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.
Turkmenistan's switch to a 12-year educational system is the clearest sign to date of the cataclysmic lack of intellectual capital created by poor and often erratic policy.
The change, which is to take effect on September 1, will see the period of mandatory education increased from the current 10 years.
A presidential decree published in newspapers Saturday talks about wanting to bring up "deeply educated, broad-minded and talented individuals" in the era of "might and happiness."
If those qualities have been wanting, the causes go back to 1991, when the late President Saparmurat Niyazov introduced a nine-year curriculum, flying in the face of pedagogical practice the world round. It was a short step from that to abolishing the Academy of Sciences and reducing the minimum period of theoretical instruction in higher education institutes, a holdover of the Soviet system, from five to two years.
Niyazov was instead fond of more practical, or "hands-on," approaches to education that would, for instance, lead to budding agriculture specialists spending their time laboring in the field instead of studying in the classroom.
In the reading of U.S. diplomats, the sinister intent was to engineer the population into a state of stupefied passivity: "Niyazov's decisions are not surprising, given his determination to keep the Turkmen population ignorant,” reads one Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from early 2006.
When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became president at the end of 2006 he began reversing these often-destructive measures.
Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren could be forgiven for getting dizzy. Their president is again changing the number of years they are expected in the classroom.
Effective this fall, Turkmen children will be required to attend 12 years of school, rather than just 10, starting at age six. The state-run Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov approved the change last week.
According to the decree, the switch aims "to further improve" secondary schools and to ensure that "the quality of education in them" meets global standards.
Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov reduced the number of years Turkmen schoolchildren were required in the classroom from 11 years to nine. Berdymukhamedov increased the curriculum to 10 years shortly after he came to power in 2006.
Niyazov – apparently no fan of school – also cut university education from five years to two. Soon after assuming office, Berdymukhamedov restored university curricula to five years.
Back when many Turkmenistan-watchers nurtured hopes of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov becoming a reformist president, modifications to the country’s education system were heralded as evidence of change.
Even before being elected to his first term in early 2007, Berdymukhamedov revealed plans to extend primary schooling to 10 years, from nine years previously.
All these years later, he seems unimpressed by the progress made. In an August 16 cabinet meeting, the president issued one of his trademark warnings to Education Minister Gulshat Mammedov and spoke disparagingly of teaching standards.
For that reason, Berdymukhamedov is now suggesting that primary education could be extended to 11 or 12 years and has insisted on an improvement in teacher skills.
"In some schools, teacher training does not meet the requirements of today," he said during the televised meeting.
For an example, he talked about the ineffectual use of laptops in first grade classes, which he put down to the lack of computer skills among teachers.
As befits an Orwellian state, recent entrance exams for higher education institutes were monitored by security cameras, and the president was unhappy with what that revealed.
“A number of irregularities were detected during exams, and it was clear which invigilators were assisting exam-takers and helped them unreasonably inflate their results," Berdymukhamedov said.
As well as making such stringent demands, Berdymukhamedov has proven something of a priggish Puritan toward students. College students are not allowed to go to class in their own cars or in taxis; frequenting nightclubs, bars and restaurants is definitely out. Dormitories are no-fun islands of discipline.