Uzbekistan: From Russia, With Luck

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan | Anya entered the Tashkent branch of an expensive Russian economics university rather than one of Uzbekistan’s public universities, gambling that her choice would lead to a good job. With just weeks to go before receiving her diploma, she’s already lined up work at a company in Moscow.

The young woman says it has been hard work and, with fees now reaching $2,000 per year at the local branch of the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics, a substantial investment in a country plagued by deep economic problems and soaring prices. “It would be a waste of time” to attend the school without taking the work seriously, she said. A fellow student – who, like Anya, did not want to be identified because expression is tightly controlled in Uzbekistan – also said the diploma from the school is a big plus because it is respected internationally.

Moscow State University’s imposing Tashkent campus. Photo: Moscow State University in Tashkent.

Moscow State University’s imposing Tashkent campus. Photo: Moscow State University in Tashkent.

They are among a small but growing number of Uzbek students who choose to forgo free or low-cost degrees offered by state institutions for the chance to get a prestigious degree and better prospects for employment.

And more opportunities are available these days. The Tashkent branch of the Plekhanov Academy of Economics opened in 1995, but recent agreements between the Russian and Uzbek governments have allowed other institutions to establish campuses here. Cooperation between the two countries led to the opening of branches of Moscow State University in 2006 and Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas a year later.

“The branches were set up as a result of two intergovernmental pacts and one interdepartmental agreement,” said Tatyana Mishukovskaya, a representative of Roszarubezhcenter, the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation under Russia’s Foreign Ministry in Tashkent.

Moscow State University’s campus now has 150 students in two faculties: applied mathematics and informatics, and psychology. At Gubkin, 105 students are studying geophysics and techniques for finding and extracting oil and gas.

“The teachers at Tashkent Technical University envy us – they don’t have modern equipment, apparatus and books,” says Bakhtier Nurtaev, chief executive of the school’s Tashkent campus.

Help from East and West

The Uzbek government under Islam Karimov has taken steps to open up higher education to competition, often depending on where its political alliances rest at the time. In 2002, amid warming relations with the United States and Europe, Westminster International University was established. Its partners include the University of Westminster in London, and the Tashkent school offers English-language degrees and certificates in business, technology and law.

Training in information and communication technology at 32 vocational colleges has been strengthened through a German-Uzbek cooperation project that began in 2003. The German government’s aid agency has pumped 2.28 million euros into the project, and Germany’s KfW Bank Group has provided nearly 10 million euros in loans and grants.

Despite the influx of help and new institutions, dozens of universities and other schools remain cash-strapped. The International Monetary Fund warns that Uzbekistan’s neglected educational system is a detriment to the country’s economic future. The IMF’s 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper cites the “inadequate quality of the educational process at all stages of education including the quality of curricula and textbooks, teacher skills as well as the practical orientation of the educational process to the needs of the labor market.”

The situation in local universities is aggravated by the meager wages and poor training of teachers. Graft in higher education also hampers quality. In response to such challenges, the Karimov government in 2004 announced a plan to increase investment in education, improve teacher qualifications and salaries, and combat corruption.

Where the government turns for help depends on its foreign policy. When Uzbekistan gambled on improving relations with the United States and other Western governments by offering military bases to support the invasion of Afghanistan, the aid followed. But Karimov fell out of favor with his Western partners after his regime’s brutal suppression of an uprising in the eastern town of Andijan in May 2005. Karimov characterized the protests by human rights and anti-poverty advocates as a revolt stoked by Islamic extremists and blamed them for the bloodshed. As Western investment and aid dissipated, Russia stepped in. The Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported last year that the total value of investment projects carried out by Russian companies in the fuel and energy sector of Uzbekistan exceeded $3 billion.

The relationship extends beyond the purely commercial: in 2006, Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community, whose other members are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and rejoined the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a grouping of the same member states plus Armenia, from which it had withdrawn in 1999. Uzbekistan is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for regional security issues, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Tashkent also signed a military cooperation accord with Moscow three years ago.

The two new branches of the Russian universities opened following a 2005 humanitarian agreement between the Russian and Uzbek governments.

Visiting instructors and higher salaries paid to Uzbek teachers, combined with better resources, give the institutions an edge over public universities, where good grades and graft often go hand-in-hand. “Those sorts of affairs are impossible in our university,” said Gubkin’s Nurtaev. “We have told students that they can have high marks only thanks to acquired knowledge, and all other ways are impossible.”

Prestige – For a Price

Students say degrees from these universities are more prestigious, but that it is harder to get in – and stay in – than at Uzbek national universities. “We attend classes. The teachers don’t take bribes. It would be difficult to arrange marks with those who come here from Moscow,” says a first-year student at the Moscow State University branch.

Students at the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics and other prestigious foreign university branches in Tashkent say they can’t get away with skipping class and paying teachers for good grades. Photo: Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Tashkent.

Students at the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics and other prestigious foreign university branches in Tashkent say they can’t get away with skipping class and paying teachers for good grades. Photo: Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Tashkent.

But they also pay dearly for an education in a country where the average monthly wage was about $160 in late 2006 and where the IMF expects inflation to hit 10 percent this year. Anya, the graduating economics student, had a sponsor who helped pay her tuition at the Plekhanov Academy of Economics. Tuition at the local branch of Moscow State University costs $2,400 per year. “Many can’t afford study at the branches of Russian universities, it’s too expensive,” says Marina Pikulina, an independent political analyst. “I know that some refused to study there after they were told how much they had to pay.”

The students who do attend say the cost is worth it. The curricula at the Russian schools are accredited by education authorities in both Russia and Uzbekistan. As a result, diplomas attained at the Uzbek branches are recognized in Russia.

While these universities offer resources and standards not available at local schools, the Uzbek Ministry of Higher Education welcomes the competition.

“The branches create a competitive environment in higher education, so we welcome them,” says Rustam Kuchkarov, head of the ministry’s department of information and communication technologies. “Moreover, we can study their experience and compare it with our own.”

The new universities, with combined enrollments of only a few hundred students, hardly pose a threat to the Uzbek national system of higher education. Uzbekistan has 20 universities and more than 40 other higher educational institutions enrolling more than 280,000 students.

Foreign university branches can’t yet rival the public institutions because they offer so few slots, says Farkhad Tolipov, an associate professor at the National University of Uzbekistan. “The market for educational services in Uzbekistan is not full up.”


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