Uzbekistan

Politics is back (on the curriculum) in Uzbekistan

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Fortunately, students in Uzbekistan soon will

Uzbekistan watchers must be exhausted with the near-constant flow of news about reforms in the country, but as the reforms appear to be supporting people in the country to live better and happier lives, this is a fatigue worth accepting.

I’ve written a summary of the reforms that are affecting higher education and about a wave of new higher education institutions with plans to open. That post already has three updates based on additional news releases – a good indication of the scale and speed of change.

The latest announcement is that politics – political science for the North Americans among you – is to make a return to the university curriculum [en] later in 2019. Admissions to politics courses stopped in 2010, teaching ended in 2013 and the subject was banned in 2015 under the previous Uzbek President, who decreed it a ‘pseudoscience’. (no snarky comments from natural scientists, please!)

Politics will be back on the menu at the state-run University of World Economy and Diplomacy [ru] (UWED) from autumn/fall 2019. 20 lucky school leavers will get to join the undergraduate class, 25% of whom will also get a state scholarship to pay for their studies. UWED will also take ten students for an Applied Politics Master’s degree (20% to be funded) and a handful of PhD and Doctor of Science students too.

The presidential decree may seem unexpected, but experts have been advocating for the lifting of the ban for some time. Professor Alisher Faizullaev, a Professor at UWED, wrote in June 2017 in defence of politics [ru], pointing out the subject’s long roots in Uzbekistan and around the world. He argues that the need for political analysis had never gone away and that it would be in the country’s strategic interests to now bring the subject back.

As UWED prepares to admit its new students in the coming months and as Uzbekistan watchers consider just how much caffeine another year of reform will require, Professor Faizullaev’s parting words in his 2017 article [ru] are worth repeating:

Но есть одно очень важное условие для адекватного развития политологии в любой стране. Политология должна быть наукой, а не проявлением идеологии или конъюнктурных соображений. Государство и общество только выиграют, если политология будет развиваться именно как независимая наука.

But there is one very important condition for political science to develop appropriately – in any country. Political science must be a science, not a display of ideology or opportunism. State and society can only benefit if political science develops as an independent science.

A wave of new higher education institutions for Uzbekistan

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In a post in September 2018, I detailed the extensive reforms being undertaken or planned for Uzbekistan’s higher education system. The reforms cover everything from legislation to recognize (and encourage the growth of) privately operated universities and institutes to new government funding streams to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

2018 was also an important year for higher education in Uzbekistan with the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest university, now called the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan [ru]. History buffs can read more about the formalization of higher education in Central Asia in my May 2017 post.

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Proposed new staffing structure for branch campuses in Uzbekistan

One of the main outcomes of the rapid reforms undertaken in 2018 seems to be a new wave of institutional growth. Although it’s been less than four months since I published my post on reforms in Uzbekistan, I have read a number of news stories and press releases about the opening of new higher education institutions (HEI) in the country.

For the most part, these new institutions are branch campuses of foreign universities. Branch campuses are relatively low risk, high return propositions for the host country and for the home university.

Students get their degree from the home university without necessarily ever having to go to the main campus (although there are usually options for exchanges and visits) and have the comfort of knowing that the degree comes from an established institution with a good (almost always) reputation.

Whilst the university will have to invest in infrastructure and resources, it’s a great deal less effort to run a small campus – often with 1,000 students or fewer – and to import pre-existing courses and materials than to build an institution from scratch. For the host country, expanding international branch campuses is an easy way to tick the ‘are you internationalizing your higher education system’ box that everyone seems to have on their to-do list.

Uzbekistan has long been home to international branch campuses, from the UK’s Westminster University to Italian Turin Polytechnic University and South Korean Inha University. For many years, these were the only permissible forms of private higher education. Now, they are being joined by a number of other campuses, diversifying the system further.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent shared history, Russia is steaming ahead with at least six new branch campuses [ru]. This more than doubles the current number of Russian branch campuses in Uzbekistan (four). Many of these are extremely well known and have excellent reputations, so it is not a trivial matter that they are deciding to set up shop in Uzbekistan:

As well as the Russians, the Koreans are also increasing their presence in the country [ru] by opening a campus of Ajou University, a top engineering institution. India is set to open its first Uzbek campus [ru], a branch of well-known Amity University. And there are ongoing rumours about unnamed French and British institutions [ru] expressing their higher education interests too.

