Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming state visit to Kyrgyzstan [en], a flurry of announcements and events are celebrating and seeking to extend Kyrgyz-Russian educational relations.
The two countries maintain relatively good ties compared to other Russian-former Soviet bilateral relations.
In terms of language, Russian is still fairly widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has confirmed that Russian will retain its official status [en] in Kyrgyzstan. This helps as Kyrgyzstan sends 16,000 students to study in Russian universities every year. However, students flows between the two countries are not even [en]: only 1,500 Russians come to Kyrgyzstan to study.
The Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University [en/kg/ru] (named after Yeltsin [en], no less) is, I believe, the oldest of the six such bi-national universities, having been established in 1993 following decrees signed as early as 1992. Despite various scandals over the years, it continues to be considered one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
One of the areas for discussion when Putin and Jeenbekov meet will be the countries’ mutual involvement in regional associations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) [en/ru] (Kyrgyzstan currently holds the presidency) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [ru].
This may explain why Jeenbekov, addressing the first Kyrgyzstan-Russia Rectors’ Forum, on March 27, prounounced the need to reinvigorate the common educational space [ru] that had been envisaged by some of the ex-Soviet countries back in the 1990s.
The Forum was attended by 31 Kyrgyz university leaders and 40 of their Russian counterparts. As well as listening to various speeches (see the excitement on the delegates’ faces here [ru]), a raft of bilateral institutional agreements are being prepared for signature during Putin’s visit.
This includes an agreement with Russia’s top higher education institution, Lomonosov Moscow State University. I don’t have the detail of the agreement and whether it goes beyond the usual diplomatic pleasantries, but LMSU’s Rector has suggested that a branch campus [en] be opened in Kyrgyzstan*.
This would point towards much deeper cooperation between the countries more akin to that seen in neighbouring Tajikistan, where there is not only a bi-national Slavic University (opened 1996, not named after Yeltsin) but a branch of LMSU [ru] (founded 2009) as well as several other leading Russian higher education institutions.
Another interesting outcome of the Forum was the suggestion that Kyrgyzstan might join a Moscow-led international university ranking ‘The three university missions‘ [en/ru]. According to the Kyrgyz Minister of Education Gulmira Kudaibergenova, this would allow for a deeper and more objective analysis of the situation of Kyrgyzstan’s higher education institutions and connect them to their global counterparts.
Kyrgyzstan has thus far not dabbled too deeply in the murky world of university rankings. It recently employed a Kazakhstan based organization to set up a national ranking but as yet has not made the same kind of pronouncements that Kazakhstan, Russia and the like have about wanting to push one or more of its universities into the global top 100/200/etc. (I’ve written more about the trials and tribulations of university rankings in Central Asia as part of a comparison with Central & Eastern Europe and Latin America – watch out sometime later this year for that publication.)
Finally, along with the raft of bilateral agreements, expect to hear more about Kyrgyzstan’s involvement with Russian-led regional university associations such as the Eurasian Association of Universities, Shanghai Cooperation Organization Network University and CIS Network University.
These are all attempts to create a regional space where, for example, qualifications are mutually recognized and there are greater opportunities for student and faculty mobility (just like other regional groupings such as the European Union’s Bologna Process). It’s a growing area of interest for the ex-Soviet countries, and very soon I’ll have an exciting announcement to make about higher education regionalism in this space, so watch out for that too.
*Added on March 28: Apparently, LMSU has attempted to open a branch campus in Kyrgyzstan multiple times [ru] since 2004 but has been thawrted each time – not through any fault of Moscow’s, LMSU Rector Sadovnichiy was quick to point out… Maybe the latest attempt will be seventh time lucky.
Just weeks after the release of Uzbekistan’s first national university rankings, it has emerged that the country’s Ministry of Justice has demanded the rankings be annulled.
This is almost unheard of: one state department publicly admonishing another. The Ministry of Justice must have serious concerns to go public with its beef against the Ministry of Higher and Vocational Education and the State Inspection agency that together compiled the rankings.
From the limited information [ru] I have been able to find, the Ministry of Justice has voided the rankings on three main grounds: legal-technical reasons, incorrect use and application of data, and lack of communication.
