A rare story from Turkmenistan [ru] popped up in my inbox recently. Authored by the Russian language website turkmenistan.ru, it describes how a group of university leaders from the country recently visited Romania to discuss expanding their institutional partnerships.
The short article lists a number of agreements being signed between universities in the two countries. From the Turkmen side, the institutions included in these memoranda are the Turkmenistan State Medical University, the Turkmen State Institute of Economics and Management, the Turkmen Agricultural University and the Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction.
The signing of bilateral partnerships between universities in different countries is commonplace in global higher education, so the fact of the agreements isn’t in itself noteworthy.
However, with so little coverage available about higher education in Turkmenistan to those outside the country (and possibly also to those inside the country), this short story nevertheless offers insights into two areas of interest for Central Asia/higher education followers:
- International cooperation – Turkmenistan has chosen to remain notoriously isolated since obtaining independence, although its extensive oil and gas reserves attract significant activity by international firms. Despite occasional incursions onto the global stage, such as hosting the 2017 Asian Games at terrific expense, for the most part, Turkmenistan chooses to organize its own affairs. Higher education largely continues to follow the model inherited from the Soviet period, although efforts are underway to ‘globalize’ some universities in the country*. It is in this light that we should view the recent overseas trip made by a handful of university leaders: a small but perceptible shift towards allowing outside influences into the domestic higher education system. This framing then opens up other questions around what is motivating this growth in international cooperation, and what the intended purposes of institutional agreements are (the article does not give details on the agreements that were signed last month).
- Choice of partner – it’s impossible to draw conclusions from the limited information in the article, but I would speculate that the choice to partner with universities in Romania was deliberate. Romania and Turkmenistan share aspects of the socialist/communist higher education legacy but unlike Turkmenistan, Romania is a member of the European Union and has sought to rapidly internationalize higher education since joining the EU in 2007 (for more, download this free book on higher education reforms in Romania). For Turkmenistan’s universities, this offers not only a mutually understandable starting point, but a foothold into the European higher education area. There are a range of EU projects connecting Turkmenistan to Europe, and education is one of the EU’s priority areas. So it makes sense to seek out a ‘friendly’ partner who might also help Turkmenistan as and when it makes deeper incursions into the European higher education space.
*If you cannot access this article but would like to read it, please contact me. Where possible, I link to open access materials.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Call for papers – “Global Bolognaization”: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
Are you a Central Asia based academic or practitioner with direct experience of the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area? If so, we want to hear from you!
I am co-Chair of a proposal for a roundtable at the European Consortium of Political Researchers (ECPR) General Conference, which will be held in August 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.
The roundtable is called:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The call for papers is below and attached: CfP Global Bolognaization – ECPR 2018_forcirculation. Please share widely with your networks.
Paper proposals are due by January 10, 2018.
Call for proposals
Within the ECPR Section Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, we invite proposals for a roundtable on:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The Bologna Process has now spread far beyond the borders of the European Union, a process we call Global Bolognaization. This makes it critical to understand how European higher education ideas and reforms are being transferred to other settings and what impact this is having in these expanded spaces.
This roundtable focuses on the ways in which the Bologna Process is impacting the region of Central Asia and its constituent countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All five states have been engaging with the Bologna Process for some time: Kazakhstan has been a full member of the the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since 2010; European-inspired reforms in the other Central Asian states are either ongoing or currently in the process of being implemented. Yet Central Asia is currently on the periphery of the EHEA, not just geographically but in terms of academic/practitioner research.
As such, the purpose of this roundtable is to bring the Central Asian experience of Global Bolognaization to the fore. As far as possible, presentations at this roundtable will be by academics and practitioners with first-hand experience of the EHEA as it is being encountered in Central Asia. We welcome research based case studies of how the Bologna Process has impacted individual or groups of higher education institutions, faculty members, students, and the public; comparative studies between and beyond institutions and/or Central Asian states; and reflective studies on the prospects of the Bologna Process in Central Asia.
All proposals for this roundtable must have an analytical component, even if they are empirical studies. Where appropriate, participants should draw on a theoretical or conceptual framework that is a suitable match for the Special Interest Group’s theme of the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.
We will select up to five papers for inclusion in this roundtable.
At the conference, each presenter will give a brief presentation (5-7 minutes) and must submit a short paper before the conference (2,000-3,000 words, in English). After the presentations, there will be a moderated discussion between the presenters and the audience lasting around one hour.
The roundtable will be conducted in English.
How to apply
Title of your paper:
Abstract (300-500 words):
Keywords (3-8) indicating the subject, theme and scope of the paper:
Presenter’s email address:
If you have a co-author(s), please also include their name(s), email address(es) and institution(s).
Late or incomplete applications will not be accepted.
