The student took the mobile phone call five minutes into my two-hour Saturday morning class on media and business. “That was the dean’s office,” she said. “We all have to go now. We’re very sorry.”
I looked at my notes and the exercise my interpreter had translated into Russian. “What is it this time?” I asked wearily. “We don’t know. Maybe a forum or a rally to show support for our President. Can we go?” I shrugged. “Of course. Hope to see you next week.”
Halfway through my six-month Fulbright Fellowship at Eurasian National University (ENU) in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, I had learned to adjust to an unpredictable schedule. Sometimes the students were there. Sometimes they weren’t. Occasionally I knew why, but more often I had no idea what had happened to them.
There were forums, conferences, university events, student talent shows, the March Nauruz (Muslim New Year) celebrations and, in the weeks leading up to Kazakhstan’s presidential election in April 2011, rallies in support of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
I felt sorry for the students. Some felt sorry for me. “You’ve come so far to teach us,” they said.
Kazakhstan may have abandoned the communist command economy and embraced market capitalism, but its higher education system often seems stuck in a Soviet-era time warp. Despite a technical conversion to the European Credit Transfer System under the Bologna Process, universities have been slow to change traditional curricula, teaching methods or management styles. Rectors are political appointees, lording it over their fiefdoms like Soviet commissars or the khans who once ruled Central Asia. They can fire deans at whim. Poorly paid teachers have little or no job security. Students have almost no say in what’s going on. Despite efforts to reduce corruption, grade- and diploma-buying are common.
I quickly learned three Russian survival phrases: Where’s the key? Who has the key? Who locked the room after yesterday’s classes?
The contrast between what I was trying to teach my students and their daily reality was palpable. I told them that knowledge gained through rote learning and repeated on tests and in oral examinations was not as important as the ability to think, analyse and weigh evidence. My classes on public affairs reporting, media business, and politics and media encouraged them to think, question data, challenge official sources of information. Yet, when they left the classroom to attend a political rally, they became passive observers of changes in their country.
Passivity can make you sleepy, and apparently a few dozed off during speeches about Kazakhstan’s Industrial-Innovative Plan for 2020 or the customs union with Russia and Belarus. I asked one student who sat for six hours in an auditorium what he remembered. He shook his head. “We were just bodies there – our minds were somewhere else,” he said.
As I waited for my students, my mind also drifted, but ended on a basic question: what was I doing at ENU and did it have anything to do with my Fulbright Fellowship?
In my application, I had asked to teach in Kazakhstan’s former capital Almaty, a cosmopolitan city of 2 million nestled below the Tien Shan Mountains in the south east. I supported my application with a letter of invitation from Galiya Ibrayeva, dean of the Journalism Faculty at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, the country’s leading mass media department.
I was caught off guard when the US Embassy proposed that I go to Astana instead. I checked with colleagues working in Kazakhstan. “Why would you want to go there?” one asked. “ENU has no reputation for teaching journalism.”
Another agreed. Most of the ENU faculty, she sniffed, had been fired by Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. Academic politics in Central Asia is notoriously Byzantine, so I could not verify whether her claim was true or whether there was bad blood between former colleagues. She said it was all about politics, that the Kazakhstan government had put pressure on the US Embassy to bring in a Fulbrighter to boost ENU’s profile.
The embassy argued that it wanted to spread the wealth. Some Fulbright scholars had conducted research in Astana, but I would be the first to teach there. I accepted, and started thinking about long johns. Astana is the second coldest capital in the world (after Ulan Bator in Mongolia) with winter temperatures dropping to minus 30-35°C. I was scheduled to arrive in January.
With tax revenues from oil, gas and natural resources, Kazakhstan has boosted spending on its leading universities over the past decade. Students at Astana’s new Nazarbayev University are cocooned in a heated mall, adorned with fountains, trees, manicured shrubs and coffee shops. ENU’s academic buildings, while not as ostentatious, are impressive, with the prestige science, business and law faculties lining the (usually frozen) canal leading to the River Ishim.
ENU is ranked number two in the country by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science. The only international organisation to rank it (currently at 369th) is Quacquarelli Symonds (QS); it does not make the grade in either the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or the ranking produced by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. Each year, ENU reminds foreign professors who have taught there to complete the online QS questionnaire.
Fortunately for ENU, the ranking does not depend on its record in journalism teaching or research. Unlike the prestige faculties, the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science is housed in a former residence hall surrounded by Soviet-era apartment blocks. The location may say something about the commitment of an authoritarian government to independent journalism.
The building was once home to the Philology Faculty. It looked as if the staff had left in a hurry, because several classrooms were still set up as language labs with listening booths, although none of the technology worked. In smaller classrooms, blackboards were installed on side walls; any student behind the third row risked whiplash to read what was written.
Room assignments were switched without notice. Often my interpreter and I spent the first 10 minutes of class searching for our student group. Every session was interrupted by students opening the door, in search of their own classes. At least we weren’t the only ones who felt lost.
Some days began with a frantic search for classroom keys. I quickly learned three Russian survival phrases: Where’s the key? Who has the key? Who locked the room after yesterday’s classes?
