I was asked recently to give an overview of Central Asia’s higher education systems to a group of people who know a lot about higher education but less about the Central Asian context.
This was a great task. It really got me thinking about what someone would need to know in order to get a sense of how a higher education system operates and what some of the challenges and opportunities are within that system.
I decided to include indicators that would tell people about:
- Size: overall population, number of students, % of women;
- Money: how wealthy the country is, how much government spends on higher education, how higher education is funded;
- Organization: who are the important actors in this system, how is research organized, how international is the system;
- Big issues: what are some of the recent reforms to higher education, what worries people in that system.
My first thought was to lay out some data in a table by country (my research focus is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan so those are the three countries I used in this exercise). I did this, and it was a helpful exercise in getting clear what the key points were and how these could be summarized on one sheet of paper.
But… it looked boring! (No opportunity for cat pictures in the document either)
So I decided to harness my inner designer and try presenting these facts and stats in an infographic. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these – using images, very small amounts of text, colour, striking design and so on not only to grab attention but to try and present information in a more visually appealing way.
Some hours later and thanks to a free online tool, I had me an infographic. It doesn’t encapsulate everything that was on my fast fact sheet, and nor does it go into any detail e.g. on data sources – but that was part of the point. The idea was to help convey a few very basic ideas about higher education in Central Asia as visually as possible.
If you’re unfamiliar with higher education in these settings, does it give you an idea of how these systems might compare with other countries you know more about?
Are there important facts or figures that I could add which would make the contexts clearer?
Do the choices of images, graphs etc make sense?
I’d love for you to take a look at what I came up with and let me know what you think:
The sages at the Ministry of Education in Tajikistan have decided that PhD candidates in the country should defend their theses in Russian or English [ru]. No official justification has been given for this November 8 announcement by Minister of Education Nuriddin Said.
The only exception would be for theses relating to ethnic and national issues, which would be permitted in Tajik, the national language.
News agency Radio Ozodi speculates that this move could be seen as a way of increasing the global audience for new Tajik knowledge given that there are more Russian and English speakers in the world than Tajik speakers.
On the one hand, there is some logic to this perspective. But on the other hand – and here we have a much bigger second hand – this new regulation appears highly problematic.
Having created its own Higher Attestation Committee (known by the Russian acronym VAK, from Vysshaya Attestatsionnaya Komissiya) with power to approve theses only in 2011, the Tajik government should surely look to this body for proposals on higher degree regulations.
What we’ve seen from the Tajik VAK so far is that it is open to postgraduates defending their work in their mother tongue. For most students these days, that is Tajik. Indeed, most universities now teach in the medium of Tajik, although some offer provision in Russian. Other than the University of Central Asia, I do not believe it is currently possible to study in the medium of English in Tajikistan.
This raises a second objection to the Minister’s ruling: the issue of language. It shouldn’t be assumed that postgrads know either Russian or English, or that they know them well enough to defend a doctoral thesis in another language.
Whilst the point about increasing the the audience for Tajik theses is fair, this would reduce the status of Tajik and Tajik knowledge. It places lower value on Tajik in the national education system at a time when the use of Tajik is rapidly increasing in the country.
One academic interviewed by Radio Ozodi suggested that learning another language should not pose a problem. Language learning, he said, is part of your development. Many people in Tajikistan have knowledge of two languages (a common combination is Tajik and Russian) and those from the Pamir region usually have at least two – their own dialect, Tajik, and then English and/or Russian.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a national predilection for learning languages. Russian, Tajik and English are all quite different from one another: it’s not like, say, French and Spanish or Spanish and Italian which share a number of commonalities.
Another issue is resources. As one current postgraduate noted in the Radio Ozodi article, the time and cost of translating a thesis (assuming you write it in Tajik and then translate to Russian or English) is an “expensive pleasure”. Translating one page of text from Tajik to Russian costs around US$10, so imagine the cost of translating a whole thesis and remember at the same time that the average salary in Tajikistan is a little over US$100.
Radio Ozodi also points out that the number of highly qualified people in Tajikistan is growing, with over 2,500 people holding a Kandidat Nauk (Soviet-era PhD equivalent) and over 200 with a Doktor Nauk (the highest qualification in the Soviet system, similar to the European habilitation).
It doesn’t leap to any connection between the Minister’s ruling and what it sees as a “fashion trend” to a higher qualification, but perhaps makes an implicit assumption that there’s a connection (otherwise, why mention these number and talk about the growth as a “fashion trend”?).
So instead let me leave you with the words of “Librarian”, one of the commentators on the article:
…теперь поняли, что диссертация на таджикском языке дальше нашего аэропорта никуда. ДА ВАК Таджикистана желать остаються лучшего как говорят Русская рулетка кто больше ставит ставки тот и играет. За это время сколько дураков и лжеученых защитились за деньги. Мин образования все молчит и набивает карманы. Нашей стране давно это понять пора!
…now they understand that a dissertation in Tajik won’t get you further than the airport. Yes, Tajikistan’s VAK wants to remain the best [but] as they say, Russian roulette: whoever puts the highest stake will win. And during that time, so many idiots and pseudo-scientists have defended their theses for money. The Ministry of Education keeps quiet and lines its pockets. It’s long been time for our country to understand this!
I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.
So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.
Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.
Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.
That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.
The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.
Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.
Yes, you heard that right.
A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.
A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.
That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.
UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.
Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.
Whether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.
Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.
But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.
During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.
Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.
Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.
The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.
Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.
After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.
This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.
The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.
And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?
The President of Tajikistan (his official title is now somewhat longer and less catchy: The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon) strikes a great pose and can be found in action all over Tajikistan. I’ve saved you the trouble of traipsing around the capital Dushanbe by creating this gallery of posters, taken this summer, purely for your viewing pleasure. No, really, you’re welcome.
It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.
This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.
(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)
In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.
The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:
-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?
-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?
-Can this area satisfy your needs?
-Can you make a living from this area?
The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.
With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.
Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.
The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.
People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.
Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.
The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.
Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.
I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.
Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.
And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.
And so the cycle continues…