Ministry of Education

Kazakhstan publishes its back-to-school plan

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While many countries are still pondering what to do with students come the new school year in September 2020, Kazakhstan – currently under a state imposed quarantine for a second time – has announced its back-to-school plan.

If you’re ready, open your laptop… most students
in Kazakhstan aren’t yet leaving their house
to go back to school in September

The academic year will start in distance learning format for almost all students. Exceptions will be made for the 4% of students who live in remote rural areas and go to small schools with composite (multi-age) classes.

It may also be possible to have some of the younger primary age children back in school if strict sanitary measures can be maintained. These include limits on movement within the school building, better ventilation and cleaning, limited class sizes, and attending school in shifts.

The government recognizes that the learning needs of these children may make it harder and/or less accessible to attempt remote learning – not only does online learning assume a level of technological capacity that these kids may not yet have mastered, but as any parent who’s been through the last months will tell you, it requires much greater input from an adult to help with the learning process.

However, even if younger children do get back to school, it will not be full-time; some subjects will be offered by distance.

This also informs the medium-term strategy, which is for a hybrid of face-to-face and distance learning as the health situation improves.

For primary aged vulnerable students with additional learning needs or from low-income families, measures will be taken to ensure inclusive and accessible learning. These measures are not specified.

Over the summer, the Ministry of Education has been taking on board feedback from teachers and students to improve the national online learning management system (LMS) and preparing materials for teachers to use in the next academic year. For example, online courses have been prepared to support teachers in IT, cyber pedagogy and teaching methods.

Colleges and universities will also start the new academic year in distance format. At colleges, there will be limited face-to-face provision for students on industry-related courses, those who need to do internships, and students in smaller remote colleges. At universities, there may be some face-to-face provision for lab work and courses requiring internships.

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.

The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.

Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.

Hm. Something’s not quite right here.

It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?

As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!

Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.

The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.

Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.

In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.

This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.

Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.

This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.

New Minister of Education for Tajikistan

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Cats sparking joy, unlike certain Tajik civil servants…

Whilst Russia has been making the headlines for its more-Marie-Kondo-than-Marie-Kondo approach to replacing government personnel (if it doesn’t spark joy…), the Tajik government has been doing some pretty comprehensive new year cleaning of its own.

I heard earlier today (January 24, 2020) from a knowledgeable source in Tajikistan that many high ranking staff in the Ministry of Education have been kicked out and replaced with more forward-looking and innovative colleagues. This framing is interesting given that for the most part our outsider view of most civil servants in Tajikistan is of corrupt / nepotistic practices outweighing talent and policy vision in employee selection.

However, the source assured me that the head of the Ministry Nuriddin Said was safe in his top spot… but only minutes later, I found out that he too has been moved on. Said had been Minister of Education and Science since 2012 but as of today has been moved to lead the government’s Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee. That seems a big step down.

Said was an unpopular Minister, receiving heavy criticism for his poor Russian language skills. An online petition even circulated on social media in 2018 calling for his resignation. That is extremely unusual for Tajikistan, where social movements are not allowed to exist (unless government sanctioned) and any hint of online protest tends to get the internet shut down.

Responding to the dissatisfaction with his language skills, Said responded “I’m neither Tolstoy nor Solzhenitsyn”, but did acknowledge he has a strong accent when speaking in Russian. You can judge for yourself here.

Said has been replaced by Mahmadyousuf Imomov, who until today was Rector of Tajik Nationa University. Imomov is no stranger to government, as he is also a representative in the Majlisi Milli, the parliamentary upper house.

Imomov began his academic career in 1981 immediately after graduating from Tajik State (now National) University. He worked at the Institute of Languages and Literature before moving to the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Literature. He later switched to work at the Tajik Academy of Sciences and after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, taught at Tajik State University. By the end of the 1990s he had worked through various promotions to the level of Dean.

His first major leadership position came in 2004 when he was appointed as Rector of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, at the time a new entrant on the Tajik higher education scene (it was founded in 1996) and considered at that point to be the country’s top university. In 2012, Imomov was moved to become Rector of Tajik National University and now, another eight years later, he has become Minister of Education and Science.

In other education-related government appointments:

  • Updated Jan 27: Some confusion as to who will replace Imomov as Rector of Tajik National University. Previously, it was reported that Abujabbor Rahmonzoda was taking over but today (Jan 27) I read that in fact the new Rector is the youthful Khushbakht Khushbakhzoda. Khushbakhzoda is still in his 30s and was previousy Dean of the Finance and Economics Faculty, whereas Rahmonzoda was previously a presidential advisor on social development and public relations. Prior to that Rahmonzoda was Rector of the Pedagogical University (2012-14), Minister of Education (2005-12), and a representative on the TV & Radio Broadcasting Committee (what is it with this committee?);
  • Deputy Minister of Education of Science Sayfiddin Davlatzoda has been ‘exiled’ from his cushy Dushanbe posting, replacing Muhammad Shodiyon who has been fired as Rector of Bokhtar State University.
  • The head of the Centre for Islamic Studies under the President of Tajikistan has become Murodullo Davlatzoda, an Islamic Studies scholar and ex-parliamentarian.

A full list of the government changes as at January 24 can be found here.

