of 10 young women, held masterclasses and camps, spoken at a TedX event, travelled to the UK to meet Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut and more! In January 2020, the team took delivery of the development kit they need to build their prototype. It’s a huge step forward for the team, and brings them that bit closer to being the world’s first ever all-female-constructed satellite.
Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!
Why does Kyrgyzstan need a satellite? Well, as the team say, “why not?!” The technology and parts are more accessible and cheaper than ever before, and Kyrgyzstan would be following other countries such as Ghana, Lithuania and Mongolia that have also decided to launch their own cubesats (the smallest type of satellite).
Why should it only be built by girls/young women? Let me quote the team directly (my translation):
We’re fed up of discrimination against girls and women in Kyrgyzstan. We’re fed up that in many families, girls are being brought up as servants. We’re fed up that many girls in Kyrgyzstan are being kidnapped, raped, and then forced to live with their rapist, having to call him “husband”.
We’re also also fed up with tens of thousands of other stories of awful injustices towards women.
But what can we do in response? We wanted to create an environment in which a group of girls would make history for real. In doing so, they would overcome stereotypes and cliches and inspire other girls in Kyrgyzstan (and perhaps around the world too) to realize their most fantastic dreams.
We believe that Kyrgyzstan can become a much stronger place if its citizens – irrespective of gender, race and social origins – can create, invent and surprise the world because of our discoveries.
We want the girls who will build the first Kyrgyz satellite to become role models for all young people in our beautiful country.
If you’re still reading here, let me say this again: Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!
In 2019, over 25,000 international students chose to study abroad in Kazakhstan. This figure is up from 16,000 last year, an impressive year-on-year increase of 64%.
According to the Ministry of Education and Science, most international students come from India, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
The Ministry believes that one reason for the growth is that universities in Kazakhstan have been given greater academic freedom including the ability to offer double degrees i.e. degrees jointly offered by a university in Kazakhstan and one abroad. The implication of this shift is that international students may be more attracted to study in Kazakhstan on the basis that they’ll end up not only with a degree from the Kazakh side, but from its foreign partner too.
Impressive as these figures are, they pale in comparison to the 70,000 Kazakh students who are currently studying outside the country. Most of them – as is the case with many other former Soviet countries – head to Russia.
Thus, for the time being, Kazakhstan remains a net exporter of international students, despite aspirations to become a regional education hub.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has called on citizens to ensure that education in the country remains secular, citing the constitutional principle of compulsory basic education.
At present, Kyrgyzstan has over 110 religious institutions – mostly medressas and Islamic colleges plus one Islamic university, but there are also 13 recorded Christian schools. This is a tiny fraction of the total number of public schools and universities in the country: there are over 2,000 schools, more than 200 colleges and 34 state universities for Kyrgyzstan’s six million strong population.
So why the concern? There are clearly enough secular schools and universities to go around.
The worry expressed by the head of state stems from the revival of Islam in Kyrgyzstan since the country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the concern that this could lead to extremism.
Professor Almazbek Akmataliyev has observed that the rapid expansion of Islamic education in the country is not only connected to the ending of communist-era clampdowns on religion but also results from an influx of foreign funding. Coming from other Muslim states – mainly the rich Arab region nations – this cash has been used to build mosques and support education. This is something I have also heard reflected in comments made to me by people I know in the country.
Professor Akmataliyev also points to the lack of state intervention in religion in the early years of independence in the 1990s as a factor that allowed Islam to spread through the country. His views are backed up by fellow academics Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova. Writing in the journal Central Asian Affairs, they found that the revival of Islam in the 1990s was marked among women, and this identity is increasingly commonly visually asserted through the number of women in the capital city who now choose to wear a hijab.
After recovering from a hiatus in control in the 1990s, the government of Kyrgyzstan has been more active in responding to the growth of religion and its impact on education. However, as an OSCE report on religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan published in 2013 found:
Educational programs and training programs do not pay enough attention to nurturing of respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Publication of religious studies materials and textbooks should remain neutral and give equal treatment to different religious groups operating in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic in accordance with national legislation. (Source: OSCE 2013, p. 28)
By the time Jeenbekov came to power in late 2017, Human Rights Without Frontiers observed that:
The Kyrgyz Republic, led by a new President, is at a cross-road, either to restrict the religious freedom of all faiths in the name of security and the fight against violent Islamic groups, or to open the space of religious freedom for all peaceful movements whilst educating their youth about religion in a spirit of tolerance and fighting any initiative inciting to violence. (Source: HRWF)
Speaking at the 2018 ‘Islam in a Modern Secular State‘ conference (launched by Jeenbekov’s predecessor as an annual conference in 2017), Jeenbekov called on the one hand for tolerance towards all religions but on the other hand, pointed to the need for the state to get involved:
We need to create new forms of relationship between religion and the state to ensure peace, order in society and inter-ethnic harmony. (Source: 24.kg)
This was connected to religious education which, according to the President, should ‘correspond to the future development of our society’ (Source: 24.kg).
And that brings us back to the President’s recent call for secularism in the classroom. Since the 2000s (if not the late 1990s), the Kyrgyz state has decided that religion is not something to be left alone – tolerance of all faiths and none is to be aided and abetted by the government. By extending this to the state education system, the government runs the risk of marginalizing those who choose to follow a religious faith and politicizing religion, which is surely a shortcut to the very intolerance the President would like to prevent…
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.
Мой отчет о политике в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане теперь доступен на русском языке. Его можно найти на сайте Университета Центральной Азии (заказчик проекта) илл скачать здесь.
Огромное спасибо УЦА за перевод! If you prefer it in English, you can find my report on higher education policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan here.