In the future, I expect to see the direction of travel flip, and for new privately run and operated HEIs to be opened by domestic actors. This might be Uzbeks with international experience and/or education, or perhaps these new institutions will be a mix of state initiated and privately run, along the lines of a number of HEIs in Kazakhstan.

A first step in the homegrown diversification of higher education is already underway, with reports that a new joint Uzbek-Belarusian institute will open in 2019 [ru]. It will be based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and will focus on applied courses. In turn, ongoing educational cooperation between the two states will also be marked by a new joint faculty in Tashkent. This will be run by the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics with the Tashkent University of Information Technology.

I expect there will be more to report on new HEIs in Uzbekistan soon!

**Update: January 26, 2019** My prediction that there would be more to report soon has already proven correct. Sputnik Uzbekistan has just issued a story saying that China will be opening a multi-faculty university in Tashkent [ru]. No details yet about who exactly ‘China’ is, whether this will be a bi-national university or a branch campus, but it’s a really interesting development to see China involved in providing higher education outside its own borders. This will be, I believe, the first Chinese presence beyond Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.

**Update 2: January 27, 2019** And here’s more on this already! Now Malaysia is getting in on the act, planning to open a branch of the Technological University of Malaysia in Khorezm [ru]. This is another exciting development, as it brings a well-established and well-ranked institution to Uzbekistan and more importantly, shifts the focus away from the capital Tashkent.

**Update 3: February 7, 2019** Webster University (USA) will be offering an MBA in Uzbekistan from the 2019/20 academic year after its President signed an agreement with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the US. And, while not necessarily leading to a new institution, Tashkent University of Information Technology has signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with East Kazakhstan State Technical University [ru], meaning that Uzbekistan’s ‘near abroad’ neighbours are getting in on the act too.

Resit required: Uzbekistan university rankings declared invalid

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Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice says no to the first national university rankings

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.

Higher education reforms in Uzbekistan

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Once the ball of higher education reform has started rolling, where will the chasing end?

In an interview with Gazeta.uz [ru] published on 18 September, Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Aziz Abdukhakimov offers some insights into higher education reforms in the country. The list is impressively long, indicative of broader reform trends taking place across government and in society as a whole.

In higher education, I’ve already flagged Uzbekistan’s growing interest in cooperation with neighbour and former arch-enemy Tajikistan, the release of the first national university ranking and the role of higher education in the country’s international relations.

Now let’s add to those efforts the reforms described by Abdukhakimov earlier this week:

  • Autonomy – there’s a proposal for Rectors (Vice-Chancellors) to be elected by faculty under an open vote. This makes the state one step further away, and the open voting is intended to avoid the possiblity of what Abdukhakimov calls ‘clan politics’ entering the higher education system. However, Abdukhakimov notes that the state will retain the right to veto the choice of Rector in state universities, so let’s not get carried away with too many ideas about academic freedom and the like;
  • Decentralization – universities are to bring in their own managers to deal with finance and local administration, and should establish governing bodies (usually called boards of trustees in former Soviet systems) to oversee their affairs;
  • Expansion – universities will be allowed to recruit more students (within the limit of the number of faculty they have and capacity of their facilities – classrooms, dormitories etc) and offer a wider range of course ‘in order to respond to the demands of the market more flexibly’;
  • Income – connected to the point on expansion above, universities will be able to admit students who did not achieve the required admissions test score by charging them tuition at between 1,5 and 3 times the amount of the regular fee. Whilst Abdukhakimov does not encourage universities to admit students who did not meet the requirements [ru], it’s hard to see how the prospect of extra income that these ‘super-contract’ [ru] students will bring with them will deter HEIs;
  • Privatization – the legal system will recognize private higher education institutes (HEIs) and the government is planning tax breaks and other incentives to encourage more such HEIs to open. The government also wants to encourage more public-private partnership HEIs e.g. by offering state-owned buildings for privately run use;
  • Internationalization – the country wants more international students and has ambitions – rather like Kazakhstan – to become a regional education hub. Abdukhakimov asserts that these international students will then return home to be brand ambassadors for Uzbekistan, ‘which is very advantageous for the country’s image’;
  • Choice – new admissions processes will be introduced allowing prospective students to apply earlier and to more HEIs than the current system permits;
  • Access – the state will fund a small number of students from disdvantaged or rural backgrounds to attend privately run universities (a grant system already exists in publicly funded HEIs). Former military personnel will be able to get funding from a specific grant scheme rather than applying to the main grant pot;
  • Commercialization – the state is going to invest in 80 HEIs and provide free places so that they can turn into what Abdukhakimov calls ‘Universities 3.0’. Beyond teaching and research (as making up 1.0 and 2.0 if you want to think about it like that), these HEIs will emphasize the commercialization of knowledge – so I’m imagining the government is thinking of US models like Stanford or MIT that has many highly successful spin-off companies and opportunities for students to be involved in social and business entrepreneurship.