New Education Minister for Kazakhstan

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К_Шамшидинова
Kulyash Shamshidinova in her role at the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. Photo (c) http://nis.edu.kz/ru/about/corp-gov/subsid-org/

Following Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent firing of his entire cabinet (well, they resigned en masse, but under considerable pressure from the top to do so), a new Minister of Education and Science has been appointed.

Replacing Yerlan Sagadiyev at the helm of Kazakhstan’s constantly reforming education system is Kulyash Nogataevna Shamshidinova [ru].

An educator by training, Shamshidinova started her working life as a chemistry teacher before moving up through various local (Communist) party positions in the 1980s. After Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, she moved into educational administration before returning to politics, including a three year stint as Deputy Minister of Education between 2002 and 2005.

For the decade leading up to her latest appointment, Shamshidinova was Chair of the Board of the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, a nationwide network of schools for the brightest and best young Kazakhstanis.

I don’t know much more about Shamshidinova beyond the official biographies detailing her impressive 40 year career in education and politics, so it’s hard to say at this point what her priorities might be (if you have more insight, please add a comment on this post!).

She’s the tenth holder of the post of Minister of Education and Science since this post was created in 1999, so on average postholders are moving on (or being shuffled) every couple of years. For more on government shuffling of officials across Central Asia and why this matters, read Catherine Putz’s recent article.

And if you’re curious to know more about why Kazakhstan’s government has seen a rash of new faces appear, I recommend Paolo Sorbello’s piece, ‘Kazakhstan appoints a new-old government‘.

Want a PhD in Tajikistan? Then learn English or Russian

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The sages at the Ministry of Education in Tajikistan have decided that PhD candidates in the country should defend their theses in Russian or English [ru]. No official justification has been given for this November 8 announcement by Minister of Education Nuriddin Said.

The only exception would be for theses relating to ethnic and national issues, which would be permitted in Tajik, the national language.

News agency Radio Ozodi speculates that this move could be seen as a way of increasing the global audience for new Tajik knowledge given that there are more Russian and English speakers in the world than Tajik speakers.

On the one hand, there is some logic to this perspective. But on the other hand – and here we have a much bigger second hand – this new regulation appears highly problematic.

Having created its own Higher Attestation Committee (known by the Russian acronym VAK, from Vysshaya Attestatsionnaya Komissiya) with power to approve theses only in 2011, the Tajik government should surely look to this body for proposals on higher degree regulations.

What we’ve seen from the Tajik VAK so far is that it is open to postgraduates defending their work in their mother tongue. For most students these days, that is Tajik. Indeed, most universities now teach in the medium of Tajik, although some offer provision in Russian. Other than the University of Central Asia, I do not believe it is currently possible to study in the medium of English in Tajikistan.

languagecats
Would learning another language be facilitated if more cats were involved?

This raises a second objection to the Minister’s ruling: the issue of language. It shouldn’t be assumed that postgrads know either Russian or English, or that they know them well enough to defend a doctoral thesis in another language.

Whilst the point about increasing the the audience for Tajik theses is fair, this would reduce the status of Tajik and Tajik knowledge. It places lower value on Tajik in the national education system at a time when the use of Tajik is rapidly increasing in the country.

One academic interviewed by Radio Ozodi suggested that learning another language should not pose a problem. Language learning, he said, is part of your development. Many people in Tajikistan have knowledge of two languages (a common combination is Tajik and Russian) and those from the Pamir region usually have at least two – their own dialect, Tajik, and then English and/or Russian.

But that doesn’t mean there’s a national predilection for learning languages. Russian, Tajik and English are all quite different from one another: it’s not like, say, French and Spanish or Spanish and Italian which share a number of commonalities.

Another issue is resources. As one current postgraduate noted in the Radio Ozodi article, the time and cost of translating a thesis (assuming you write it in Tajik and then translate to Russian or English) is an “expensive pleasure”. Translating one page of text from Tajik to Russian costs around US$10, so imagine the cost of translating a whole thesis and remember at the same time that the average salary in Tajikistan is a little over US$100.

Radio Ozodi also points out that the number of highly qualified people in Tajikistan is growing, with over 2,500 people holding a Kandidat Nauk (Soviet-era PhD equivalent) and over 200 with a Doktor Nauk (the highest qualification in the Soviet system, similar to the European habilitation).

It doesn’t leap to any connection between the Minister’s ruling and what it sees as a “fashion trend” to a higher qualification, but perhaps makes an implicit assumption that there’s a connection (otherwise, why mention these number and talk about the growth as a “fashion trend”?).

So instead let me leave you with the words of “Librarian”, one of the commentators on the article:

…теперь поняли, что диссертация на таджикском языке дальше нашего аэропорта никуда. ДА ВАК Таджикистана желать остаються лучшего как говорят Русская рулетка кто больше ставит ставки тот и играет. За это время сколько дураков и лжеученых защитились за деньги. Мин образования все молчит и набивает карманы. Нашей стране давно это понять пора!

…now they understand that a dissertation in Tajik won’t get you further than the airport. Yes, Tajikistan’s VAK wants to remain the best [but] as they say, Russian roulette: whoever puts the highest stake will win. And during that time, so many idiots and pseudo-scientists have defended their theses for money. The Ministry of Education keeps quiet and lines its pockets. It’s long been time for our country to understand this!