post-Soviet higher education

New publication: Review of ’25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity’

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25 Years book cover
Feel the weight of history

I have a new book review out.

Sometimes, a book comes along just at the right time. The recent publication of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity was that book in 2018 for me.

The book is the main end product of an exhaustive and huge-scale project led by the Higher School of Economics in Russia over the course of several years, and as I say in my review, the book is truly an impressive achievement.

Each of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union gets a chapter dedicated to developments in higher education since 1991. Alongside these empirical chapters, there are two conceptual chapters laying out the overall framework of the book and setting the post-1991 shifts into the historical context of the Soviet Union. This was indeed a formative period for higher education, even in the republics that had much older histories of higher education and a number of pre-existing universities.

Of course it’s a tough ask to summarize the main points of a >400 page book in 1,500 words but my review is an attempt to do just that. I’m pleased to say that the publisher has made a number of copies of the review available free of charge; to download my review, click here.

And then, I hope, the review will whet your appetite to delve into the whole book, which can be downloaded totally free from the publisher’s website (or bought in hard copy for 30 Euros).

Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems

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Emma_presenting_mapping-change_Mar2018_CIES
Me in action presenting at the Comparative and International Education Society’s 2018 conference in Mexico City. My ‘presenter hands’ are marginally more controlled than usual!

I recently presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference and this blog post is about my presentation called Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems: A view from the Russophone space.

I also presented with my colleague Hayfa Jafar on our new joint research on how faculty in post-conflict societies are experiencing internationalization in higher education – watch out for more on this to follow in the future.

As part of my PhD thesis on how higher education in the former Soviet space has responded to the fall of the Soviet Union, I want to include some analysis of how academics who have published about this regional space and time have conceptualized change.

In planning that analysis, I noticed that we know a lot about how authors writing in English conceptualize change in the former Soviet space – whether we like it or not, English is the dominant language of academic publication and there are quantitatively more articles and books available in English.

Yet my research is about a space where Russian has been the dominant language of the academic community. So this led me to wonder: do authors writing in Russian and publishing in Russian academic journals think about and write about change in similar or different ways? And how much do we know about this in the English language space?

(Spoiler alert. The brief answers are a) that there are both important similarities and marked differences, and b) not very much at all)

That explains the context to the analysis I then undertook of 23 articles written in Russian published in Russian language peer-reviewed journals published since 1991 (a list of the articles and journals can be found in my presentation). All the authors write about Russian higher education and were based at Russian institutions at the time of writing.

There are many possible ways to present what I found in this analysis (and I thank my supervisor and his research group for their feedback as I went through this process) but I decided to summarize my findings using a chronological but non-linear map. You can see it in the background of the photo above, and in full below.

The purpose of the map, which is designed like a Venn diagram, was not only to highlight some of the key themes that emerged from my analysis, but to show how these themes changed or overlapped over time.

The three phases shown are based on a framework adapted from Semyonov and Platonova’s work on policy change in higher education in Russia since 1991. They explain the three phases as:

  • Laissez-faire, from 1991 to around 2003. Although there were legislative changes, on the whole this period is considered to be one less government intervention in higher education, not least because of widespread economic crisis;
  • A period of major reform, from around 2004 to 2011. State investment in higher education led to the introduction of the Bologna Process and a unified higher education entrance exam, plus reforms to create merged and enlarged ‘super-institutions’ – the federal universities, plus the new designation of national research university;
  • Since 2012, a period epitomized by reforms aiming to improve the effectiveness of higher education through e.g. performance evaluations, competitive funding schemes, and more mergers/new institutional types emerging.

Sabzalieva_Mapping-change_Venn_Phases-of-change

My analysis showed broad convergence with Semyonov and Platonova’s findings with several notable differences. I discussed four of these in my presentation. Here’s a very brief summary:

  1. Whereas for the state, the first period might have been laissez-faire, for the people living in Russia and working in the higher education system, their response was more connected to a discourse of crisis and survival.
  2. A number of articles in the first two time periods talked about how change wasn’t happening, and in fact there was more continuity with the Soviet system. Higher education is shown in many articles as being on the sidelines of the social change happening around it.
  3. In the crossover between the two later periods, I noted that some of the articles observed contradictions in the reform process, particularly in relation to the introduction of the Bologna Process
  4. Across all three phases, there is a lot of discussion about faculty: what is their role, how should they and are they responding to change, and so on. It wasn’t surprising to find more coverage of faculty matters in the Russian articles as most are written by practising academics who are or have been in some way involved in what’s been happening in Russian higher education.