Dr Aliya Akatayeva, Head, Social Studies Department, Satbayev Research University, Kazakhstan; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Section abstract for the Special Interest Group Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation
Knowledge policies are at the forefront of contemporary global politics and are seen as the foundation on which societies coalesce and economies thrive. This Section builds on the previous six Sections on the Europe of Knowledge and invites contributions to consider the various dimensions of knowledge policy development.
Specifically, we are interested in theoretical, empirical, and comparative contributions that investigate the role of politics and policy in the global, multi-level, multi-issue, and multi-actor governance of knowledge. By role, we refer to effects that ideas, actors (both individual and organisational), policy instruments/mixes, and institutions have had on the governance of knowledge, and vice-versa. We focus on roles to enable a multidisciplinary discussion on whether these factors share defining characteristics across different knowledge policy domains (i.e. research, higher education, and innovation), and between distinct governance levels and geographical regions.
This Section continues to welcome scholars, globally, from all theoretical and methodological approaches to critically discuss the reconfiguration of knowledge systems around the world.
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?
Here’s a transcription (though not a literal translation) of a very informative 8 minute video from Radio Ozodi [ru]. It shows a growing interest in studying abroad, but the programme has a clear moral drive behind its interesting content – see the last paragraph. Makes me wonder if the Kazakh government didn’t inspire the piece: the state provides excellent funding for its young people in the form of Bolashak scholarships but the programme notes that more than half of the 10,000+ scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan (which is a condition of the award). Brain drain alert?
Emma’s transcription. Original video can be found at http://rus.ozodi.org/media/video/25299778.html, (c) Radio Ozodi, 12.03.2014
In Kazakhstan, the Bolashak scholarship competition is now open. Thousands of ambitious young people will apply for funding to study in Europe, USA and China. And across Central Asia, study abroad isn’t just a sign of quality and reputation but an investment in their future. The programme discusses the possibilities of studying abroad.
Abu Bakri Saidullo is studying in Dresden, Germany. He wants to graduate with distinction before returning to Tajikistan where he plans to run a business. “We get really up to date knowledge here. I don’t think you can get that kind of knowledge in universities at home,” he says. Abu Bakri is self-funding his studies. The cost per semester is €250 which covers tuition and six months of accommodation in halls of residence.
There are also plenty of opportunities for talented students to obtain funding to study abroad. 30 year old Ilkhom Aslanov from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has studied in India and Japan and is now in Germany. He comes from a modest background and couldn’t have afforded to self-fund his studies. He says there is a good choice of institutions in Germany and that influenced his decision to apply. The application process was quite cumbersome but in the end he was awarded a grant by DAAD (https://www.daad.de).
Young people in Turkmenistan, however, prefer to study in former Soviet countries and Turkey, mainly for language reasons. Eliza Kenenbaeva is completing her studies at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her studies are funded by the Soros Foundation which is why she took up her place, but she says that other Turkmen students are attracted by the low fees and proximity of AUCA to their home country. She also says that it helps that the educational systems are similar, as are Turkmen and Kyrgyz languages.
Although the number of Turkmen students in Kyrgyzstan has fallen in recent years due to travel restrictions on Turkmen citizens, they continue to be attracted by the low cost of study ($2-3,000) and the absence of a language barrier.
The criteria for obtaining a scholarship to study abroad, which the commentator points out is the only way to study abroad without cost, can include:
- Academic achievements
- Research and academic potential
- Leadership qualities
- Financial situation
Aynura Chollonkulova, a Bishkek-based careers adviser, says that funding bodies will also consider your personal characteristics. Students initially want to base their choice by the country they want to study in, but she and her experienced consultants advise them instead to focus on their area of specialisation.
In Kazakhstan, the state-funded Bolashak scholarship programme has enabled more than 10,000 Kazakh students to study abroad over the last 20 years. More than 6,000 of them have already completed their studies. The aim of the programme is to train highly qualified specialists who can work at an international level.
Scholars have to return to Kazakhstan and work for at least five years for any public or private sector company or the state as a condition of the funding. However, according to official figures, more than 50% of scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan.
Gulzira Amanturlina did her Master’s at LSE, one of the best universities in the world. She then returned to Kazakhstan where she pursued a career in banking. She says she found work in a bank straight away after graduating, and that she was able to put into practice what she learnt in London. She was promoted to Director in 2010. Now she runs Eldani, a non-governmental organisation working with disabled people. Her work on social entrepreneurship and charity developed from what she learnt when studying abroad.
So, studying abroad provides a launching pad for your career – but it isn’t always a guarantee of success. Much depends on what you want to get from it: are you doing this just to live abroad, or do you want to obtain valuable knowledge and experience? It shouldn’t just be the scholar that benefits, but society as a whole.