Nazarbayev University

What does the Asian Universities’ Alliance mean for Central Asia?

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A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 JuneUniversity World News on 4 May, The PIE NewsToday.kz and ICEF Monitor) announced the arrival of a new partnership of higher education institutions, the Asian Universities’ Alliance (AUA). Bringing together 15 universities from 14 countries, the AUA aims to promote academic mobility between institutions and countries and enhance collaborative research activity.

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Partnerships and alliances come in many shapes and sizes

As reported by University World News, the founding members include China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, South Korea’s Seoul National University, Japan’s University of Tokyo, Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, Myanmar’s University of Yangon, Malaysia’s University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Indonesia, Sri Lanka’s University of Colombo, United Arab Emirates University, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.

University alliances are an excellent manifestation of the soft power potential of higher education (check out this Google search for many, many examples of this). As also noted by Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrom writing for University World News, what is unusual about the AUA is its choice to focus only on top-ranking universities in Asia – many alliances bring together a range of institutional types from a number of world regions.

Gunn and Mintrom go a step further, suggesting that the AUA is “distinctive because of the extent to which it is a form of Chinese soft power.” Indeed, the AUA is led by Bejing-based Tsinghua, considered one of China’s best universities.

At a time when responses to China’s (literally) far-reaching One Belt, One Road economic and foreign policy have often expressed concern/fear about China’s grand plans, it is interesting that responses to the AUA have been largely positive, even though it is unashamedly focussed on increasing Asia’s position in global higher education.

Perhaps the lack of negativity comes from the lead institution’s more nuanced vision for the alliance. Quoted in The PIE News, Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong said that this was not about Asian universities trying to mimic their Western counterparts:

Higher education should not have only one voice. Western education is also successful but I do believe that there are Eastern educational philosophy and heritage that deserves to be cherished also.

(The fact that Tsinghua is providing US$1.5m of funding to kickstart the AUA may also help explain the aura of positivity…)

As you’ll have seen from the list of members above, there is one Central Asian institution in the new alliance – Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the new AUA may have in Central Asia, not just for Nazarbayev University, but more generally for higher education in the region.

I suggest that this could go one of two ways for universities in Central Asia.

First and foremost, Central Asian universities will be able to use the AUA to position themselves as a bridge between the US/Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan has already been doing this very effectively for a number of years, and the country’s President is very fond of the “heart of Eurasia” geopolitical symbolism in describing his country.

Indeed, Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu echoes this discourse directly, and is quoted by Today.kz as saying:

Казахстан находится в сердце Евразии, между Востоком и Западом, поэтому я думаю, что важно развивать сотрудничество не только с западными, но и азиатскими вузами. Учрежденный сегодня Альянс азиатских вузов будет полезным не только для учреждений высшего образования как таковых, но и, в первую очередь, самих студентов, которые смогут общаться друг с другом на площадке молодежного форума Альянса.

[Kazakhstan is at the heart of Eurasia, between East and West. That’s why I believe that it’s important to develop cooperation with both Western and Asian universities. The new Alliance of Asian Universities will be useful not only for higher education institutions like ours, but also – and importantly – for students, who will be able to communicate with each other through the Alliance’s youth forum.

There are opportunities for other Central Asian universities to replicate this bridging symbolism in a way that makes sense for their own institutional missions.

A second possibility is that, rather than the AUA offering the opportunity for Central Asian universities to position themselves between Asia and the West, they might instead prefer to move in just one direction. I think it is feasible that a number of universities will see the AUA as legitimizing their own interests/strategies in connecting with Asian higher education.

China is increasingly influential in Central Asia, primarily through its economic might (although reports suggest this may be taking some time to embed). Universities could see the AUA as a way to benefit from this regional leadership, rather than struggling against it. Joining an alliance as an active and willing partner would certainly give institutions a stronger position in the AUA than being co-opted (coerced?) further down the line.