This analysis will eventually form part of my PhD thesis so I don’t have a standalone paper to share. However, if you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve uploaded my presentation to Research Gate – although do note that my presentations are highly visual, so there are not many words to read! The presentation also has a few bonus slides that I didn’t share during the conference. Also, please do leave comments after this post if there are things you’d like to say in response.

 

A summer of learning: Fieldwork, conferences, and more in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

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It’s been rather quiet on the blog of late.

Kyrgyz State Technical University-2017-07-06 11.06.08
A sneak preview of a new addition to my Central Asian university photo gallery. This beauty is the Kyrgyz State Technical University, formerly the Polytechnic Institute.

Don’t worry – I haven’t run out of ideas to keep the blog going. On the contrary, I probably now have too many. I also have a LOT of new photos of universities to add to my photo gallery (see the bottom right part of the homepage). Bet you can’t wait for that!

The reason for the lower than usual level of activity is that I’ve been doing fieldwork for my PhD thesis over the last two months.

This has involved meeting with over 30 wonderful academics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and spending a time with each of them discussing their personal experiences of working in higher education since the late Soviet period.

I have learned so much from my respondents and am incredibly grateful to each of them, not just for their time, but also for their willingness to share their own stories with me. Once I am back in Canada next month, I will need to spend time reflecting on these interviews and making sure I do justice to the rich data I have been able to gather.

All the interviews have been anonymised so I can’t thank people publicly – but they know who they are. Thank you. Спасибо.

In addition to doing these interviews, I’ve also been selected to present at three conferences, one in each country.

At the joint ESCAS-CESS conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, I organized a panel on The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education, presenting the paper Conceptualizing change in post-Soviet higher education. I also convened a roundtable on to discuss the future for higher education in the post-Soviet space. Read more about the conference here.

In July, I was invited to present at a conference on Tradition and change in a contemporary world in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a very fitting theme for my thesis work on change (and stability), although at the request of the conference organizer, the paper I presented drew on my earlier comparative work on the UK and Canada and was entitled Connecting history with contemporary identity in higher education. The article that this paper is based on can be found here.

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Presenting at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, August 2017

Finally, here in Astana, Kazakhstan, I am pleased to have presented today (19 August) at the first annual conference of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.

My paper was Public policy and higher education reform in Central Asia, which discusses how the world-class university has become a global public policy strategy for higher education.

Although this is an excellent example of policy convergence, I argue that Kazakhstan’s strategy in creating Nazarbayev University offers a creative shift to this world-class university model: one that embraces the dominant global university model whilst at the same time transforming it to be useful and applicable for other purposes. You can read my related article on this subject here.

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Nazarbayev University, impressive as heck.

The conference was themed around good governance and attracted a diverse array of international presenters. Each of the presentations I was able to see added something new to my understanding of governance and public policy, from thinking about the state as a supplier of institutions for economic diversification in Kazakhstan (by Zhanat Murzakulova) to learning more about the implications of informal institutions for post-Soviet education systems (by Dr Dina Sharipova), and a lot more in between.

 

And last but not least, in amongst all the interviews and conferences and photographing university buildings, it’s been absolutely wonderful to catch up with family and friends. Being dispersed so globally can have its downsides, so it makes the moments of being together even more special.

What a great summer.

ESCAS-CESS 2017 Conference report

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opening ceremony
Opening ceremony of ESCAS-CESS 2017, held at the beautiful new campus of the American University of Central Asia

The first joint conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was, it is fair to say, a roaring success.

Held at the stunning new purpose-built campus of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, ESCAS-CESS was the largest international conference of Central Eurasian regional studies scholars ever to be held in the region.

I organized a panel and convened a roundtable, contributing to the eight sessions dedicated to education during the course of the conference. You can see the program here.

Panel: The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education

Together with presenters Dmitry Semyonov* and Daria Platonova of the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia, Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US and Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland, we discussed our research on the forces that have driven changes in the size, the shape, and the governance arrangements of higher education systems in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet space.

We collectively aimed to advance our understanding of how change happens in higher education and the implications these changes have had in particular post-Soviet settings.

The panel was adeptly chaired by Zumrad Kataeva of HSE in Russia and some excellent discussion points were raised by Bohdan Krawchenko, Director of the University of Central Asia.

My paper analysed how change in higher education since 1991 in Central Asian countries has been conceptualized, responding to a gap in the understanding of how theories of change are applied to higher education.

The paper was based on a document analysis of 34 purposively selected peer-reviewed English language academic journal articles published between 1991 and 2017. Articles were identified through the use of words such as ‘change’, ‘development’, ‘post-Soviet’, ‘reform’, ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ in the title, abstract, keywords, or introduction.

