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.
Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming state visit to Kyrgyzstan [en], a flurry of announcements and events are celebrating and seeking to extend Kyrgyz-Russian educational relations.
The two countries maintain relatively good ties compared to other Russian-former Soviet bilateral relations.
In terms of language, Russian is still fairly widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has confirmed that Russian will retain its official status [en] in Kyrgyzstan. This helps as Kyrgyzstan sends 16,000 students to study in Russian universities every year. However, students flows between the two countries are not even [en]: only 1,500 Russians come to Kyrgyzstan to study.
The Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University [en/kg/ru] (named after Yeltsin [en], no less) is, I believe, the oldest of the six such bi-national universities, having been established in 1993 following decrees signed as early as 1992. Despite various scandals over the years, it continues to be considered one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
One of the areas for discussion when Putin and Jeenbekov meet will be the countries’ mutual involvement in regional associations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) [en/ru] (Kyrgyzstan currently holds the presidency) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [ru].
This may explain why Jeenbekov, addressing the first Kyrgyzstan-Russia Rectors’ Forum, on March 27, prounounced the need to reinvigorate the common educational space [ru] that had been envisaged by some of the ex-Soviet countries back in the 1990s.
The Forum was attended by 31 Kyrgyz university leaders and 40 of their Russian counterparts. As well as listening to various speeches (see the excitement on the delegates’ faces here [ru]), a raft of bilateral institutional agreements are being prepared for signature during Putin’s visit.
This includes an agreement with Russia’s top higher education institution, Lomonosov Moscow State University. I don’t have the detail of the agreement and whether it goes beyond the usual diplomatic pleasantries, but LMSU’s Rector has suggested that a branch campus [en] be opened in Kyrgyzstan*.
This would point towards much deeper cooperation between the countries more akin to that seen in neighbouring Tajikistan, where there is not only a bi-national Slavic University (opened 1996, not named after Yeltsin) but a branch of LMSU [ru] (founded 2009) as well as several other leading Russian higher education institutions.
Another interesting outcome of the Forum was the suggestion that Kyrgyzstan might join a Moscow-led international university ranking ‘The three university missions‘ [en/ru]. According to the Kyrgyz Minister of Education Gulmira Kudaibergenova, this would allow for a deeper and more objective analysis of the situation of Kyrgyzstan’s higher education institutions and connect them to their global counterparts.
Kyrgyzstan has thus far not dabbled too deeply in the murky world of university rankings. It recently employed a Kazakhstan based organization to set up a national ranking but as yet has not made the same kind of pronouncements that Kazakhstan, Russia and the like have about wanting to push one or more of its universities into the global top 100/200/etc. (I’ve written more about the trials and tribulations of university rankings in Central Asia as part of a comparison with Central & Eastern Europe and Latin America – watch out sometime later this year for that publication.)
Finally, along with the raft of bilateral agreements, expect to hear more about Kyrgyzstan’s involvement with Russian-led regional university associations such as the Eurasian Association of Universities, Shanghai Cooperation Organization Network University and CIS Network University.
These are all attempts to create a regional space where, for example, qualifications are mutually recognized and there are greater opportunities for student and faculty mobility (just like other regional groupings such as the European Union’s Bologna Process). It’s a growing area of interest for the ex-Soviet countries, and very soon I’ll have an exciting announcement to make about higher education regionalism in this space, so watch out for that too.
*Added on March 28: Apparently, LMSU has attempted to open a branch campus in Kyrgyzstan multiple times [ru] since 2004 but has been thawrted each time – not through any fault of Moscow’s, LMSU Rector Sadovnichiy was quick to point out… Maybe the latest attempt will be seventh time lucky.
In a post in September 2018, I detailed the extensive reforms being undertaken or planned for Uzbekistan’s higher education system. The reforms cover everything from legislation to recognize (and encourage the growth of) privately operated universities and institutes to new government funding streams to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2018 was also an important year for higher education in Uzbekistan with the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest university, now called the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan [ru]. History buffs can read more about the formalization of higher education in Central Asia in my May 2017 post.