Does the AUA force universities to make a choice about whether to align with Asia or to join Kazakhstan’s strategy of straddling global groupings?

I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that universities in Central Asia that are minded to think strategically can benefit from the AUA without closing themselves off to other alliances. As Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Deputy Director Prasanna Mujumdar noted,

If we have strength to pool universities together, the best of minds from both sides, each with their own niche expertise to contribute…

…then you create the possibilities of enhancing the educational offerings of your university. You have a formal network of partners with whom you can exchange students, supporting their learning and broadening their worldview. You have the opportunity to draw on expertise (and potentially physical research equipment) not available in your own setting. And you are part of a bigger whole, able to look not just at the local and national environment but to a regional setting as well.

Creating and developing these factors means that your university is better positioned to then join other networks, whether these are bilateral partnerships or larger associations like the AUA.

The key challenge for universities in Central Asia will be to demonstrate the value they can bring to such partnerships. The many strengths they have are often overlooked because the countries of Central Asia are considered to be marginal in the world system or because the legacy of the Soviet higher education system is (wrongly, in my view) dismissed as weak/irrelevant. Views like this are hard to overcome, and make the challenge for universities harder, but it is imperative that universities do what they can to step up to this challenge.

Bedbugs and overcrowding in Kazakh uni dorms

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After recent reports of unsanitary and unsafe living conditions at a Kazakh university in the western city of Atyrau comes a new report of questionable accommodation standards – but this time at the country’s oldest (and one of its most prestigious) universities, Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University [ru].

Complaints have been made about the irregular supply of water, overcrowded dorm rooms and – the scourge of renters everywhere – bedbugs.

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If they’d found cats instead of bedbugs in the kitchen, perhaps the whole situation could have been averted

One student’s video evidence of the conditions has been rejected by university administrators, who flatly deny any problems in the accommodation. They suggested that instead, perhaps someone wanted to cast aspersions on the university’s reputation.

Despite initially being denied entry to the dorms, a TV film crew were nevertheless later able to access the building. They confirmed that rooms were being packed with double the number of people than should be permitted, and also saw bugs in the kitchen.

Forced onto the back foot, the building manager issued a statement claiming that they weren’t bedbugs, “just ordinary insects”. And if they did turn out to be bedbugs, promises to bring in sanitary inspectors were quickly made.

Students around the world are often subject to less than optimal living conditions, often because of rogue landlords. It’s less common to see issues of the type raised by here in university-run accommodation, which is one of the reasons the story is newsworthy.

It’s also interesting to see a critical piece on higher education in the Kazakh press, which in general is supportive of the state’s efforts towards higher education.

Many of the comments posted on Tengrinews, which pitched this story as “Kazakhstan’s oldest university at the centre of a scandal” [ru], did not hold back in their openness.

One anonymous commentator neatly summed up their frustration at the difference between the image and the reality of Kazakhstan:

Вот Вам и действительность нашей страны. Вот Вам и состояние системы образования в целом. ЭКСПО, Назарбаев Университеты, НИШ, Астана и другие понты.
[And there’s the reality of our country for you. The education system summed up. Your EXPO, Nazarbayev University, Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and the other show projects.]

Another felt that this was a reflection of all that is wrong with the university:

Отвратительный ВУЗ. Сам лично убедился, что там все прогнило, начиная с ректората. При сдаче экзаменов в магистратуру, к примеру, место предоставили человеку, даже не сдававшему экзаменов. Проректор просто сказал – нам так надо, до свидания. Финпол спит.
[A disgusting university. I’m convinced that the whole university is corrupt, starting with the Rector [Provost/Vice-Chancellor]. For example, during the admissions period for their Master’s programmes, they’ve already given places to candidates who haven’t even taken the admissions exam. The Vice-Rector just said, that’s how it is, goodbye. The financial police are asleep.]

