Did you know that Kazakhstan’s first university was opened in Tashkent – in today’s Uzbekistan?
Or that the its first Rector (Vice-Chancellor) was a final year student?
Or that throughout the Soviet period, there was only ever one university in Kazakhstan’s capital?
All these fun (yes, they are fun!) facts and more can be found in a lighthearted new article by Andrei Mikhailov writing for Kazakhstan’s InformBureau [ru].
The article, which I’ve translated from Russian below, nicely captures the energy and novelty of formal higher education in the early Soviet period.
Lenin’s government couldn’t build institutions fast enough, so Kazakh students (that is, students living on the territory that has since become Kazakhstan) were sent to other parts of the Union, often to the fabulously named Communist Universities.
As an aside, I read an informative article about the Communist Universities earlier this week by Panin and Harlamova КОММУНИСТИЧЕСКИЕ УНИВЕРСИТЕТЫ ДЛЯ НАЦИОНАЛЬНЫХ МЕНЬШИНСТВ Панин Харламова 2012 [ru]. They were set up for “national minorities” and had two purposes: to train political workers for Soviet government work, and to train revolutionaries for other states. Teaching took place in a wide range of languages, from Finnish to Korean. These universities were a short-lived phenomenon, shut down in the second half of the 1930s after Stalin decided that the national question had been solved.
Back to Kazakhstan. Mikhailov suggests that back in the Soviet period, the lack of higher education made it a more valuable commodity than in today’s world of practically universal access to tertiary education. He notes with warm approval that the student to faculty ratio at Kazakh State University was an incredible 2:1 in its initial years, with over half of the faculty bearing Professor or Associate Professor designation. You wouldn’t get that nowadays, Mikhailov wants us to know.
Read on and learn more, and if that’s whetted your appetite for more Central Asian university history, take a look at my previous posts on this topic.
The first Kazakhstani university was opened in Tashket. And its first Rector was a student.
(c) Andrei Mikhailov and Kazakhstan InformBureau; English translation by Emma Sabzalieva
Today, when higher education in Kazakhstan has become widely available (and, it seems, has lost all meaning), it’s a good time to remember how it all began.
Until October 1917 on the territory of modern Kazakhstan, there were only a few gymnasiums [higher schools] (including two in Verny). But there was not a single higher education institution. So until 1928, the highly educated class of Kazakhstanis were trained outside of Kazakhstan.
Our educated intelligentsia were mainly trained in three universities – Turkestan State University, Central Asian Communist University in Tashkent and the Communist Workers University of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. In 1924-25, 927 Kazakhs were trained at Turkestan University, and 100 Kazakh students in Moscow universities.
And our first higher education institute [HEI] – the Kazakh Institute of Education (Kazpedvuz) – was opened in 1926 … in Tashkent. To be fair, it was “especially for Kazakhstan.” It was transferred to Alma-Ata [now Almaty] in 1928 and became the first of our domestic universities – the Kazakh Pedagogical Institute.
Three more HEI followed specializing in veterinary and zootechnical sciences, agricultural sciences and medicine. So, when in 1932 another teacher training institute was established in Uralsk (based on the one transferred from Orenburg), the number of HEIS had grown by five times since 1916!
However, no one at that time could foresee the heyday of higher education that we are witnessing today. Now almost all school leavers are almost automatically enrolling in higher education. Nowadays, wherever you look, you will surely see an academic or someone who can offer some kind of scientific advice. For world science, such an abundance of high-level scientific minds in Kazakhstan is of little importance, but… nevertheless, it’s nice when two seemingly unremarkable Kazakhs meet by chance, and both turn out to be well-known scientists, Doctors of Science [Soviet qualification higher than a PhD], professors, “who made a huge contribution”, etc. etc.
When the first Kazakh Pedagogical Institute was organized in Tashkent, experienced teachers were especially invited from Moscow. (Surprisingly, none refused the invitation!) Among them was, for example, the famous explorer of Central Asia – Professor of Turkology S.E. Malov.
But the most curious thing is that the first rector of Kazpedvuz was… a student, Temirbek Zhurgenov. Zhurgenov studied at SAGU (Central Asian State University), the first HEI in the “Red East”, created five years earlier by the decree of Lenin.
