Russian-Tajik Slavonic University
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.
Once known as Tajikistan’s most prestigious higher education institution, the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University (RTSU) in the country’s capital Dushanbe, has certainly fallen from grace in recent years.
Last October, I reported on a sad and disturbing story about a student at RTSU being set upon by fellow coursemates, ostensibly simply for speaking up in class.
The lustre of the joint partnership between former master Russia and its humble (and generally obliging) servant Tajikistan has been decisively dulled in the light of a recent report from Fergana News [ru] claiming that faculty members have not been receiving salaries and students have not been able to obtain stipends for three months now. Some students are now so hard up that that they can’t even afford to take public transport to get to university, according to the article.
This inaction on the part of the Russian state has been put down to the “economic crisis” in Russia. This “crisis” has been brewing for a couple of years, bringing together causes and effects: declining global oil prices, sanctions imposed after the annexation of the Crimea, reduced investment, high inflation and currency devaluation (see this February 2016 article from RFE/RL [en] for more). Its impact is already felt in Tajikistan, where anywhere up to around 1 million of the 8 million population are attempting to make a living as migrant workers in Russia, and from where remittances sent back home plummeted by nearly 50% in 2015 [en].
Thus the students and faculty members are caught up in a bigger struggle, and likely viewed by the Russian government as insignificant in comparison to the other issues Russia faces. The academic profession in Tajikistan has been hit hard over the last 25 years – salaries and working conditions have diminished, with many lecturers needing to seek private employment or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Corruption in the form of payment for admissions and bribes for results is rampant. As a result, the quality and reputation of higher education is frequently questionable.
The disregard being shown to RTSU faculty and students is yet another blow for higher education in Tajikistan. With more than a hint of resignation mixed with frustration, one anonymous lecturer summed this up succinctly in the Fergana News piece:
Мы уже привыкли к таким задержкам в январе-феврале, но обычно в марте нам выплачивали всю задолженность. А в этом году денег до сих пор нет. Каждую неделю обещают. Зарплаты и так невелики, да еще и не получаем вовремя.
We’re used to payment delays in January and February, but we usually get everything we’re owed in March. But this year there’s been nothing. Every week they promise to pay. The salaries aren’t even high and we still don’t get paid on time.
Like many others, I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the Russian government alleviates what must be becoming an increasingly pressured and uncomfortable environment at RTSU as soon as possible.