On the first factor, the Ministry claims that the rankings were not registered with them, nor were they subject to legal review, thus violating the requirements for the adoption of regulations. As such, the rankings cannot have any legal force or be legally binding.
On the second factor, there are claims that data presented in the rankings was either incorrect or misleading:
- The number of international faculty in the rankings are alleged to be incorrect: some universities included what the Australians call FIFO professors (fly-in fly-out i.e. there to teach a particular subject or class rather than based at the institution longer-term) – the implication being that this massaged their rating upwards;
- The rankings are not proportional and value quantity over quality. The use of quantitative indicators favours larger universities, who appear to be doing ‘better’ when measured against e.g. number of faculty members or degree programmes;
- The focus of the rankings was apparently ‘one-sided’, focussing only on research activities (this does not seem to correspond with the indicators I am aware of, which also include items such as ICT resources).
On the point about lack of communication, the Ministry complains that the rankings were not shared with universities before they were published, nor were universities informed that the rankings were going ahead. This is apparently out of line with ‘international standards’ as developed by the Berlin principles on rankings of higher education institutions and the International Ranking Expert Group.
What happens next is unclear. I don’t see any response from the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education, though that may be forthcoming. It is not evident that the rankings have been officially withdrawn, or whether there is any prospect of resolving the issues flagged by the Ministry of Justice and coming up with a revised version.
This bizarre case raises a larger issue about inter-governmental policy coordination, which in this case appears non-existent. Are departments talking with each other; are there forums for them to do so? This is not an Uzbekistan-specific issue, as some of my other research has shown.
The story also demonstrates that rankings are being taken seriously as a policy solution in Uzbekistan. This is shown by the Ministry of Justice taking such interest in the detail of the ranking and in the fact that it is connected to the work of international bodies dealing with rankings.
It would be fascinating to be behind the scenes at the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education right now to see how (if) they are going to take this forward, but unless any reader has inside information to share, we will be limited to what our imaginations might suggest about the current machinations of Uzbek policymaking.
Five years after the government resolved to introduce a national university ranking, Uzbekistan’s first domestic higher education league table was announced in July 2018 [ru].
23 indicators were used to assess state-funded universities and institutes. These covered students’ learning outcomes, curriculum quality, faculty composition, research activity and classroom and ICT resources.
All 57 public higher education institutions (HEIs) were covered by the league table. Foreign branch campuses were not included in the ranking.
Nine of the top ten universities are located in the capital Tashkent with the National University of Uzbekistan unsurprisingly taking the top spot. In the former Soviet system, the ‘National’ university would previously have been the ‘State’ university and was the flagship university in each republic. In parts of the Soviet Union like Uzbekistan which did not have a history of formal higher education, the State universities were often the first to be founded in the republic.
The National University of Uzbekistan, which was upgraded from State to National in 2000, claims 1918 as its founding year, making it the oldest university in the Central Asia region. It has a fantastically interesting history, being born in the glow of revolutionary fervour as the Turkestan People’s University. I won’t get into that now, but check out my 2017 post on Central Asia’s first universities if, like me, university history floats your boat.
My point in mentioning the year of foundation is that – as in many national higher education systems – age is equated with prestige. When you think of a prestigious university in England, you tend to think of Oxford or Cambridge (whether you like them or not). Of course, universities don’t always get better with age, and sometimes a new institution comes along that competes for the top spot. In Kazakhstan, for example, just look at Nazarbayev University, one of my favourite case studies: see posts here, here and here.
Another interesting observation on the top ten is that it is dominated by specialist institutes, with eight out of the ten specializing in a particular area. Four specialize in engineering or technology, two in medicine/allied subjects and two in the humanities. The narrow specialization typical of the Soviet period appears to persist – just take a look at number three on the list.
Without further ado, here are the top ten HEIs in Uzbekistan:
- National University of Uzbekistan
- Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies
- Tashkent Institute of Agricultural Irrigation and Mechanization Engineering
- Tashkent Institute of Textiles and Light Industry
- Samarkand State University
- Tashkent Medical Academy
- Tashkent State Dentistry Institute
- Uzbek State University of World Languages
- Tashkent Institute of Railway Engineering
- Tashkent University of Information Technology
Before signing off (or getting into a discussion about the relative worth of rankings), I should point out that Uznews has also published the HEIs that performed least well in the rankings.