I will leave you with Alan’s comment. In true Soviet-era fashion, Alan has addressed the issue through an anekdot, a wry joke that tends to mock or mask the truth. The joke concerns the new hierarchy of higher education in Kazakhstan, from the new and uber-prestigious Nazarbayev University in the new capital of Astana to formerly flagship institution Kazakh State University and from there to Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University, the subject of the “scandal”:

Анекдот про студентов Каждый учащийся в Назарбаев университет летает на каникулах в разные страны имеет дом шикарную машину, Каждый учащийся в КАЗГУ Имеет квартиру машину, Каждый учащийся в АГУ имеет право на жизнь
[Here’s a joke about students. Every student at Nazarbayev University flies to different countries for the holidays, and they have a house and a fancy car. Every student at Kazakh State University has an apartment and a car. Every student at Abay Kazakh Pedagogical University has the right to live.]

New research from Central Asian university students

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relevant-to-my-interestsIntrigued by reforms to education in Kazakhstan, from the new trilingual education policy to greater steps towards decentralization of governance?

Want to know what students at a new Kazakh university think about life on campus or the effectiveness of their institution’s strategic plan?

Curious to learn more about students’ views on learning methods, from videoessays to critical thinking skills?

I thought so.

You need to subscribe to a great blog run by students at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, which has published posts on all these themes and much more. Stories are short, evidence-based and offer some great insights into two areas.

Firstly, there are articles that enhance empirical understanding of education at all levels, with a particular focus on the Kazakh situation. Secondly, the blog offers some interesting insights into the contemporary Central Asian student experience by allowing students to choose (within a framework) what they are writing about, how they express themselves, and how their articles are received and discussed by others.

Is President Nazarbayev legacy building?

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Better than a cat meme… A recently unveiled bronze monument of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, south-eastern Kazakhstan

There have been a spate of stories recently about Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that suggest a new stage in his quarter century long leadership of the nation. This stage consists of the development of a legacy that seeks to frame Nazarbayev as if being written for future history textbooks.

He has already taken on the mantle of Leader of the Nation (2010) after apparently relenting to pressure from parliament, has had the country’s vastly funded and international prestige-seeking university named after him (2010), and more recently has sought to quash rumours that he seeks to have the capital city named after him. Take a look at the US Washington Post’s story “What do you give the autocrat who has everything?” from November 2016 for a tongue in cheek retelling of the latter story.

Although such tendencies are often associated with the notion of the autocratic or authoritarian regime, as the American article noted above demonstrates, recent comments by Nazarbayev suggest that he is seeking to mould an image of himself that turns the tables on these well-worn and Western-centric tropes.

In a recent televised documentary about the past 25 years, Nazarbayev said:

We get called a “dictatorial” country, or moreover “autocratic.” This is nonsense. This is told by those who know nothing of our way of lives… the way we rule today is normal for our country

(Source: http://akipress.com/news:586373/, 12 December 2016)

Further, in an interview with Bloomberg Press last month [ru], Nazarbayev reminded readers that:

The desire of western countries to make Kazakhstan into an American-style democracy is completely unsustainable

This is not to say that Nazarbayev is against political change: in both sources I mention, he talks about the long-term nature of a shift in ideology. He mentions steps taken by Kazakhstan on this path, such as freedom of religion and language.

Despite these proclamations, US-based scholar Mariya Omelicheva suggests that this is more a quest for legitimacy building than for creating a legacy based on genuine change. Her recent study compares Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, noting that presidential speeches by Nazarbayev and his recently deceased Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov share similarities in that

The leadership of these states have been determined to maintain power under the guise of democracy without exposing themselves to the political risks of competition… They have every single formal democratic institution, but they strip them of their democratic essence.

In relation to what the leaders have promised to the people on the terms they define, progress is considerable. But as we are seeing around the world, not just in Central Asia, “rhetoric is manipulative” (Omelicheva).

