Uzbekistan

International Women’s Day: Celebrating female success, still marching for progress

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If cats did celebrations… PS Women: you don’t need a cat to be successful. But you knew that already.

8th March saw the annual marking of International Women’s Day (IWD), which is a formal opportunity to celebrate female success on the one hand, but also a time to lament the continued global persistence of male-dominated structures and norms, and to work on ways to reverse this situation.

IWD has developed and gained prominence since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century, and was a firm fixture in the Soviet calendar.

IWD continues to be celebrated around the former Soviet space to this day. I particularly enjoyed the Moscow Times’ Buzzfeed-friendly feature ‘5 Russian Women You Haven’t Heard Of But Should Have‘. (Check out number 5!).

Over in Uzbekistan, the local Sputnik news agency ran with a story about Gulchehra Rikhsieva, currently the only female Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of a higher education institution in the country. Rikhsieva heads Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, having worked there since 2000 and assuming the leadership in 2019 after a short spell in government as Deputy Chair of the Senate Committee on Science, Education and Healthcare. She is a member of the Republican Commission on Gender Equality and the national Higher Education Council.

In an interview with Rikhsieva, she brings up some of what has become the ‘new normal’ in Uzbekistan’s higher education – rapid reforms, university rankings, competition, internationalization and so on. So far, so on message.

But a couple of the questions really grate, undermining everything Rikhsieva has to say about her plans for the university, the future for Uzbekistan, and so on. Could you ever imagine a male Rector being asked ‘How compatible is your role as a Rector with your family responsibilities? How do you cope with managing the university and household chores?’, or ‘Do female Rectors accept male Rectors? Isn’t it difficult for them to work with you?’

I didn’t think so.

Next door in Kyrgyzstan, women leaders of a different kind have also been facing both gendered and physical barriers. A women’s march on March 8 was initially banned by local authorities and then permitted to proceed, but then got cut off and assaulted by a group of masked men. Things turned from bad to worse when the police, who had been waiting in the background, arrested around 70 people who had been attacked.

Yes, that’s right. Not the attackers. The victims of the attacks. They were arrested.

The country that was once touted as the island of democracy is rapidly sinking under the weight of a shift to a set of norms that normalize so-called ‘traditions’ like bride kidnapping, permit abuse against women, and ban the expression of female issues.

The brilliant Kyrgyzstan-based movement Bishkek Feminist Initiatives calls for the development of feminist values in Kyrgyzstan and beyond, solidarity and respect for fairness and human rights, and the creation of a feminist space that will increase rights and opportunities for women and girls.

There are many ways we can do this, as individuals and by working together. Let me ask you to take the time to work out what (more) you can do. Even if you don’t think you can do much on your own, there is always somewhere to start.

It could be by supporting an organization involved in education and training for women or girls (as you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the Kyrgyz Space Program). It could be by educating yourself on the key issues faced by women and girls in Central Asia and around the world. It could be by amplifying the voices of females, whether that’s at a work meeting or on social media.

We all need to stand up and take action to end inequality against women and girls, and create a world where anyone can be and do anything.

You’re fired: 10 university heads lose their jobs in Uzbekistan

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There was no love lost this Valentine’s Day as ten university leaders in Uzbekistan were fired

It was not an auspicious Valentine’s day for ten of Uzbekistan’s university leaders this year, with several newspapers running a story with the tantalizing title ‘10 university Rectors lose their jobs in one day‘ on February 14.

If previous leadership changes are anything to go by (see e.g. Tashkent State University of Law, Tashkent State University of Economics), there is probably more to this than the bureaucrat’s favourite reason: “they reached pensionable age”.

Hints at the reasons for the mass removals came during a meeting between the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and industry, university and research representatives at the end of January. Mirziyoyev was scathing in his criticism:

In the coming days, we’re going to fire a number of Rectors. According to information I have here, these Rectors aren’t even worthy of being security guards at their university. They lack knowledge, education, patriotism and the ability to do their job.

Ouch.

Mirziyoyev also said that throwing these leaders in jail wouldn’t end the corruption that remains endemic in Uzbekistan’s higher education. The whole environment needs to be changed. True.

The universities involved in the February 14 changes at the top are:

Tashkent State Pedagogical University

Jizzakh State Pedagogical Institute

Navoi State Pedagogical Institute

Namagan State University

Tashkent Chemical-Technological Institute

Karshi Institute of Engineering and Economics

Namagan Institute of Civil Engineering

Kokand State Pedagogical Institute

Tashkent District branch of Astrakhan State Technical University

Tashkent State Dental Institute

Samarkand State Medical Institute

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.