post-Soviet higher education

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 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.

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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)