As I study shifts and continuities in higher education through the theoretical lens of institutional change, I analysed the articles using a typology of modes of change I adapted from Streeck and Thelen**. This delineates both the process of change (as being on a scale between incremental and abrupt) and the outcome of change (as being on a scale between continuity and discontinuity).

Below is the visual I used to show how I mapped the articles on to the typology. During the presentation, I went through each of the quadrants in more detail to explain the rationale for placing the articles there and give some indication of the content / viewpoint that you might expect to find in each.

Typology with mappings.png

Roundtable: From Soviet to European to Global? Future Directions for Higher
Education in Central Eurasia

Over the last 25 years, the broad narrative of higher education reform in Central Eurasia has been a shift away from a Soviet model towards a model aligning with many European policies. More recently, efforts at adopting global norms are emerging.

Of course, such a concise synopsis overlooks the many intricacies of change in the very different Central Eurasian states. Furthermore, it might suggest that such a Soviet-European-Global ‘transition’ is not only linear, but that it (inevitably) leads from one starting point to one shared destination.

AUCA conf
Taking a brief coffee break and enjoying the views at ESCAS-CESS 2017

Thus, the aim of the roundtable was to question these assumptions from multiple perspectives. Some of the questions we focussed on were:

Is it meaningful to compare higher education across Central Eurasia?

Is there a crisis in the academic profession?

Who and what is higher education for?

Joining me at the roundtable were Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US, Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland and Zumrad Kataeva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia.

 

It was an excellent conference: interdisciplinary, a mix of newer and more established researchers, new contacts and old friends, and a chance to try out some of my PhD research through my panel presentation.

Were you at ESCAS-CESS? How did you find it?

 

*Shortly after publishing this blogpost, I received the tragic news that Dmitry died on 17 August 2017 following a car crash. Dmitry was a great young researcher with a promising future and his death is simply terrible news. My condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues at the Higher School of Economics.

**Streeck & K. Thelen (2005) Beyond continuity: Institutional change in advanced political economies

 

 

Higher education in Russia and beyond

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I welcome the launch of a new bulletin, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB). Published in English by Moscow-based Higher School of Economics as a supplement to International Higher Education [ru], the bulletin aims

to present current Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European educational trends to the international higher education research community.

Aside from boasting the best acronym I’ve come across for a long time, HERB represents an important new regional perspective on higher education, a field that has long been dominated by North American and European-centric views. Further, the Soviet period has left a strong imprint on higher education in the post-Soviet sphere that can sometimes make comparisons with other higher education systems challenging. I hope that this new bulletin will genuinely represent regional views (not just Russian analysis, although I accept that it’s a Russian-led publication and that in terms of quantity, most universities in the region are in Russia).

Of particular interest to my research in the first issue is a short article by Dmitry Semyonov of the Higher School of Economics, which looks at the Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context. The Russian excellence initiative, like similar programmes in Germany and China, represents significant government investment in enhancing quality in a selective number of universities by investing in their research, buying in international faculty and otherwise driving towards recognition in global university rankings.,

Semyonov places post-Soviet government policies on a scale that ranges from ‘environmental’ to ‘selective’. ‘Environmental’ policies broadly support and invest in higher education with a view to encouraging the university system to become more in line with the Bologna Process, i.e. more European in feel and outlook. At the other end are the ‘selective’ state policies that, like Russia, look to develop a small group of universities to compete internationally. Semyonov calls Kazakhstan the most distinctive case in this group with the government’s emphasis on developing a single institution (Nazarbayev University).

In concluding, however, Semyonov notes that a number of countries in the post-Soviet sphere – notably Central Asia and the Caucasus,

have very limited opportunities and are unlikely to launch a program similar to the Russian one. Quality of teaching, equal access to high-quality education, lack of competent staff, and [an] unstable economic basis of higher education are considered to be more pressing issues…

There’s a whiff of the Russian post-colonialist in this concluding statement, but also more than a grain of truth. However, Semyonov might look to a higher education system like Singapore’s or Malaysia’s where the government has (mostly successfully) tackled a number of serious problems in higher education simultaneously, such is their impatience to improve the country’s standing. That said, where those countries prosper, many of the Central Asian and Caucasian states do not, and the ‘unstable economic basis’ seems to me the most compelling barrier to progress in those countries.

 

Reference

Semyonov, D. Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, 1, spring 2014,  http://herb.hse.ru/data/2014/05/30/1325398755/1HERB_01_Spring.pdf (accessed 08.07.14)