The interview is followed by a fairly lively discussion which mainly focusses on the financial aspects. The idea of ‘super-contracts’ [ru] is new and is quite clever if you think about it from the government’s point of view. By legitimizing practices they know are already happening (I too have heard about this in other universities in neighbouring countries – e.g. you pay a ‘double contract’ – two years’ fees – for the first year of study if you didn’t quite make the grade), the state gets to take the credit for giving HEIs more flexibility and income, all the while arguing that this low stakes because if the students aren’t smart enough to make the admissions cut-off, they’ll probably drop out – but not before paying at least a year’s worth of fees. But on the other hand, as one commentator suggests: “The name ‘super-contract’ makes it sound like an achievement, but really it’s just a straight path into university for rich idiots’.

There’s an awful lot to digest in this short summary of the Uzbekistan government’s plans, and it’s an exciting time for those of us (OK, for me!) interested in how higher education is changing in the Central Asia region. Almost all of what Abdukhakimov is proposing puts Uzbekistan squarely in the growing group of nations seeking to conform to what they see as ‘global best practices’ in higher education, which basically means attempting to emulate the US research university system and neoliberal funding models where higher education is seen as primarily a private good.

Many of the ideas for reform are also underway in neighbouring countries, although as far as I know, the ‘super-contract’ is unique to Uzbekistan. I’m planning to discuss the prospects for regional integration in the Central Asian higher education systems in a future blog post, and something I will consider there is the extent to which the convergence on the type of reforms being pursued helps or hinders those prospects.

There’s much more to say about the direction Uzbekistan is choosing to travel in when it comes to higher education, but that’s enough for today.

Uzbek-Tajik higher education relations are warming up

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Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev and Tajikistan’s Rahmon – new BFFs??

The honeymoon period of Uzbekistan’s now not-so-new President Mirziyoyev just keeps on going. Even hardened critics of what was once a solidly authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan are having to admit that the reform-driven new leader, who took the reins after the death of longstanding President Karimov following his death in December 2016, may be serious about making serious and positive change in the country.

I have already reported on a historic recent trip by Mirziyoyev to the United States as one indication of the country’s new openness and readiness to engage with the world.

Today, I want to focus on Uzbekistan’s relations with neighbour Tajikistan. Historically frosty at best, the two countries mainly seem to disagree about water and borders – but of course the relationship is more complex than that. Yet in recent months, international roads that have long been closed are beginning to open and there are a small but growing number of direct flights between the two countries. There is a buzz around the possibilities for bilateral tourism and trade, the turnover of which has already doubled.

Following a state visit by Mirziyoyev to Tajikistan this March, his Tajik counterpart Rahmon has this week made a return visit. The agenda for the two day visit was wide-ranging, with talks and agreements planned spanning commerce to music. It was the first official visit by a Tajik leader to Uzbekistan since 1998, according to news agency Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In the field of education, bilateral relations have been warming up since before this week’s official state visit. At the start of this month, an agreement between Tajikistan’s top ranked National University and Uzbekistan’s Samarqand State University was signed. It’s quite a broad agreement to cooperate on research, but is an important addition to Tajik National University’s existing partnerships with states universities in the Uzbek cities of Andijon, Ferghana and Tashkent.

