study abroad

International students from the former Soviet space

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Internationally mobile students 2011-17The 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%!

Outbound mobile from former SU 1998-2017

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 in Central Asia

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The blog reaches a new level with its first ever moving cat

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:

BP-Central-Asia-timeline

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.

 

Is there space for civil society in Kazakhstan?

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Peaceful it may be, but it’s probably still too much for the Kazakh government to take…

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.

#scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad

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Not an actual selfie of the #kzphdgirlsunion team

Over on Kazakh social media, something rather brilliant is happening.

At the end of March, a new Yvision (a trilingual Kazakh blogging platform) blog was set up to support an Instagram account that’s already been in operation for several months. The aim of the blog and Instagram accounts are to promote a very exciting project:

#KZPHDGIRLSUNION

The project is a collaboration by 16 female PhD students, all from Kazakhstan, and all doing their graduate work abroad. Between them, they’re studying pretty much all of the hard and social sciences, covering everything from nanotechnology to education.

Their aim is to share news and views about their research, showing others (particularly women, though everyone will enjoy their posts) what it’s like to study and live abroad. This is also a form of community engagement, as they say on their site:

Мы считаем, что образование – это сила, а наука должна быть ближе к людям.

We believe that education is a strength, and science/research should be closer to people.

For those you on Instagram, you can read new posts from the team every Thursday (in Russian). They’ve already covered topics varying from real women in science about female academics they’ve had the chance to meet in person, updates on their research, advice on writing a thesis and they’ve even posted about their mums (I love that one a lot).

The team are on the look out for new recruits: if you are a woman from Kazakhstan, doing research (whether PhD, a post-doc or researching in industry), and willing to ‘write, write and write some more’ as they put it, then I encourage you to reach out.

This is a wonderful and very visual way to make two very daunting prospects – doing a PhD/advanced research and studying/living abroad – and doing both of those things as a Kazakh woman – feel real and manageable. I have learned a lot from the generosity of the women prepared to share their own thoughts and experiences, and hope others will too.

Go KZPHDGIRLSUNION!

 

 

Thanks to Olga Mun for sharing this brilliant initiative on Twitter!

Of bars and brothels: Turkmenistani parents warned of dangers of allowing children to study abroad

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Visiting a bar – a ‘cultural experience’ often associated with studying abroad

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!

Excerpt from https://en.hronikatm.com/2019/01/dashoguz-officials-hold-meetings-with-outraged-parents-of-study-abroad-students/

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”.

Excerpt from https://en.hronikatm.com/2019/01/dashoguz-officials-hold-meetings-with-outraged-parents-of-study-abroad-students/

The response to those parents who spoke up at the recent meeting may well be along the same lines.

Study abroad returnees required to report regularly to local police in Tajikistan

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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.

Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling (Repost from RFE/RL)

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Not much is written about higher education in Turkmenistan. Its education system, like much else in the country, is generally closed off to the outside world. The only news that tends to get out is when some high cost project is launched (see e.g. British tabloid The Express on the opening of a new airport in the capital Ashgabat or the Majlis podcast on the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games).

Sadly, the rare story that has surfaced from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service about higher education in Turkmenistan is not a positive one. There’s no new glitzy university building or major scholarship programme in the works. On the contrary, the story tells of how many Turkmen students pursuing studies abroad are being cut off from finances in their home banks and the negative consequences this is having not only on their studies but their physical and mental health.

This seems to me to epitomize the clash between contemporary globalization and the persistence (persisting importance) of nation states. So, for example, the international finance system is unable to control the machinations of national banks employing global services (in this case, VISA cards). And whilst students have many more opportunities to study outside their home country than in the past, they are still curtailed by the legislative framework of the host countries (in this case, the rules of their host universities about debts and the visa regime that doesn’t allow them to work).

I’ve reposted the story below, which is (c) RFE/RL’s Turkmen service and available on their website at https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-debit-cards-financial-cutoff-students-hunger-eviction/29252238.html.

Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling

A Russian ATM machine’s repeated rejection of his efforts to withdraw cash from his Turkmen bank led one student to cut up his bank card and try to cook it for a meal.

Video of the culinary first (he did add salt) that was sent to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service was a humorous attempt to express the utter frustration felt by many of the thousands of Turkmen students studying around the world who are unable to get money from their bank accounts back home.

But the problem is no laughing matter. It’s left many students unable to pay rent or tuition, and some of those who spoke to RFE/RL this month said they were often even going hungry because they had no money.

“In December I was still pretty well fed, but then the [bank] cards stopped working and, as a result, I’ve lost 15 kilograms,” said Merdan, a Turkmen studying in Ukraine who asked that we not publish his surname.

“Very often we do not have money — I have to borrow from friends and acquaintances,” he added. “We all understand each other’s situations. Sometimes I ask for a slice of bread — but they also need to eat. And besides, a hungry person will not be satisfied with a couple of slices of bread.”