To answer the question this blog poses – is Nazarbayev legacy building? – I think there is evidence that, at least through the official discourse, there is a trend in this direction. Yet what Omelicheva’s piece reminds us is that discourse and rhetoric are one thing, whereas genuine change in a political system is quite another. In this, legitimacy trumps legacy.

Reflections on Association for the Study of Nationalities World Convention, New York, April 2016

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Me standing next to some impressive stats at the ASN conference!

During the past week I’ve been attending and presenting at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in magnificent New York, and wanted to use this blog post to follow up and share some reflections from an excellent conference.

ASN is a large conference with two overarching sets of themes. Firstly, topic-based, covering nationalities, nationalism, ethnicity and migration. The second area is regional, with almost all events focussed on the Balkans, Eurasia, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. The three day conference has over 600 panellists organized into around 150 panels/events, and there is also a film festival although I didn’t manage to get to any showings this time.

As you might appreciate, I focussed on panels with a Central Asia remit. I managed to get to nine panel sessions (plus my own!) and fit in some one-on-one meetings as well over a jam packed few days. The presentations were wide ranging, covering everything from an historical comparison of 19th century imperial education strategies used in the US on the Sioux and the Russians on the Kazakhs to being gay and religious in contemporary Kazakhstan.

What follows are some personal reflections on three individual presentations and two panels, as well as my top ten conference tips for presenters – all based on my observations from ASN (though naming no names where I’m suggesting improvements!).

Three notable presentations

Hélène Thibault: Impact of labour migration on matrimonial arrangements in Tajikistan

In an interesting and somewhat controversial presentation, Hélène Thibault of the Université de Montréal in Canada suggested that second marriages can be “emancipating” for Tajik women, particularly if their first experience of matrimony was unsuccessful. Marrying for a second time can be seen as a way to ensure economic security and ensure moral respectability. However, Thibault also argued that the growth in polygyny (her preferred term for Tajikistan as it refers to a man with multiple wives rather than polygamy in which either the man or the woman could have multiple spouses) could be described as “adultery reframed” – legitimising men undertaking multiple relationships rather than carrying out affairs in private.

Adrienne Edgar: Names and Naming in Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Central Asia

Well-known Soviet historian Adrienne Edgar spoke with great expression as part of a packed out panel on language, cultural production and national identity. To begin with, I thought her topic was going to be quite simplistic: how did families of mixed Russian and Central Asian heritage (the most common ethnic mixing) choose their babies’ names? But as she explained the results of this oral history project it became apparent that there was much more to a name: in Edgar’s words, naming was a “low cost but clear way to express identity and preferences”. How you named your child spoke volumes about how you imagined them fitting into the society around them (and indeed, how you as parents imagined that society to be).

Rico Isaacs: Exit, Voice, Loyalty…and Sanctions: Options and Strategies for Opposition Movements in Kazakhstan

In this presentation, Rico Isaacs outlined how he has applied Hirschman’s 1970 frame of Exit/Voice/Loyalty to understand the situation for the opposition in Kazakhstan. Here, exit means leaving the regime, system or country; voice means making your complaints known publicly or privately, and loyalty (to which Isaacs added sanctions) was noted as being a particularly valued concept in Central Asia. These stages aren’t linear and none, some or all may happen in varying degrees at different times. But the bottom line is that in 2016 Kazakhstan, the opposition is “moribund”, according to Isaacs, so the focus needs to shift to understanding where the spaces for dissent (if not outright opposition) can be found.

