Somewhat beyond the Central Asian scope I normally cover, but a topic that is highly relevant around the former Soviet space is academic freedom.
I recently listened to a very interesting podcast on the topic of academic freedom in Russia. The episode focussed on a series of recent events and interventions at the elite Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
The debate centres around a TEN HOUR long Academic Council meeting – not the fact that these poor souls were trapped in the same space for such a long time, but the discussions that arose around proposed changes to internal rules that could impact on the ability of students, faculty and staff to discuss ‘political’ issues. (Political in quote marks as it’s one of the points of contention that politics is not properly defined anywhere).
The podcast is one of the first in the Naked Pravda series by the excellent Meduza news agency, which reports on Russia but safely from the confines of outside the country. It is one of the best sources of news (in Russian and in English) about Russia so as a side note, if you are a Russian reader but don’t currently get Meduza’s daily email, sign up now. It’s always on topic, very smart and funny, and will keep you up to speed on politicking po-russki.
Back to the podcast, which is in English: download it here from the podcast’s website. The link also has a good written summary of what’s discussed in the podcast in case you prefer to read than listen.
I recommend the podcast, although I note with disappointment that there were no female guests on this episode. There are more than enough qualified women out there, and it’s not difficult to find them. Naked Pravda can and should do better on that front.
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.
Here’s an interesting story on the continued growth of Russian language (and primarily Russian government funded) schools in Tajikistan. The story is (c) RFE/RL Tajikistan and author Farangis Najibullah (an excellent journalist; please check out her other work):
No Shortage Of Students As Tajikistan Builds New Russian Schools
Originally posted at https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-new-russian-schools/30384557.html on January 18, 2020
Tajikistan’s parliament has approved an agreement to build five new Russian schools in the next three years, with funds largely provided by the Russian government.
The move shows the Tajik authorities’ willingness to maintain close ties with Moscow and reflects a growing demand among Tajiks for Russian-language education.
During a parliamentary debate in Dushanbe on January 15, Deputy Education Minister Rahmatullo Mirboboev said the schools will be designed to hold at least 1,200 students each.
The Russian-speaking community has significantly dwindled in the Central Asian country as the population of ethnic Russians has fallen from some 395,000 in 1979 to just 35,000 when the last census was taken in 2010.
Despite that, it’s expected there will be no shortage of students for the new Russian-speaking schools.
The demand among Tajiks for more educational facilities in which Russian is the language of instruction has risen both in cities and rural areas in recent years.
There are already 32 Russian-only schools in Tajikistan, with 10 of them established in the past two years.
Dozens of mixed-language schools offer education in both Tajik and Russian classes, taught separately.
Tajik parents who enroll their children in Russian schools say it will enhance their chances of studying in Russian universities and getting well-paid, white-collar jobs in Russia.
Unemployment is rampant and wages very low in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The average monthly wage in October was $140.
“My eldest son goes to a Russian school,” says Zahro, a pediatrician from the northern province of Sughd who didn’t want to give her full name.
She says her younger son couldn’t get a place in the Russian school and that he is “currently studying in Tajik” while waiting for a vacancy.
“A longer-term plan for them is to study medicine in Russia, possibly in some smaller cities where living costs are not high,” Zahro said. “The children are working hard, we’re also getting additional private instruction in chemistry and physics.”
Like many other Tajiks, Zahro believes the Russian-language schools in Tajikistan generally offer a better-quality education.
Russian schools are the second-best option for middle-income parents like Zahro, who can’t afford to send their children to private schools.
There are dozens of private schools and lyceums — including English schools — that enjoy a reputation for providing quality education with a broader range of extracurricular offerings, smaller class sizes, and experienced teachers.
Plans to open more Russian schools in Tajikistan were discussed during a meeting between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Dushanbe in September 2018, the Tajik leader’s official website reported.
Rahmon has always maintained a close relationship with “strategic partner” Russia, which hosts many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers.
The migrants’ remittances — estimated at around $2.5 billion and equal to about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018 — is an important factor for Tajikistan’s social and economic stability.
Russia, in turn, has always been keen to keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence, and uses Russian-language education and the lure of economic opportunities as a tool of soft power.
Since August 2018, Moscow has sent more than 100 Russian teachers to Tajikistan — a mountainous country of some 8.9 million people — while also providing textbooks for the country’s Russian schools.
A large portion of the teachers’ wages are reportedly paid by the Russian Education Ministry.
During his annual press conference on December 19, 2019, Putin mentioned the need to open more Russian schools in Central Asia.
“It is more difficult to adapt for those who come, for example, from Central Asia. What can we do? We have to introduce our education systems, open Russian-language courses, Russian schools, and university branches,” said Putin when asked about Russia’s demographic situation and the immigration issues his country faces.
Tajik education officials say the five new schools will be built over the next three years in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as in the cities of Khujand in the country’s north, Bokhtar and Kulob in the south, and the western town of Tursunzoda.