WATCH: Student ‘Cooks’ His Bank Card (in Turkmen, no subtitles)

Turkmen debit-cardholders living abroad were previously limited to taking out the equivalent of $15 per day, but that amount became insignificant once virtually any attempt to extract money — whether at ATMs in Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, among others — ended in failure.

“When I went abroad, I could not use my bank card, even though I had about 4,000 manats in my account,” said a student named Gulrukh, citing the equivalent of around $1,143 at the official exchange rate. “When I went to Vnesheconombank, they told me that my card was blocked.”

Many students in a number of countries told RFE/RL that occasionally their card would inexplicably work and they could retrieve $15 but those were unreliable exceptions.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has received dozens of messages and phone calls each day in recent months from Turkmen abroad complaining about the debit-card problem.

No Official Announcements

The cards, issued by various state-owned Turkmen banks, are most often embossed with the VISA logo, the complainants said, but others that have failed are MasterCard.

Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don't work. (illustrative photo)
Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don’t work. (illustrative photo)

VISA told RFE/RL in a March statement that it had not cut off any services to owners of its cards in Turkmenistan.

“In the Republic of Turkmenistan, VISA continues to process and provide services to all partner banks as usual, we have not suspended the provision of services to banks in Turkmenistan and are working closely with banks with partners, trade and service companies and other market participants to ensure the stable operation of the payment system as a whole,” Galym Tabyldiev, VISA’s general manager for Central Asia, wrote.

VISA said anyone experiencing difficulty using the cards should “contact the issuing bank.”

Banks in Turkmenistan have made no official announcements on the reason for the failure of the debit cards to work reliably, although some bank representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that VISA cards used abroad were being “completely suspended.” The officials — from Bank Senagat and the Vnesheconombank — added that they did not know how long any purported suspension might last.

Chaotic Scenes

The dire situation has forced some parents with children studying abroad to rely on MoneyGram and Western Union to wire money to their loved ones.

But such transfers from Turkmenistan were limited to $300 and unusual conditions were placed on senders that included visiting certain central-bank offices to get a “service coupon.”

The migration to money-wiring services led to chaotic scenes at some of the few MoneyGram and Western Union outlets in Turkmenistan, with crushes as lines sometimes ballooned into the hundreds, as in the Lebap region in February.

It’s not clear why the banks might be blocking such withdrawal requests from abroad.

Some analysts speculate that it might be connected to the gap between the official exchange rate (3.5 manats to the dollar) and the black-market rate (22 manats to the dollar). They say paying out money at the official rate could expose banks to significant losses.

Others point to Turkmenistan’s dire economic situation, which has caused shortages of many staple and consumer goods, including bread and sugar.

Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.
Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.

Those woes appear to extend to the government’s coffers as well, as the state has reportedly fallen behind on some workers’ salaries and pensions.

There have also been government efforts to encourage the return of Turkmen migrant workers and students abroad by pressuring parents and other relatives. In such circumstances, cutting access to money for Turkmen abroad could make the decision to return home much easier.

Regardless of the reason for the cash cutoffs, they continue to cause big problems for Turkmen abroad.

“I would like to make a big request of officials in Turkmenistan,” wrote one student to RFE/RL. “Unlock our cards. We are in a foreign country, we do not have our own housing, we live in a hostel, we cannot even pay for it. We soon will be evicted. We cannot leave for Turkmenistan because we will not be released if we do not pay debts for the hostel.”

Expulsions, Manual Labor

There have already been cases of Turkmen students being expelled from their university over unpaid tuition.

“We paid for our studies on February 20 by transferring money from banks in Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen banks have not yet transferred money to the university account in Belarus, and the university demanded that the money be transferred by April 1,” one university student told RFE/RL in April.

He claimed that 42 students from Turkmenistan who had similar problems with their home banks had already been expelled for nonpayment of their tuition.

Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)
Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)

Other students have taken to doing manual labor to pay the bills, potentially risking legal problems.

An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Russia’s Astrakhan region reportedon May 15 that hundreds of Turkmen students were working on farms in their spare time harvesting fruits and vegetables.

He reported that some were working eight hours a day for 600 rubles (about $10) planting crops on the weekends.

“Students are forced to agree [to the low wage] because they have no choice,” he said.

The activity is technically illegal because in Russia workers need to have a work permit, which costs 3,200 rubles per month (about $50), and most students do not have one.

“Because of the crisis in Turkmenistan, we are trying not to disturb our parents and relatives, we try to take care of ourselves somehow, pay at least part of our expenses,” said one student in Astrakhan. “We do not know when the situation in [Turkmenistan] will stabilize, because we still cannot withdraw money from our VISA cards because of the blockage.”

He added: “Many of us are in despair.”

And the debit-card problem has hit more than just Turkmen students.

A Turkmen official who requested anonymity told RFE/RL that, while part of a high-level government delegation in Europe earlier this year for a meeting with a prominent international organization, he was unable to withdraw the money he needed from an ATM machine to pay his hotel bill.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service