Unlike today’s muddled nomenklatura of “doctors” and self-proclaimed academics, Zhurgenov – even as a student – was very well-known. Even before becoming the rector of Kazpedvuz in his final year of study, he became the plenipotentiary of the Kazakh ASSR in the Republic of Turkestan in his second year. And unlike the rapid career rise of today’s leaders, Zhurgenov’s career development came off the back of a series of good posts – and family money. (It is interesting that Zhurgenov was later also able to find time to Chair the People’s Commissar of Education in Uzbekistan).
The first university in Kazakhstan appeared only in 1934. It was the famous Kazakh State University (KazGU) named after Kirov in the city of Alma-Ata. In the first year, there were only 54 students in its two faculties (physics and biophysics). And for every two students in those years, there was one teacher! And what teachers there were! Amongst the 25 teachers, there were 5 professors and 10 associate professors including those from Moscow State and Kazan State [very prestigious] Universities!
It is interesting that the KazGU was located in the building of the former Verny gymnasium (where Frunze studied). And more interestingly, it was the only university in the capital of the republic all the time that Kazakhstan was part of the USSR. So when students were asked, “Where do you study?”, there was no need to clarify their answer: “At the University!”
As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.
Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.
The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.
As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.
The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.
Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.
‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.
The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.
The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).
These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.
Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.
In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.
Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.
Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.
Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.
Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/higheducation/istoriyaobrazovaniya/.
Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.
Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.
Rifts between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are well documented, particularly in the border areas around the Ferghana Valley. The two most recent disputes that reached the international press came in March 2016 and August 2016. The geographical complexity of this area of Central Asia is visible in the second map below, which places the Ferghana Valley at the heart of these three countries. Here you can begin to see some of the intersections – including nine exclaves, little pockets of land belonging to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan that sit like little islands within another of the three states.
It is rare for politicians in the region to extend overtures aimed at appeasing these tensions. Somehow each spate of conflicts is overcome, but it leaves behind distrust and uncertainty. Yet in a break to what you could call a “new tradition” of non-diplomacy, it has been heartening to see Uzbekistan ostensibly opening up to Tajikistan in recent weeks since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. A relaxation of visa arrangements and better inter-country travel opportunities have been mooted, both of which would represent a significant (and positive) shift in the countries’ relations.
Nonetheless, relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to remain fraught, particularly when it comes to matters pertaining to the Ferghana Valley area. If leaders cannot use politics to overcome these disputes, it seems there might be an opening for other state actors such as universities to make important moves towards engendering better neighbourly relations between the two countries. Academic diplomacy, as this is known, can create a safer space for governments to find ways to work together through what has been called “international meetings of minds“.
This week in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, a delegation from Uzbekistan was welcomed in an initiative led by Osh State University [ru]. This was a return visit after a Kyrgyz delegation went to the Andijan region of Uzbekistan at the start of October, culminating in the signing of a memorandum of cooperation.
The Uzbek delegation, which included Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Adham Ikramov, met with Osh SU students, visited the university’s medical faculty and enjoyed cultural events. Speaking at the university, Ikramov noted that good relations between the two countries should inform the long-term development of their mutual cooperation. In particular, Ikramov noted that Uzbek universities could learn from the way Osh SU has been developing e-learning. Accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister, Rector of (Uzbek) Andijan State University Akram Yuldashev expressed his hopes that the visit would reinforce relations between the countries and bring young people together. This might lead to future cooperation, such as holding conferences or undertaking joint publicity activities.
The clear success of these two visits, at least on paper, gives hope that the strategy of “international meetings of the minds” could prove to be an effective way to start to rebuild trust and common bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
I’m excited to share the results of new original research on corruption in Uzbek higher education, written by Albina Yun. Yun is a graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbek State World Languages University. She is a higher education professional currently working at Westminster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Yun’s research, written up as a policy brief for the OSCE Academy, is a hard-hitting account of the crippling effect of corruption on the quality and accessibility of higher education in Uzbekistan. It is one of very few works in this area: not only in its focus on corruption in the Uzbek context, but also generated by a locally based researcher.
Whilst the Uzbek government took an important step forward by implementing its first anti-corruption action plan in 2015, Yun is quick to point out that corruption in higher education remains systemic, “a massive issue with prejudicial effects” (p. 15). The results of corruption lead to graduates entering the employment market with inadequate academic and professional skills, and hugely undermine the transformative role that higher education can play at individual and societal level. The normalization of corruption both by students and faculty members/administrative staff is a major concern.
Ultimately, as Yun observes, unless measures are taken from the top down to address corruption, the very future of Uzbekistan may be at risk.
After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.
I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:
I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.