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.
Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.
What do the European Union, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Western Balkans and the Association of Asian Universities have in common?
Answer: They are all excellent examples of regional groupings, alliances or partnerships that higher education institutions and nations within the former Soviet space have become involved with in recent years.
This notion of regionalism – the introduction of supranational political initiatives for higher education that are formed around regional alliances, associations and groupings – is fairly new in higher education studies. This is despite the fact that such partnerships have proliferated and continue to flourish, whether organized by universities themselves or as priorities within groupings of multiple nations.
Regional initiatives are not always based around geographic blocs, as the example above of the BRICS suggests, although it is common to focus on shared spaces. In this way, regional identities and initiatives do not only reflect historic legacies or geographic commonalities, but also represent imaginaries of future constellations of actors.
The rationale behind entering into regional higher education initiatives, the power dynamics among the actors involved, and the impact of these partnerships and alliances on the everyday lives of those working in higher education are among some of the many important issues raised in a new special issue for Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB) that I have guest edited and which has just been published.
The special issue begins with four articles exploring different varieties of regionalism, assisting in the conceptualization of the term and its role for higher education in the former Soviet/communist space. Larissa Titarenko discusses how policymakers prioritize different regions for both economic and political purposes, observing that the economic dimension makes Asia an important focal point for cooperation in Belarus. In my article, I lay out why Russia too shares a growing interest in educational cooperation with Asia, offering several examples to illustrate how and why regional connections to Russia’s east are on the rise.
Heading west, Alenka Flander’s article ties together regionalism in the Western Balkans with national initiatives to internationalize the Slovenian higher education system. Looking to the future, she posits that other Slavic language groups outside the EU may be a new region in the making for Slovenia. The final article in this part by Maxim Khomyakov frames Russia’s involvement with the BRICS within the Global North-Global South discourse, arguing that this non-geographic region holds fascinating possibilities for Russia as it looks forward beyond its own Soviet legacy.
The second part of the issue contains four articles that consider the scope and prospects for higher education regionalism within the former Soviet space. Natalia Leskina asks whether there is such a thing as a Eurasian Higher Education Area, showing that while the political odds make it unlikely, it is actually bottom-up initiatives by universities that are driving the development of this regional grouping. Abbas Abbasov considers how Russian branch campuses can be seen as a new form of (post-colonial) regionalism, shining a spotlight on the regional activities of Russia’s leading university, Moscow State University, as a case study.
Keeping the focus on Russia, Zahra Jafarova examines patterns of student mobility to the former metropole. She unpacks the dynamics of shifting trends from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, finding that student mobility is being influenced by Russian soft power, albeit in different ways in the two countries. While Russia may be leading the way in former Soviet higher education regionalism, Martha Merrill’s piece on Central Asia makes it quite clear that these countries’ very different visions and abilities to develop education do not offer promising prospects for a Central Asian regional identity to emerge in higher education.
The third part of the triptych deals specifically with the European Union (EU), which is currently the most significant region for higher education ideas, policies and programmes across the former Soviet space. Chynara Ryskulova explains how the choice made by Kyrgyzstan’s policymakers to adopt European reforms has heralded a new quality assurance system that has not yet been fully absorbed or accepted by the faculty that have to deliver the new reforms on the ground. On the other side of the former Soviet Union, Nadiia Kachynska also points to the difficulties of integrating into the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, analyzing the reasons that Ukrainian universities still struggle to participate on an equal basis with their EU counterparts.
Svetlana Shenderova and Dmitry Lanko then take us to the Russian-Finnish borderlands, pointing out the gaps that emerge as the two countries attempt to cooperate on double degrees without sharing experiences and expertise obtained from their involvement in other regional initiatives (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for Russia; the European Union for Finland). Finally, Aytaj Pashaeva looks at a twining project that brought EU experts to Azerbaijan to support the development and launch of the Azerbaijani Quality Assurance Framework in 2018.
Taken together, the 12 articles add considerable depth to our understanding of what regionalism in higher education looks and feels like across the ex-Soviet/communist space. The articles help us move beyond describing the wealth of regional initiatives – although this is in itself is an important contribution – towards answering more profound questions around what engagement in these initiatives signifies at individual, institutional and national levels and how regionalism can be used both to perpetuate existing hierarchies and inequalities but also to break free from them and look in different directions.
Higher Education in Russia and Beyond is an open access non-academic journal published by the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia. The special issue on regionalism is one of four volumes that will be published in 2019; the back catalogue from its inception in 2014 can be found here.
My huge thanks go to the authors of the articles in the issue for such interesting and insightful contributions as well as their willingness to engage with me and the regular editorial team as we moved towards publication.
Thank you also to Maria Yudkevich, Vice Rector of HSE, for the invitation to guest edit an issue of HERB and for being open to the exploration of this relatively novel topic. Finally, thank you to Vera Arbieva, HERB’s coordinator, for her constant professionalism and support.