Transforming HE sector: the case of Uzbekistan
by Dr. Komiljon Karimov
First Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and InnovationsRepublic of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan - the most populous country of Central Asia with 36 million population, is facing a future driven by an ambitious reform agenda that is continuing to steer transformation. In order to realize its ambitions, Uzbekistan is employing forward-looking approaches, particularly in key areas such as education.
In this article, some of the key stages of transformation of Uzbekistan’s HE sector since independence and key challenges the sector faced and how they are being addressed are described.
Following its independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan faced significant challenges in the transfer from a command-driven and state-controlled economy and education system to market-guided systems which demanded in-depth adaptations and reforms also in the education setup.
For the decades access to higher education remained a critical issue for Uzbekistan’s HE system. Despite the ever-increasing demand for higher education, the enrollment rate to HE in the country (which stood at about 9%), was among the lowest in the former Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, the HE institutions were distributed unevenly with almost half of them located in the capital city-Tashkent, where around 60% of the student population studied. The concentration of HEIs in Tashkent was influenced by the concentration of most manufacturing industries and services in and around Tashkent.
Top-down management of the HE sector, outdated curriculum, and ineffective quality assurance (QA) approaches were among the other key bottlenecks of the HE sector.
Therefore, the institutions of higher education in Uzbekistan have had to reinvent and reform themselves, as the demand for a different kind of education increased.
The higher education sector has seen important changes since 1991. Reforms were introduced to the education system gradually, particularly in the HE sector. The Law on Education, which was enacted on 2 July 1992, provided the legal foundations and laid the underlying conceptual framework for reforms. It emphasized, among other things, a secular and ideology-free nature for the new education system.
The Government’s strategic vision for comprehensive education reforms was formulated in the National Program for Personnel Training (became law in 1997), which reorganized the existing Soviet-style five-year degree courses into a two-stage system of “bachelor” and “master” degree programs in line with the Bologna Declaration and process.
The Program also reflected the Governments’ vision to expand technical and vocational education (TVET) rather than higher education, which also explains why access to higher education stagnated at the ‘elite’ stage of expansion up until 2016. This was explained by the fact that the relatively unsophisticated state of the national economy, which relied largely on commodity production and small-scale manufacturing, would be best served by the expansion and modernization of TVET.
Higher education institutions in Uzbekistan include academies, comprehensive universities, specialized institutes, regional branches of public HE institutions and trans-national education (TNE) provisions with the Westminster International University in Tashkent (WIUT) among the first such ventures. A few private higher education institutions also emerged in the early 1990s.
The new stage of reforms in the education sector, including HE, has taken off in 2016 with the introduction of the strategic transformation agenda of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev who made the investment in human capital his top priority.
The new vision for the nation’s HE sector was elaborated in “Concept of the Development of the Higher Education System of Uzbekistan by 2030”, which was approved in 2020 by the Presidential executive order. This long-term sector development plan prioritized, among other key areas, the expansion of access to HE, the autonomy of HE institutions, increased competition in HE sector through diversification of provision, the improvement of QA systems, increased research outputs, stronger industry links, and internationalization.
With the ambition to reach 50% HE coverage by 2026, the sector has already seen a remarkable change in the provision of access to higher education with the enrollment rate skyrocketing from just 15% in 2020 to around 40% in 2022, consequent student population increase from 250.000 to over 1 million., and growth in HE institutions number from 78 to 210. The current policy underlines favorable conditions for competition in higher education that enabled the establishment of a wide network of private institutions (over 50 private providers) and TNE with 31 branch campuses and joint ventures in partnership with overseas universities. The Government also makes special emphasis on and encourages the fair distribution of new HE establishments across the country.
Accountability as part of the effective governance, quality assurance and enhancement in HE have become the primary focus for institutions worldwide, as it helps to increase the efficiency of HE systems and enhance teaching and learning as well as technologies that are more effective for a particular mode of delivery. These become particularly important in the COVID-19 reality that urged HE institutions to transfer teaching and learning to online, blended, or hybrid modes of delivery.
This is well understood in Uzbekistan where significant efforts are being made to improve the quality and efficiency of the education system as the QA in HE is seen as one of the key factors which will allow Uzbekistan to ensure progress and positive developments in the sector.
Important decisions are made to address the issues of strengthening HE management through the development of a new system-wide HE management information system (HEMIS) which is managed by the Ministry of Higher Education; improving QA system and the learning environment in HE institutions. HE institutions are encouraged to improve the relevance of HE by modernizing the curriculum and establishing effective links with the relevant industries and developing new cooperation models in a hope that it will allow the country to succeed in global competition and meet the requirements of innovative development of the economy.
Uzbekistan, placed in the heart of Central Asia, and historically located at the crossroads of ancient trading routes, is a diverse, multiethnic and multilingual country that is going through modernization. In recent years country has prioritized the policy of openness, active entry into the global market, expansion of international cooperation in all areas which increases the need for studying foreign languages.
Uzbekistan was very active in reforming its language policy and planning in early 1990s when Uzbek was declared as the official state language and later switching the Cyrillic alphabet into Latin (in 1995). Nevertheless, the Russian remained the lingua franca as it continued to be used within many facets of urban communication.
Today, General Education in Uzbekistan is carried out in seven languages: Uzbek, Karakalpak, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Tajik, while most of the HE programmes are offered in Uzbek, Karakalpak, Russian and English languages.
The country was ranked 88 globally in the English proficiency Index (2021) and 18th out of 24 countries in Asia. Despite this fact, English Medium Education plays a critical role in the development of internationalization agenda addressed in the above-mentioned Concept of Development of the Higher Education System.
With the aim to promote the learning of foreign languages in Uzbekistan a number of decrees and official orders were approved by the Government including the most recent Presidential executive order “On Measures to Bring the Activities of Popularization of Learning Foreign Languages to a Qualitatively New Level in the Republic of Uzbekistan”.
As part of the effort, a new Government Agency for the Promotion of Learning Foreign Languages was established, and focus was made on the 10 foreign languages (English, Russian, German, French, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi) expected to raise the competitiveness of Uzbek citizens and of the country more generally.
English Medium Education is widely associated with modernization and internationalization and this positioned English as the dominant foreign language within the education system, and at the HE level in particular. English is being used as a medium of instruction at most international universities (with the exception of the branches of Russian universities) and, increasingly, at public universities. Meantime, teaching in foreign languages is conducted in 25 public HE institutions of Uzbekistan compared with only 7 such institutions in 2016.
These changes, coupled with the Government’s clear path towards more autonomy and academic freedom of HEIs, will enable the development of a new culture to positively impact all areas of academic activity. This, eventually, shall echo favorably on the nation’s economy and society.