Russia’s soft power influence over Uzbekistan has increased in recent years with the soaring number of students looking to enter Russian universities.
Looking to capitalize on that, a group of universities have been holding educational fairs in three cities of Uzbekistan — Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara — over the past week. The final two-day fair will conclude in Bukhara on April 27.
Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Vladimir Tyurdenev, said that more than 4,000 Uzbek students had entered institutes of higher education in Russia in the 2016 academic year, according to a report by Sputnik on April 22.
Opening the Tashkent fair, Viktor Shulika, the head of the local branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian state agency ostensibly intended as an analogue of USAID, said that interest among Uzbek youths wanting to study in Russia has been increasing fast.
There are currently 21,642 Uzbeks studying in Russian colleges. In 2015 alone, 24 colleges in Russia admitted 10,572 pupils from Uzbekistan. Almost 2,000 have received Russian state scholarships.
Russian colleges do admittance tests directly in Uzbekistan and the competition is intense.
Vladimir Vasilyev, rector of the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, told EurasiaNet.org that fees at his college cost 50,000 rubles ($700) per year, or 65,000 rubles for those doing their studies long-distance. But strong performers in admittance tests can qualify for financial support.
“Those that get scholarships can get stipends worth around 15-16,000 rubles per month,” said Roman Savchenko, a representative for the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.
In a noteworthy backtrack, education authorities in Kazakhstan have ordered a revision of school textbooks to ensure that they do not show Crimea as a part of Russia.
Mektep, the publishing house that creates history and geography textbooks used in schools in Kazakhstan, sparked a diplomatic row in September when it appeared to endorse the annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
But the Education Ministry said in a painfully worded press release on September 30 that Mektep had erred in how it assembled its facts.
“It was noted that the authors did not apply the entire range of factuality in objectively composing the given material,” the statement said, according to an Interfax report. “The publisher and authors did not fully reflect the position of Kazakhstan or that of the international community in its treatment of the Crimea issue.”
It remains to be seen how the Mektep textbooks will now endeavor to characterize the status of Crimea.
When it issued its protest over the books on September 25, Ukraine’s embassy to Kazakhstan was clear.
The suggestion that Crimea should be part of Russia “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Uzbekistan is taking increasingly drastic measures in the fight against college admission exam cheats by ordering cellphone companies to disable some of their services temporarily.
Local news website Gazeta.uz cited three major mobile providers — Beeline, Ucell and UMS — as saying that they temporarily suspended messaging services for five hours on August 1. The time coincided when school-leavers take their all-important tests that decide their long-term future.
The message-blocking practice is now carried out annually and is intended to thwart crafty students hoping to get assistance from accomplices outside the exam hall.
Rampant cheating has been a feature of exam-taking across the former Soviet Union for many decades. Educational authorities appear to be taking the matter more seriously, although some creative souls try to slip through.
Earlier this year, a student in Kazakhstan schemed to help his girlfriend ace her exams by dressing in her clothes and taking her place. The black wig, skirt, eye makeup and pink lipstick were not enough to fool the invigilators, however. Police were called in, leading to the young man facing charges of fraud.
Exam-takers in Uzbekistan are, like most places in the world, forbidden from bringing in their phone, but that has not deterred the ingenious in the past.
One website, Uz24, explains how some students have circumvented the ban by taking their mobile phones apart and distributing the components in various pockets for later assembly. Others simply hide their phones in toilets or tape them under conveniently located tables, if they know in advance where they are to be seated.
A new website aims to help Central Asian scholars enter the academic mainstream.
Launched in early April, the Central Asian Analytical Network, or CAAN, is the brainchild of the George Washington University’s Central Asia Program. The website’s goal is to make it easier for scholars in the region to publish and distribute their work. It will post commentaries and academic papers on a daily basis, as well as provide a digital library to facilitate research.
“Young scholars [in Central Asia] often complain that they have limited opportunities to publish their work, either due to higher academic standards set by western journals or censorship issues in their home countries,” Aitolkyn Kourmanova, CAAN’s chief editor, told EursasiaNet.org in an email interview.
