Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.
The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.
Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.
Hm. Something’s not quite right here.
It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?
As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!
Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.
The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.
Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.
In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.
This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.
Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.
This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.
The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.
Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.
That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.
In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.
In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.
The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!
As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.
The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!
That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.
The Bologna Process is a programme of reforms/policies co-opted by the European Union (EU) that are designed to harmonize higher education systems and facilitate greater mobility. Partnership and mobility programmes include Tempus and Erasmus (now Erasmus+) and a major cross-national research scheme, Horizon 2020. Reforms include aligning degree cycles to the Bologna Bachelor’s-Master’s-PhD cycle to ensure mutual recognition of qualifications (dealt with in the Lisbon Convention) and introducing/upgrading quality assurance processes. Taken together, all of these initiatives lead towards the Bologna Process’ main objective, the creation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
First formalized in 1999, the influence of the Bologna Process has now spread well beyond the confines of the EU, from Australia to states in Latin America. Bologna has also reached the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Yet only countries with territories in Europe can ever be members of the EHEA. So, for Central Asia, this means that only Kazakhstan – which has a sliver of European land in the western part of the country – will ever be able to join the EHEA.
This raises an interesting question: Despite their inability to join the EHEA, why do policymakers outside the EU choose the Bologna Process as a means of implementing change in higher education?
Once the decision is made to adopt Bologna-compliant policies, this leads to another interesting question: How are these reforms received by those at the frontline of implementation, namely faculty members?
I’m tackling these two questions in a new study I am working on, and which I am presenting at the Canadian Political Science Assocation annual conference (if by chance you’re in Vancouver and free at 8.45am on June 6, please come!).
As you might expect, I’m looking at these issues in the context of Central Asia. Each of the five states has connections to the Bologna Process, from Turkmenistan’s minimalist approach to Kazakhstan’s full-on adoption of the Bologna Process in 2010. The image below, one of the slides from my conference presentation, sets out the Central Asian journey to implementing Bologna:
In the course of the interviews I undertook with faculty in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of my PhD research, I asked respondents what they felt had been the biggest change in higher education in their country since they had obtained independence in 1991.
Many – and an overwhelming majority in Tajikistan – brought up some aspect of the Bologna Process. Some thought Bologna was a really positive step for higher education in their country, particularly the opportunities for student/faculty mobility and the ability for their students’ qualifications to be recognized by other countries. Others were more critical in their attitudes. In Tajikistan, this was mainly in relation to teething issues as new reforms bed in. Across all three countries, some respondents were cynical about the necessity/appropriateness of Bologna for their national systems.
What was particularly interesting in these discussions was that regardless of whether or not faculty found the Bologna reforms to be useful or appropriate, everyone who brought up the Bologna Process did so in the broader context of changes to higher education.
In this way, I found that the Bologna Process has become – or is becoming – a metaphor that is deployed by faculty to help them make sense of and navigate the fluctuating environment in Central Asian higher education. Framing the Bologna Process in this way helps us better understand the worldviews of the faculty who are at the frontline of implementing reforms. Further, it also shines a light on the processes, strategies and behaviours that faculty use to bring meaning-making into action.
I hope that at some point in the future I’ll be able to find a home to publish the study as that will be an opportunity to bring forward the voices of faculty members whose views are rarely heard, not only within the domestic policymaking scene but in the Anglophone academic literature.
I’ve been meaning to repost an article from The Diplomat on civil society in Kazakhstan for a while. With news of more arrests today after activists have unfurled banners and quoted the constitution, the topic of civil society in Kazakhstan is becoming a hot one.
Tantalizingly entitled How can Kazakhstan revitalize its civil society?, author Sergey Marinin points to education as one key response to the question. Specifically, Marinin emphasizes the role that the growing number of Western educated Kazakhs can play in supporting the development of civil society, which has historically been more closely associated with the state in Kazakhstan than identifiable as a separate arena.
As Marinin says,
“Politically disenchanted youth lean toward civic activism because the state excludes them from official decision-making processes”
Thus, Marinin offers a ‘win-win solution’: employ graduates returning to Kazakhstan to teach in higher education institutions (HEIs)*, deploying the experience of living and studying in Western contexts to support the development of critical thinking among students and non-Soviet management practices among faculty and staff.
*Marinin does not mention that around half of Kazakhstan’s HEIs are now privately run or that there are ongoing waves of privatization in the sector, meaning that higher education is, on paper, no longer a state sector staffed by civil servants. However, in practice, the state still retains a high level of steering control over the sector.
With the historic changes at the top of the political order unfolding before our eyes after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and until recently only President of Kazakhstan, this is a moment of hope for proponents of civil society. Could the forthcoming presidential election open up opportunities for the non-state sector to make its views heard?
It’s not only Marinin who thinks that citizens with study abroad experience might hold the key to unlocking civil society in the former Soviet space. University of Oxford academic Maia Chankseliani has found links between student mobility and democratic development when students from the former Soviet region head to Europe and the US (see also her summary of the article in The Conversation).
However, despite major investment by the Kazakh government and students’ families in study abroad to the West, Chankseliani finds that most students from Kazakhstan – along with the other Central Asian states – head to Russia if they study abroad. And the more students go to Russia, the stronger the (negative) effect is on democratization.