Hopefully the relationships between universities and colleges in both countries will continue to improve, paving the way for greater exchanges of people and ideas. And improving cooperation in education may also help underpin a strong foundation for the countries’ broader bilateral relations.

A good news story to end the week!

Uzbekistan releases first university ranking

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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.

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Super cute kittens all round for Uzbekistan’s top HEIs

Without further ado, here are the top ten HEIs in Uzbekistan:

  1. National University of Uzbekistan
  2. Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies
  3. Tashkent Institute of Agricultural Irrigation and Mechanization Engineering
  4. Tashkent Institute of Textiles and Light Industry
  5. Samarkand State University
  6. Tashkent Medical Academy
  7. Tashkent State Dentistry Institute
  8. Uzbek State University of World Languages
  9. Tashkent Institute of Railway Engineering
  10. 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

Uzbek university leader makes fresh appeal for civil rights to be restored after fighting unjust dismissal for over a decade

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Professor Khidinizar Allakulov, former Rector of Termez State University and victim of human rights violations. Photo (c) Sputnik Uzbekistan

Imagine you were unjustly accused of massive corruption and fired from your job. It’s an indignity. But then imagine that you’ve been fighting for well over a decade in no fewer than 14 courts to clear your name, each time with an unsatisfactory ending – or simply no real conclusion at all.

During that time, you haven’t been able to find work in your area of expertise, you’ve been prevented from joining professional associations, and your family have been affected.

This is the incredible situation that Professor Khidirnazar Allakulov, former Rector of Termez State University in Uzbekistan, has found himself in since being fired in 2004.

It also represents a blatant and prolonged abrogation of his human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee which reviewed his case in late 2017 held that:

 

Uzbekistan failed to implement domestic judgments upholding Professor Allakulov’s right to retraction. This failure deprived him of the possibility to rehabilitate his reputation, honour and dignity, violating his rights under article 17 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

This is from UN Human Rights on Facebook – not a source I would normally use, but it’s a very clear and compellling summary of the full UN Human Rights Committee findings available in five languages including Russian and English.

The story begins in 2002 when Allakulov was appointed as Rector of Termez State University. Within three years he was fired on the basis of allegations made in a national newspaper branding him a criminal and accusing him of defraduing the university [ru].

Professor Allakulov claims that during his short tenure as Rector, he actually rooted out some of the corrupt activity at his institution. He provided evidence to local authorities on nearly 1,000 students who had somehow managed to enrol at Termez State despite not having achieved the required entrance exam grade (some had not even taken the exam at all). Furthermore, he says he made the admissions requirements fairer and ensured that entry to the university was strictly on the basis of the entrance exam results. He also managed to return $600,000 of university money that had been ciphoned off or stolen by officials at the institution.

And these actions, he suspects, are what led to his rapid downfall.

Although he was acquitted in every single one of the 14 court cases held at district, regional and national levels, Allakulov has been unable to satisfactorily clear his name. His aim remains to have his honour, dignity, and professional reptuation restored, according to an article published this week in Sputnik Uzbekistan [ru].

Allakulov states in the Sputnik article that he has written to the President and state officials 12 times since 2006, but is uncertain that his appeals have reached the head of state.

He is counting on a recent fresh appeal to President Mirziyoyev, who took over from long-time post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov in December 2016, and hopes that it will fall on more sympathetic ears.

This does seem to be a time of renewed optimism for Uzbekistan, and I reported last week on the prospects for higher education following the state visit of the Uzbek President to the US, the first since 2002. Earlier this week, human rights supporters celebrated the visit of the first delegation of Amnesty International into Uzbekistan since 2004.

In this case, I truly hope that Mirziyoyev lives up to the nascent reputation he is building for greater openness and tolerance in Uzbekistan and agrees to the long overdue restoration of Professor Allakulov’s civil and political rights.