Security makes sense only if there’s something worth stealing, but the only movable objects in the classrooms were the heavy wooden desks. Anyone trying to carry one out would not have got far. A uniformed guard sat at the only entrance to the building. Occasionally he checked IDs but most of the time he smiled and chatted to the students. It’s another Soviet hangover. You need to have a building guard, even if there’s nothing worth stealing.
The faculty had a class schedule, of sorts, but apparently I wasn’t a good fit for it. Although the dean knew that I was coming, my arrival took his staff by surprise. Knowing that the national journalism curriculum was being revised to allow for electives, I had proposed five classes. The assistant dean said the schedule had already been signed by the rector, and no changes were possible. I would have to teach classes already scheduled, substituting for other teachers.
Despite high-profile attempts to root out the problem, bribery is common. Students admit paying bribes, teachers admit soliciting them
We decided that my “Politics and media” class was roughly equivalent to a political science class. There was no match for my proposed class on reporting on business, environment, health and education. Perhaps I could teach Russian style and stylistics? It seemed a surreal question, considering that I was working through an interpreter and planned to take Russian classes. Well, how about children’s literature? We went through other approved classes before deciding that I would teach the reporting class, and they would simply call it children’s literature. A teacher was sent to round up students. I introduced myself and asked if there were any questions. “What’s this class about?” one asked.
My schedule was revised a month later after we discovered why more than half the students were not showing up for two of the three weekly sessions. It turned out that the dean’s office had combined two groups, and one was already scheduled for a different class elsewhere at two of the meeting times. So we reduced this class to a single one-hour weekly session and I was instead given a first-year group for one hour a week, a second-year group for one hour a week and another second-year group for two hours on Saturdays. I had no idea what the students were doing in their other classes. I resigned myself to giving a series of guest classes, hoping the students learned something.
They probably did (at least that’s what they told me). For many, the novelty of having their first Western teacher was enough. It didn’t matter what I was teaching. They said they liked my interactive style, a contrast to the traditional chitat leksii (read lectures) method to which they had grown accustomed. However, my experiences at ENU and other universities in Central Asia over the past 15 years point to structural problems in higher education systems that still seem stuck in the Soviet past.
The first is the group system. Students take most courses with the same group of fellow students throughout their college career. The system has benefits, especially for those who are struggling. There’s always a fellow student to help you outside class, or to take notes if you miss a session. But it also encourages academic dishonesty, with students routinely signing attendance sheets for missing group members, and sometimes submitting assignments in their names. More worryingly, students who spend every day with the same group of peers are not exposed to the perspectives of others.
Then there is the curriculum. Soviet-style central planning is still the norm, with the Ministry of Education dictating curricula. Although elective courses are being introduced, universities have little flexibility in adapting to the job market or to student interests.
Another problem is teaching methods. Teachers with postgraduate degrees from Europe or North America often adopt an informal, interactive style. But those who have spent their lives in the system teach the way they were taught – from behind the lectern. The teacher is the authority. Student questions are not welcome.
At most universities, achievement is still primarily measured by hours spent in the classroom or in so-called practical work (most of it unsupervised), not by learning outcomes or competencies. There is little time for outside work – reading, papers, projects, independent research or critical thinking. When I asked a colleague to describe university education in his country, Tajikistan, he summed it up succinctly: “Long hours in cold classrooms.” Teachers are paid by the class hour, not by the course, so they have no incentive to reduce the number of hours they teach.
The financial difficulties are clear. Most investments in higher education have been in new buildings and equipment. Pay rates for teachers have not increased significantly, and many work at two or three universities (or take part-time jobs outside teaching) to survive. Talented teachers have left the profession for business, government or international organisations. University teaching is still a prestige profession, but quality in some disciplines has declined.
Poor teacher pay contributes to the final problem – corruption. Despite high-profile attempts to root out the problem, bribery is common. Prices range from several thousand dollars for admission to a top university (without taking the entrance examination) to a few dollars for a pass on a course test. Students admit paying bribes, teachers admit soliciting them.
None of my ENU students offered me a bribe. Not because they knew I was earning six or eight times what their teachers were paid. Or because they thought I had higher ethical standards. They simply had no reason to try to bribe me because I was not allowed to assess their work. Despite the random teaching schedule, I gave a few tests and assignments. I was told they could not form part of the formal assessment. “The dean is afraid you’ll fail some students and they’ll complain,” a colleague told me. “Just forget about it.”
It’s difficult to blame ENU, the Journalism Faculty or the Soviet legacy for all my challenges. And I had much more positive experiences in short teaching assignments at regional universities in Kazakhstan. I would have travelled and taught more had it not been for the US Embassy, which insisted that I spend most of the six months at ENU, even if there wasn’t much to do there. To the embassy, maintaining relations with a politically powerful university was more important than my work in journalism education. “You’re causing a lot of trouble,” my embassy minder scolded me when I complained about the problems. “We need to maintain a good relationship with ENU.”
I wanted to say that I was an academic, not an agent of US foreign policy, but instead I said it would have helped if the embassy had worked with ENU to give me real classes to teach. “Well, I really don’t know much about higher education,” she replied. It was an honest admission, but one that does not bode well for US support of higher education in Central Asia.