One of the main outcomes of the rapid reforms undertaken in 2018 seems to be a new wave of institutional growth. Although it’s been less than four months since I published my post on reforms in Uzbekistan, I have read a number of news stories and press releases about the opening of new higher education institutions (HEI) in the country.
For the most part, these new institutions are branch campuses of foreign universities. Branch campuses are relatively low risk, high return propositions for the host country and for the home university.
Students get their degree from the home university without necessarily ever having to go to the main campus (although there are usually options for exchanges and visits) and have the comfort of knowing that the degree comes from an established institution with a good (almost always) reputation.
Whilst the university will have to invest in infrastructure and resources, it’s a great deal less effort to run a small campus – often with 1,000 students or fewer – and to import pre-existing courses and materials than to build an institution from scratch. For the host country, expanding international branch campuses is an easy way to tick the ‘are you internationalizing your higher education system’ box that everyone seems to have on their to-do list.
Uzbekistan has long been home to international branch campuses, from the UK’s Westminster University to Italian Turin Polytechnic University and South Korean Inha University. For many years, these were the only permissible forms of private higher education. Now, they are being joined by a number of other campuses, diversifying the system further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent shared history, Russia is steaming ahead with at least six new branch campuses [ru]. This more than doubles the current number of Russian branch campuses in Uzbekistan (four). Many of these are extremely well known and have excellent reputations, so it is not a trivial matter that they are deciding to set up shop in Uzbekistan:
- Moscow State Institute of International Relations – often known by its Russian acronym MGIMO (МГИМО)
- Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, a film school also often known by its Russian acronym VGIK (ВГИК)
- Moscow Power Engineering Institute, which already has a branch campus in Tajikistan
- Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology
- Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism
As well as the Russians, the Koreans are also increasing their presence in the country [ru] by opening a campus of Ajou University, a top engineering institution. India is set to open its first Uzbek campus [ru], a branch of well-known Amity University. And there are ongoing rumours about unnamed French and British institutions [ru] expressing their higher education interests too.
In the future, I expect to see the direction of travel flip, and for new privately run and operated HEIs to be opened by domestic actors. This might be Uzbeks with international experience and/or education, or perhaps these new institutions will be a mix of state initiated and privately run, along the lines of a number of HEIs in Kazakhstan.
A first step in the homegrown diversification of higher education is already underway, with reports that a new joint Uzbek-Belarusian institute will open in 2019 [ru]. It will be based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and will focus on applied courses. In turn, ongoing educational cooperation between the two states will also be marked by a new joint faculty in Tashkent. This will be run by the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics with the Tashkent University of Information Technology.
I expect there will be more to report on new HEIs in Uzbekistan soon!
**Update: January 26, 2019** My prediction that there would be more to report soon has already proven correct. Sputnik Uzbekistan has just issued a story saying that China will be opening a multi-faculty university in Tashkent [ru]. No details yet about who exactly ‘China’ is, whether this will be a bi-national university or a branch campus, but it’s a really interesting development to see China involved in providing higher education outside its own borders. This will be, I believe, the first Chinese presence beyond Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.
**Update 2: January 27, 2019** And here’s more on this already! Now Malaysia is getting in on the act, planning to open a branch of the Technological University of Malaysia in Khorezm [ru]. This is another exciting development, as it brings a well-established and well-ranked institution to Uzbekistan and more importantly, shifts the focus away from the capital Tashkent.
**Update 3: February 7, 2019** Webster University (USA) will be offering an MBA in Uzbekistan from the 2019/20 academic year after its President signed an agreement with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the US. And, while not necessarily leading to a new institution, Tashkent University of Information Technology has signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with East Kazakhstan State Technical University [ru], meaning that Uzbekistan’s ‘near abroad’ neighbours are getting in on the act too.
My new article is now out in University World News, in which I investigate a growing scandal in Tajikistan with a rash of plagiarised doctoral dissertations exposed. Vindicated in this highly embarrassing scandal include high level government officials and senior academics.
Read the full story at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20180428053554356.