Moving beyond the study abroad destination, emerging research by Aliya Kuzhabekova and colleagues at Nazarbayev University has found that students returning from a spell abroad are finding it difficult to access local networks as they readjust to being back in Kazakhstan. Instead, study abroad returnees working in higher education are beginning to set up their own informal networks and alliances, coming together to help make their voices heard.
I reported on another type of grassroots movement being organized by those who are still abroad just recently: #scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad
Kuzhabekova et al’s study and movements like the PhD Girls’ Union add important nuance to the state/civil society (or authoritarian/democratic) debate. These examples demonstrate how people – well educated, with experience of living abroad, and often young – are attempting to advance civil society in Kazakhstan within the framework of a state that continues to be extremely powerful.
Despite these shoots of hope, it is clear that those advocating for civil society have a long road ahead. Overt attempts to propound democratic ideals such as hanging up banners with extracts from the constitution have not gone down well. At all.
Will the Kazakh state ever be open to civil society?
Well, it could be if Tokayev – Nazarbayev’s likely successor in this June’s presidential elections – turns out to be more like neighbouring Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev who everyone thought would continue the repressive actions of his predecessor Karimov but appears to have taken a more radical reform path.
However, whilst Nazarbayev is still around (where Karimov was not), it looks like there won’t be any real change in direction in Kazakhstan. The space for civil society remains small. It is actions led by study abroad returnees within that space may be what hold the key to eventually leading change from within.
The opportunity to study abroad is usually positioned as a life (and CV) enhancing experience. Among other benefits, studying abroad enables you to learn about different ways of teaching and learning, find out about new cultures, make new friends, and brush up on your language skills. Little wonder that the number of internationally mobile students is rapidly increasing – around five million currently and predicted to rise to eight million by 2025.
A recent series of meetings in Turkmenistan – a major sender of international students, primarily to Russia and Belarus – sought to put paid to any romantic ideas about studying abroad.
Parents of students currently studying abroad were summoned to attend meetings in which government officials informed them about the many dangers associated with these overseas stays.
Chief among the potential problems is religious (Islamic) radicalization – a concern shared by the Tajik government, which since 2010 has been clamping down on citizens with the temerity to study courses related to Islam abroad.
Other concerns raised by the officials included the prospect that Turkmen students would commit crimes while abroad, go to bars or visit brothels.
Despite ‘untrustworthy’ (outspoken?) parents not being invited to the meetings, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an information resource run by the the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, nevertheless reported how frustrated some of the attendees became at one meeting:
One could overhear outraged exclamations from the audience:
– What bars are you talking about if they have no cash for food!?
– A student visa does not give the right to work and we are unable to transfer money to them. What is to be done?
– We hear that some students engage in thefts, robberies or drug trafficking but this should come as no surprise as they have no money!
There have been longstanding problems transferring money outside Turkmenistan and accessing funds from Turkmen banks in other countries, causing significant problems for students.
After these concerns were raised, the meeting was rapidly shut down after promises that the parents would get answers to their questions within 10 days.
Will they get their answers?
It doesn’t look promising. Chronicles of Turkmenistan goes on to note that parents at an earlier meeting had raised similar questions about the low money transfer limits in their province. They were told that:
…the restriction is related to the fact that “the region makes the smallest contribution to the country’s economy” and advised them to “resolve their problems on their own”.
The response to those parents who spoke up at the recent meeting may well be along the same lines.
Not content with demanding its nationals return home from studying abroad, reports are circulating [ru] that the government of Tajikistan is now regularly monitoring these former students.
Despite international borders opening for Tajiks since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tajik government appears to be doing its best to close down opportunities for travel – for some citizens, at least. Since 2010, officials have been ‘encouraging’ students enrolled in courses related to Islam in other Islamic countries to abandon their studies and come back to Tajikistan.
Around 3,000 students have returned from Islamic universities and madrassahs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. No one really knows how many students remain abroad or how many have managed to get around the travel restrictions since they were introduced, but there were suggestions back in 2010 that there were around 4,000 Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone.
The government’s stated reason for returning these students home is the risk that they will be radicalized abroad. The directive is in line with other steps that have been taken to try and limit the growing popularity/resurgence of Islam in Tajikistan. Such measures have included restrictions on clothing and personal appearance (in short: hijab or beard – bad, suit and tie – good), age limits on mosque attendance and asserting control over who is permitted to provide Islamic education.
Yet the risk identified by the government appears to be unfounded: whilst there is evidence that a small number of Tajik nationals have joined ISIS and/or travelled to Syria and Iraq, Central Asian security expert Edward Lemon has cogently argued that the perceived threat should not be over-estimated.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue those who made the choice to follow instructions and return home from their study abroad. In January 2019, Radio Ozodi (Liberty) reported [ru] that these former religious studies students are now obliged to report to their local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs twice a year for ‘registration and an interview’.
The purpose of these twice yearly meetings is to establish that the former student is still living in the same place i.e. has not gone back abroad. A number of former students explained that they are also being asked by local officials what the purpose of their study abroad was, what they are currently doing, and who they are friends with.
Human rights activists have pointed out that the rights of these former students are being violated [ru] on the presumption that they remain innocent until and if proven otherwise.
Yet all the evidence points to the government taking little heed of these warnings. Rather, it is likely to continue poking away at citizens’ ability to freely express themselves, to learn and to practice religion, to wear what they want and go where they want. And perhaps frustration and dissatisfaction with that is what might in the end cause people to take a path towards radicalization – not a handful of Islamic studies students.