In a reverse of the top 10, almost all of the bottom 10 are located outside Tashkent. There is clearly a centre/periphery divide at play here.
There are also three teaching training (pedagogical) institutes in the bottom ranked group and none in the top 10. During interviews for my PhD thesis, a number of respondents talked about a decline in quality at these institutes in neighbouring settings, and it’s a worrying tendency given that these institutes are producing the teachers who will prepare the university students of the future.
And so, to end, here is that ‘name and shame’ bottom 10:
48. Namagan Engineering and Technology Institute
49. Navoi State Pedagogical Institute
50. Qarshi Engineering and Economics Institute
51. Qarshi State University
52. Jizzakh Polytechnic Institute
53. Samarkand State Architecture and Building Institute
54. Uzbekistan State Institute of Art and Culture
55. National Institute of Arts and Design
56. Jizzakh State Pedagogical Institute
57. Kokand State Pedagogical Institute
A recurring theme for higher education in Central Asia is corruption. A quick search of my blog turns up story after story that I’ve written on this topic and that would only be scratching the surface.
I know this is not only a problem for Central Asia, or even the broader former Soviet space. Just this week I was talking to a friend who’s doing amazing fieldwork in Iraq on the possible future for higher education there, but she too has found that corruption is a significant hindrance to positive change.
It’s not a new problem for Central Asia/former Soviet space either. Despite the ostensible equality of the Soviet period, the hierarchy of universities was well known (Moscow State at the narrow top of a pyramid) and well-connected / politically regime-friendly parents had a much greater chance of getting their child into a ‘top’ university than your everyday farmer or labourer.
This deeply embedded legacy hasn’t stopped Kazakhstan from attempting to claw away at some of the corrupt practices still found in its higher education system. Presumably the policy rationale here is part of the government’s push to ‘modernize’ the country to the point that it becomes a top 30 world economy.
Earlier this year, the State Service and Anti-Corruption Agency in Kazakhstan opened an office embedded in the country’s leading university, Al Farabi Kazakh National University. The office is leading a project called Sanaly Urpaq, which amongst other things is developing a corruption index [ru] for the country’s higher education institutions.
A trial at the National University surveyed students and academics on topics like the extent to which profs embody professional values and the transparency of the educational process.
After analysing all the data, Sanaly Urpaq produced an anti-corruption rating of the departments at the National University which was ‘widely discussed’ at the university’s Academic Board, according to Liter News Agency [ru].
This format of surveys followed by a departmental ranking (the Kazakhs do love their rankings) will now be rolled out across the country. The idea is that this ‘name and shame’ exercise will nudge the country’s higher education institutions into taking concrete measures to combat corruption.
I think this latest ranking exercise is significant because it’s a sign that not only does the government recognize that corruption exists, but that it understands that this is a persistent problem in higher education. The idea of embedding the project office in the country’s leading university is also novel and hopefully will encourage a shared sense of ownership of the need to combat corruption.
I would love to hear from colleagues working in Kazakh universities and institutes to know whether this project is being taken seriously by professors and university management. Both groups absolutely have to be on board for any real change to take place.
I’ve been blogging about higher education in Central Asia for nearly seven years, and it would be great not to have to write about corruption so much! So on this flimsy basis alone, I hope that this project paves the way for reform in Kazakhstan.
With a plethora of institutional offerings, deciding what, where and how to study are perennial questions for prospective students around the world.
Here’s what Yelena Pak of Kazakhstan’s Delovoi [Business] Kazakhstan news agency [ru] suggests you should look out for if you’re going to apply in Kazakhstan.
University rankings are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, which seeks to ‘modernize’ its economy and society and to that end has joined pretty much every quantifiable measure of progress on offer.
Pak notes that Al-Farabi Kazakh National University takes national pride of (236th) place in the global QS World University Rankings. As she notes, this ranks Al-Farabi higher than the University of East Anglia in the UK, Miami U in the US and St Petersburg State University.
