Uzbekistan

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.

The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.

Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.

Hm. Something’s not quite right here.

It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?

As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!

Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.

The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.

Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.

In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.

This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.

Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.

This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.

DIY budgeting: The self-financing experiment in Uzbekistan's universities begins

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Further to my December 2019 post, An Uzbek experiment, the new do-it-yourself funding model for 10 of the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs) has now come into force. All 10 will be under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education to ensure that prices don’t jump too high, too fast and that standards don’t slip – and most importantly, as one news agency points out, to prevent corruption slipping in.

If cats could account for themselves…

So, as of January 1, 2020, the HEIs, a mix of universities and specialized institutes, are now able to:

  • Set their own tuition fees
  • Introduce new Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees
  • Continue to receive state funding for some students
  • Decide how their institutional budget will be split

This last point is one of the most important, although not getting as much press attention as the excitement generated by the possibility of new courses / fear that fees will be hiked.

Why? Because until now, all HEIs in Uzbekistan had to conform to the rigid model imposed by the government: 46.8% on salaries, 33.1% on scholarships, 11.5% on budget deductions (i.e. retained by the government) and 8.6% on other expenses. So now, if one of the 10 DIY-HEIs wants to increase faculty salaries, buy more computers or offer more student funding, it can do so.

Next door in Tajikistan, where I have been doing interviews with university-based researchers, this self-financing model and the flexibility it provides to set your own budget is seen as a very positive move for the woefully underpaid academics still committed to the academic cause. In Tajikistan (as in some other former Soviet countries), self-financing is offered to universities that obtain ‘national’ status. So far only one university of 35 in Tajikistan has this, but there are others that are keen to upgrade both for reputational purposes and financial flexibility.

An Uzbek experiment: Self-financing for universities

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Hot on the heels of being awarded The Economist’s ‘Most Improved Nation‘ in 2019 and just ahead of parliamentary elections that may pave the way for future steps towards political openness, the government of Uzbekistan is not resting on its laurels.

Uzbek HEIs demand to be given all the bills

In early December it was announced that ten higher education institutions (HEIs) in Uzbekistan (of a total of 74) will be part of an experimental reform that will see them become self-financing. This is a huge shift from the top-down state-centric way that public HEIs have been funded and governed until now.

The HEIs, listed below, were chosen because of their “high research and teaching potential, financial stability, adequate resource base and high demand for their courses”, according to a post by the Ministry of Justice.

As of January 1, 2020, the HEIs will be allocated “additional tasks” that will enable them to earn income from non-state sources. These include expanding course options, offering professional development courses and introducing other paid services.

This experimental reform is part of a Presidential Decree signed on 11 July 2019 that is called ‘Measures to Introduce New Principles of Governance in the Higher and Technical and Vocational Education System’.

Many new principles, and still no sign of the Uzbek energy for reform flagging…

List of HEIs to shift to self-financing on an experimental basis from 2020:

  1. Samarqand State University of Foreign Languages
  2. Samarqand Institute of Economics and Service
  3. Tashkent State University of Law
  4. Tashkent State University of Economics
  5. Tashkent Institute of Finance
  6. Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies
  7. Tashkent Institute of Pharmacy
  8. Uzbek State University of World Languages
  9. Urgench State University
  10. Tashkent Institute of Railway Engineering

International students on the rise in Kazakhstan

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cat не понял на казахском
“I didn’t understand it in Kazakh” says the Russian language international cat student

In 2019, over 25,000 international students chose to study abroad in Kazakhstan. This figure is up from 16,000 last year, an impressive year-on-year increase of 64%.

According to the Ministry of Education and Science, most international students come from India, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

The Ministry believes that one reason for the growth is that universities in Kazakhstan have been given greater academic freedom including the ability to offer double degrees i.e. degrees jointly offered by a university in Kazakhstan and one abroad. The implication of this shift is that international students may be more attracted to study in Kazakhstan on the basis that they’ll end up not only with a degree from the Kazakh side, but from its foreign partner too.

Impressive as these figures are, they pale in comparison to the 70,000 Kazakh students who are currently studying outside the country. Most of them – as is the case with many other former Soviet countries – head to Russia.

Thus, for the time being, Kazakhstan remains a net exporter of international students, despite aspirations to become a regional education hub.

Getting around the law to get in to university in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

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cat breaking law
Cats are above the law

Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.

All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.

In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.

This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.

To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.

Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.

Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.

The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.

So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.

More changes at the top of Uzbekistan’s universities

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cat meme so listen
So listen… this corruption stuff… it’s not going to work out any more

Following the firing of the Rector of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ in August 2019, another university leader has been shown the door.

Rector Bahodyr Khodiev of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE) was suspended in November 2019 on the grounds of corruption. Details of Khodiev’s alleged activities have not been made public, but this very high profile removal comes as part of the Uzbekistan government’s drive for greater transparency during the university admissions process, which now carries ‘severe penalties’ for those who violate the process.

Khodiev had been at TSUE since May 2016, although this was not his first stint there as Rector.  He had previously also been in charge prior to moving over to several senior government positions in 2010.

Khodiev has been replaced by Kongratbay Sharipov who has come over from the Ministry of Higher and Professional Education to take charge at TSUE. Sharipov left school at 15 to work as a mechanic, turning to teaching in the late 1980s and turning fully to academia as Uzbekistan became independent in the 1990s. In the 2000s he appears to have combined academic work with business operations – in 2009 alone he had positions as both the general manager of new projects at GM Uzbekistan and was briefly the rector of Turin Polytechnic University!

Watch this space to see who’s next to go in the anti-corruption drive in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan: A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system

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My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.

Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:

UZBEKISTAN

A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system

The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.

These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.

In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.

Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.

However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.

Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.

According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.

Interest from Russia and Asia

It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.

Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.

With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.

The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.

There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.

The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.

The speed of reform

Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.

Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.

The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.

In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.

Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.

Ongoing challenges

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.

Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).

This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.

A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.

Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.