Данный отчет преследует две цели. Первая – рассмотреть сферу высшего образования в Центральной Азии, делая особый акцент на Кыргызстане, Таджикистане и Афганистане. Вторая цель – предложить политические решения, способные помочь этим государствам сделать их системы высшего образования более инновационными с опорой на науку и технологии. Отчет состоит из двух разделов. В первом разделе рассматриваются некоторые общие тенденции и вызовы в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане.
Выделены основные проблемы и возможности, стоящие перед системами высшего образования и обществами стран региона, с точки зрения государственных приоритетов, сформулированных в общедоступных документах и материалах. Во втором разделе на основе обзора текущей ситуации делается переход к будущему планированию.
В отчете изложены факторы, способствующие инновациям в системе высшего образования, и приведены примеры того, как это делалось в других местах. Наконец, в тексте предлагается ряд предложений в сфере политики высшего образования для трех государств, которые направлены на развитие научно-технического потенциала, что, в свою очередь, может заложить основу для внедрения инноваций в Афганистане, Кыргызстане и Таджикистане. Рекомендации, представленные в отчете, сгруппированы в план, охватывающий пять областей: нормы, навыки, исследования, научная культура и бизнес. Целью стратегического плана является поддержка развития науки, технологий и инноваций в сфере ысшего образования.
A great infographic published by Russian media agency Sputnik offers a visual breakdown of Kyrgyzstan’s 20,000 international students. I’ve reproduced the infographic below but it is Sputnik’s and the original post can be found here.
For non-Russian readers, here’s a summary:
- Kyrgyzstan’s educational ‘market’ is specific to its geographic and linguistic neighbours
- India is by far the biggest sender of international students to Kyrgyzstan – they make up almost half of the total international student population
- The next largest sending countries are former Soviet neighbours Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia
- Students also come from Pakistan (which sends almost as many students as Russia – around 1,500) and a small number from Turkey, China and Afghanistan
- Five higher education instutitions (HEI) host over 1,000 international students, three of which are medical institutes. South Asian students have long been attracted to Central Asia’s medical education and it is likely that the students from India and Pakistan make up the majority of international students at these institutions
- The most popular HEI for international students is Osh State University. This is interesting as it’s in the south of the country, far from the capital Bishkek (where the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s 50+ HEIs are located) and because it’s a multi-faculty university not a specialist institute (as per the medical institutes noted in the previous point)
- International students mainly head to HEIs where education is free (Manas Kyrgyz-Turkish University) or where fees are relatively low ($900 p/a at Osh State, around $1,700 p/a at other popular HEIs). The American University of Central Asia, which atttracts around 400 international students, charges significantly more – around $6,300 p/a.
And before you go, check out this 2015 infographic, also from Sputnik, for another well crafted visualization of Kyrgyzstan’s higher education sector.
What are the challenges and opportunities in higher education in Central Asia and Afghanistan?
What kind of government policies can introduce innovation?
How can science and technology capacity be promoted?
For more on these important questions and some ideas about further developing science, technology and innovation in Central Asia and Afghanistan, please take a look at my newly published report for the University of Central Asia.
Currently available in English, I am told a Russian version will also be available soon.
Here’s a direct link to the report in pdf format: UCA-IPPA-Wp51 – ENG
I welcome your thoughts and feedback on the propositions in the report.
Everyone’s at it these days – internationalization of higher education, that is. Internationalization is a loose enough term that it can encompass a wide range of activities, from attracting more international students to redesigning the curriculum to incorporate a broader array of global perspectives.
Higher education systems in the Central Asian countries have dutifully leaped onto the internationalization bandwagon since obtaining independence in 1991. The last decade has seen a particular uptick in activity, although in Kazakhstan this can be dated back even further to the late 1990s.
Prominent features of internationalization in Central Asia are similar to trends found in other countries that have been paying greater attention to global higher education in recent years. These include:
- Inviting foreign universities to open branch campuses – Russian institutions lead the way in Central Asia, but Uzbekistan has been incredibly open to invitations from all over the world of late;
- Joining the Bologna Process, the European Union led initiative seeking to harmonize systems and qualifications to enable greater transferability across Europe (and now beyond);
- Seeking to position a country as a regional education hub;
- Attracting international students and faculty members.
A recent conference in Kyrgyzstan [ru] sought to tease out some of the challenges and opportunities faced as the country continues its internationalizing path in higher education.
An interview [ru] with Rector of ADAM University and higher education expert Dr Svetlana Sirmbard revealed two interesting emerging trends for Kyrgyzstan. The first of these is the development of double degrees, degrees taught and certified equally by two universities in different countries. Sirmbard offers double degrees as a cost-effective alternative to studying for a degree abroad, noting that an increasing number are organized not by two universities but by a larger consortium, allowing each to draw on its strengths and tap into the resources already available elsewhere.
The second area for development noted by Sirmbard is digitalization. Thus, we should expect to see further expansion of online learning that will widen access to highier education (for those with good internet connections) – especially women at home with young children, Sirmbard suggests. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which took off in a big way in English speaking countries a few years ago, will also be in the pipeline for Kyrgyzstan.
A challenge that remains as Kyrgyzstan – and indeed, other countries around the world – continue their drive to internationalize is how to ensure that the opportunities opened up internationalization are available to everyone. Online learning and MOOCs are two ways to open or extend access to higher education, but as Dr Sirmbard notes, challenges remain for students with additional needs, whether as a result of disabilities or other issues. Really emphasizing the importance of ensuring internationalization is maximally inclusive will be where value can really be added for higher education.
If you’re excited by internationalization and its possible futures, let me offer a quick plug for a conference I am co-organizing on exactly this topic. Being held at the University of Toronto on June 24-25, Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education has an excellent line-up of no fewer than 36 workshops, roundtables, sharing circles and panels along with three exceptional keynote speakers. Registration for the conference is open and I hope you will consider joining us!