“The idea is to connect local researchers, academics, policymakers, NGOs and media through one regional networking platform which provides equal opportunities for all to speak up on hot issues, initiate debates, or publish their work,” added Kourmanova. [Editor’s Note: GWU’s Central Asia Program receives funding from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
CAAN additionally plans to produce a regular digest in Russian of English-language academic resources that focus on Central Asia. It also hopes to conduct trainings to improve regional scholars’ writing skills to increase their chances of getting published in outside journals.
“We seek to establish partnership with most think-tanks in the region to keep everyone informed about their work, projects, publications or events,” Kourmanova said.
Jessica Gisondo is an editorial associate at EurasiaNet.
Astana's ambitious plan to add a year to its school curriculum has been postponed indefinitely as lower oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia batter Kazakhstan’s economy.
“Taking into account the situation, the question of the transition to a 12-year program must be postponed,” Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov told journalists after a Senate session on January 22, TengriNews reports.
Sarinzhipov went on to explain how financial considerations were impacting the situation. “There are many factors, including financial possibilities. The government is now working on the head of state's instruction to prepare different scenarios for the economy. Proceeding from this situation, we have decided to put it [the program] on hold.”
The move to add a year to Kazakhstan's 11-grade system, a legacy from Soviet times, is seen as key to modernizing the education sector. The extra year would bring the country's system in line with international standards and enable external recognition of Kazakhstani secondary education qualifications.
Now as Astana slashes its growth expectations and lowers budget revenue forecasts, the 12-year program has become an early casualty of the government's belt tightening.
This is not the first time that these reforms have been shelved. In 2011 the Education Ministry put back plans to add a year to the curriculum until 2015, citing a deficit of space and trained teachers.
The ministry piloted the 12-year model in 104 schools between 2011 and 2014 using experimental textbooks and teaching materials. The 12-year program was supposed to be fully implemented by 2020.
Tajikistan has cast doubt over its willingness to continue hosting a network of leading charter schools inspired by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.
This week Education Minister Nuriddin Saidov suggested that the Tajik government is planning to review the schools’ licenses, which are currently held by a company called Shalola. The schools – often known as “Gülen schools” or “Turkish schools” – adhere to the educational principles of Gülen’s transnational religious movement, which has been praised for its modern interpretation of Islam but also accused of bearing resemblance to a cult.
“The activities of Turkish schools in Tajikistan should be transformed; they need to work on a charitable basis. This is my position. Now we are working on this issue,” Saidov told journalists January 5.
While the schools (numbering 10, according to one count) in Tajikistan were initially free to attend, they now cost $1,000 dollars per year, according to RFE/RL’s Tajik service.
RFE/RL says the schools’ domestic critics tend to associate them with “Pan-Turkism,” while supporters argue that they offer an education far superior to that at Tajikistan’s impoverished state schools, which are among the worst in the former Soviet Union. Instruction is in English, Russian and Turkish. Tajik social media users claim that many officials place their children in the secular Gülen schools.
It is not clear what precisely Shalola and its schools have done to offend Tajikistan’s aid-dependent and graft-prone government.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.
In many post-Soviet countries, and Kazakhstan is no exception, stories abound of students forced to bribe their professors to pass final exams. At last, Kazakhstan has an official figure: On average, students pay 50,000 tenge ($275) in unofficial fees at the end of each semester
Deputy Minister of Education and Science Takir Balykbaev told a meeting of the country's university heads in Almaty on April 29 that higher education is among the three most corrupt industries in the country. The sector’s shadow economy is worth about $100 million per year, Balykbaev said.
Endemic corruption in education has long been acknowledged in Kazakhstan, but actual figures are rare. Freedom House said in its 2013 report on Kazakhstan that “corruption in the education system is widespread, and students frequently bribe professors for passing grades.”
Salaries in Kazakhstan's universities are low, with the exception of Astana's Nazarbayev University and Almaty's KIMEP University, encouraging professors to supplement their incomes by soliciting bribes.
Balykbaev said that in the near future his ministry would establish a council on anti-corruption policy to coordinate the fight against graft in universities.
Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.