 Two fascinating panels

Panel: Normative Orders and Kazakhstani Practices: Outcomes of Contestation in a Post-Soviet Field

Zhaniya Turlubekova: Political Institutions in the Fight against Drug-Trafficking: How Kazakhstani Law Enforcement Fights Transnational Crime

Aslan Sataibekov: Gay and Religious: The Contexts of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Raikhan Satymbekova: Female Political Representation and Barriers that Women Face in Politics

Ainur Jyekyei: Why Kazakhstan Increased Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, While Poland Decreased under the Kyoto Protocol from 2005-2012

This was one of the best panels I attended, made up of Master’s students from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Each of the presenters discussed the findings from their Master’s thesis and you can see from the titles above that they did not shy away from hard-hitting and important topics. All four presenters were incredibly well prepared, had good slides, kept to time, and gave thoughtful answers to the audience questions. Stand-out findings were from Zhaniya Turlubekova, who argued that modern Central Asian states are “too weak” to prosecute relatively new types of transnational crime such as drug trafficking, and from Aslan Sataibekov who managed to secure interviews with gay and religious Kazakhstanis even though the gay community aspires to remain secretive in order to minimise attention paid to them by government and society at large.

Panel: Teaching, Branding, Remembering

Leah Haus: Ideas, Institutions, and School Curricula: A Comparative Perspective

Hannah Moscovitz: Nation-Branding Through International Education: Exploring the Sub-National Context

Anna Kyriazi: The Education of National Minorities:  A Thematic Analysis of Claims, Arguments, and Justifications

Sabrina Sotiriu: Online/Offline Scottishness: Strategies, Values, Norms and Procedures

My other contender for favourite panel, this session used education as a way of exploring identities in comparative settings. None of the presenters were using the former Soviet states as case studies and this made it even more fascinating for me, a chance to rest my Central Asia hat and put on my comparative and education hats instead! I enjoyed the range of approaches to comparison, which covered historical approaches, discourse analysis, interviews and quantitative data. I also found the way each presenter interacted with the others – even though they didn’t know each other – and the quality of discussion after the talks to add a great deal of value to the session.

 Top ten conference tips for presenters

  1. Do be clear about what’s new and/or important in your study. You care a lot about your topic so you need to tell your audience why they should care too.
  2. At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
  3. Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
  4. If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
  5. Similarly, do limit how much information goes onto each slide and try to break up text with visuals or at the very least bullet points – you don’t want your audience trying desperately to read a large chunk of text and not listening to you.
  6. If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
  7. Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
  8. Do stick to the topic that got you accepted to the conference – if it’s really not possible then communicate with the conference organizers and fellow panel members about the alternative options. [Don’t announce a change of topic as you begin your presentation!]
  9. Do submit your paper by the deadline to give your panel discussant (assuming you have one) and co-presenters as much time as possible to read and think about what you have written.
  10. If the conference has a Twitter feed (ours was #nationalities2016) and you are OK with using Twitter, then upload a few tweets as the conference progresses. It’s a nice way to show your engagement and support fellow presenters.

University autonomy and academic freedom beckon in Kazakhstan

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Nazarbayeva gets down to business Apr16
Dariga Nazarbayeva (in blue jacket and glasses), Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, gets serious with university representatives, April 2016

Before the dust had even settled on the Minister for Education’s recent announcement that Kazakhstani universities will issue their own degree certificates from 2021, the next reform agenda for higher education in the country has been laid out. Speaking at a 2 April meeting with university rectors and faculty members, Deputy Prime Minister Dariga Nazarbayeva raised the hot topics of university autonomy and academic freedom.

(Before I move on, let me remind you again that Nazarbayeva is the President’s daughter – her family name is a bit of a giveaway – just in case anyone else out there is wondering who might be in line to take Nazarbayev’s place when the eventual succession happens…)

Apparently achieving autonomy is not just the government’s task but its “dream”, according to Nazarbayeva, making what I can only see as an extremely tenuous connection between academic independence and the prospect of reduced funding from the state. Perhaps it was the eliding of autonomy with talk of greater commercialization that explains the link; but either way, it was an odd pairing.

Autonomy in a university setting would imply more robust internal governance mechanisms and greater authority to manage budgets and recruit people – including university leaders, who are currently appointed by the state. It tends not to be associated with financial cutbacks, although in the grander scheme of transforming universities into the mould of recent Western educational reforms, this drive for “Kazakhstani modernization” would not be out of step with the shifts seen in contexts such as the UK and USA.