A number of other Kazakh universities have ‘progressed well’ in the rankings, says Pak. These include Gumilov Eurasian National University, Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University and Abai National Pedagogical University.
Kazakhstan now has its own national university ranking system produced by the independent Kazakh Quality Assurance Agency. This covers around a third of the country’s universities. Pak suggests that applicants also take a look at these ratings.
Study abroad or at home?
An option taken up by around 10,000 Kazakhs a year is to seek higher education abroad. Most head to neighbouring Russia, which not only shares a border with Kazakhstan but also membership of the Eurasian Economic Union and (for now at least) a common alphabet and language.
Other Kazakh students are scattered around the world, drawn by factors including availability of subjects and specializations that are not offered at home, the chance to study and live in a different culture and so on.
Pak bemoans the lack of information on university websites on the cost of study and living. This would certainly be a helpful addition for applicants who have not yet firmed up their study options.
Whilst tuition fees are now commonplace in Kazakhstan, it is still possible to study for free if you perform well enough on the Unified Entrance Examination. In 2017, the Ministry of Education will be giving out vouchers, the idea being that students can then apply the voucher (effectively a full fee waiver and a guarantee of the student’s high quality) at any institution in the country.
Pak points out that the university rankings Kazakhs are becoming so fond of are not very good at telling you about quality.
By this she infers the quality of the program (course), the depth and breadth of linkages between the university and other partners, and graduate career prospects.
This may be a temporary oversight. With the rush to measure and assess universities, it is surely only a matter of time before university choice in Kazakhstan is spelled out in even more detail.
I wonder, though, whether this will leave prospective students just as confused as they are now, only this time suffering from too much, rather than too little, information!
I welcome the launch of a new bulletin, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB). Published in English by Moscow-based Higher School of Economics as a supplement to International Higher Education [ru], the bulletin aims
to present current Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European educational trends to the international higher education research community.
Aside from boasting the best acronym I’ve come across for a long time, HERB represents an important new regional perspective on higher education, a field that has long been dominated by North American and European-centric views. Further, the Soviet period has left a strong imprint on higher education in the post-Soviet sphere that can sometimes make comparisons with other higher education systems challenging. I hope that this new bulletin will genuinely represent regional views (not just Russian analysis, although I accept that it’s a Russian-led publication and that in terms of quantity, most universities in the region are in Russia).
Of particular interest to my research in the first issue is a short article by Dmitry Semyonov of the Higher School of Economics, which looks at the Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context. The Russian excellence initiative, like similar programmes in Germany and China, represents significant government investment in enhancing quality in a selective number of universities by investing in their research, buying in international faculty and otherwise driving towards recognition in global university rankings.,
Semyonov places post-Soviet government policies on a scale that ranges from ‘environmental’ to ‘selective’. ‘Environmental’ policies broadly support and invest in higher education with a view to encouraging the university system to become more in line with the Bologna Process, i.e. more European in feel and outlook. At the other end are the ‘selective’ state policies that, like Russia, look to develop a small group of universities to compete internationally. Semyonov calls Kazakhstan the most distinctive case in this group with the government’s emphasis on developing a single institution (Nazarbayev University).
In concluding, however, Semyonov notes that a number of countries in the post-Soviet sphere – notably Central Asia and the Caucasus,
have very limited opportunities and are unlikely to launch a program similar to the Russian one. Quality of teaching, equal access to high-quality education, lack of competent staff, and [an] unstable economic basis of higher education are considered to be more pressing issues…
There’s a whiff of the Russian post-colonialist in this concluding statement, but also more than a grain of truth. However, Semyonov might look to a higher education system like Singapore’s or Malaysia’s where the government has (mostly successfully) tackled a number of serious problems in higher education simultaneously, such is their impatience to improve the country’s standing. That said, where those countries prosper, many of the Central Asian and Caucasian states do not, and the ‘unstable economic basis’ seems to me the most compelling barrier to progress in those countries.
Semyonov, D. Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, 1, spring 2014, http://herb.hse.ru/data/2014/05/30/1325398755/1HERB_01_Spring.pdf (accessed 08.07.14)