These shifts can been neatly encapsulated by the phrase “academic capitalism” (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2009), implying knowledge becoming a commodity to be capitalized on rather than knowledge as a public good or even (heaven forbid) knowledge for its own sake.

The detail of how Kazakhstan’s universities are to be given greater autonomy and academic freedom have not yet been spelled out. To get some indication of how this might work, we need to look at what’s happening at Nazarbayev University, which I have written about several times over the last five years on this blog. One of the university’s missions is to be a model for higher education system reform in Kazakhstan, and to that end, the principles of autonomy and academic freedom are actually enshrined in legislation from 2011.

My assessment of the situation at Nazarbayev University (named after the President; his daughter’s not been around in a senior position long enough to have anything named after her yet) is that these principles are holding up, though it’s still very early days. You can find evidence of research on areas that in other Central Asian countries would most definitely not be permitted (e.g. on political opposition in post-Soviet countries) and people I’ve talked to with experience inside the university suggest that faculty recruitment is generally open and merit-based.

There are a lot of challenges for autonomous governance at Nazarbayev University though, not least stemming from Kazakhstan’s heritage of the top-heavy, bureaucratic and intrusive Soviet higher education system. And whilst the Kazakhstan government might be endeavouring to present itself both domestically and internationally as on a single-minded drive towards change, elements of that heritage still linger. Despite pronouncing the importance of autonomy and academic freedom, Nazarbayeva in her speech (read it in Russian here or in awkward and incomplete translation into English here) explicitly said that the government will “talk sternly” with those in the academy who resist changes. So much for plurality of voices and opinions!

The Kazakhstani government must be careful to bring universities on board with plans for reforms, and not get swept away in their fervour for fast results. Without genuine consensus at both policy development and implementation stages, the level of change is likely to be superficial at best.

 

Reference

Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Student recruitment in Central Asia

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When you think of university outreach/access projects in Central Asia, you tend to think of initiatives by universities in richer countries in Europe or East/South East Asia to recruit students to study in those richer countries. More successful and popular efforts tend to be underwritten by the offer to fund the study through a scholarship. I would contend that universities in Germany, Malaysia and Singapore have been particularly effective in raising awareness of provision in their countries; see e.g. my June 2014 post on Malaysian Limkokwing University.

This post is also a good example of the growth of a different trend, namely transnational education. This is where a university establishes a branch campus in another country so that students can study for a degree from that university without leaving their home country. The UK’s Times Higher Education had a good story on the expansion of transnational education from a UK perspective a year ago.

Within Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has been the biggest importer of international students, educating nearly half (40%) of all international students coming to the region. As well as other Central Asians, countries in South Asia such as India and Pakistan are also providers of students coming to Kyrgyz universities, where they can get a reasonable quality degree, often in English, at a much more reasonable cost than countries further afield. Bishkek-based American University of Central Asia, which teaches in English, has official recruiting agents as far afield as South Korea and Ukraine in addition to Central and South Asian countries.

But now, is Kazakhstan now looking to compete? A recent article in the Tajik media suggests that universities in this regional economic powerhouse are stepping up their activities within Central Asia, with the forthcoming visit of representatives from Astana-based Nazarbayev University to Tajikistan later this month. Apparently there are just two Tajik students studying at Nazarbayev University at the moment, an institution that in 2013 the US State Department called ‘a model in the region for educating global citizens in an increasingly interconnected world economy.’ Nazarbayev University has a clear model for bringing the best of the world to Kazakhstan through, for example, its recruitment of internationally faculty and partnerships with top ranking global universities. Alongside this strategy, the university – and others in Kazakhstan – would be strongly advised to develop and maintain a strong regional strategy to recruit high quality Central Asian students and equip them with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to build better regional cooperation.