International News

International News

Central Asia

University of Central Asia gets going

Deep within Central Asia, in the countries of Tajikistan, Kazkhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, work is under way to build the new University of Central Asia (UCA). Funded by the super-rich Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, the university’s ambitious aim is to bring cutting-edge higher education and research to often overlooked regions of the former Soviet Union.

The idea of the university crystalised in 1995 when President Emomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan and the Aga Khan jointly vowed to create a research-active university with world-class facilities for inhabitants of the region’s mountain communities. Comments Bohdan Krawchenko, dean of UCA: "The goal is not to be the best university in Central Asia because that’s not a particularly difficult thing to achieve, but to be among the best internationally in the fields we want to offer. That is a very big challenge."

One of the major issues in Central Asia is that existing higher education provision is based largely in regional capitals, far removed from the inhabitants of isolated communities. An additional challenge is the fact that higher education as offered in most institutions in the region has barely changed since Soviet days. Therefore despite impressive literacy figures and a high number of graduates, graduate unemployment levels are high. Observers argue that the unreformed university system is now not fit for purpose, if it ever was, in the post-Soviet environment.

The UCA’s academic programmes have been drawn up with unemployability in mind, offering courses that should prove useful to the regional economies. Undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, research, distance-learning and economic development programmes will be offered. "It’s going to be highly integrative," promises Prof. Krawchenko.

The idea of a university in Central Asia has been circulating since the early 1990s, when Prof. Krawchenko was in Kiev. "The initial plan called for a university in Kharog (the administrative capital of one of Tajikistan’s main regions)," he says. "But it became clear that there was a lot of interest elsewhere, so the idea evolved. Rather than have one university with branches in other countries, it was decided to create one university with three campuses." The governments of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan became involved, and in 2000 they signed a treaty with the Aga Khan that was ratified with the national parliaments and registered with the UN.

Unsurprisingly, in such remote and difficult terrain ideas can take a long time to realise. Although the treaty was signed seven years ago, the logistics of planning and building a three-campus university in this part of the world have meant that work has only just got under way. The university is not due to open for business until 2011. Another reason for the delay is the care and attention being lavished on the institution, with facilities overseen by award-winning Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

United Kingdom

Watershed year for school reforms

At the start of the new year, British schools embarked on the busiest year of change since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988. But predictions that 2008 will be the "meltdown year" as the government struggles to introduce a raft of reforms all at once, have yet to be proven right. The next 12 months will see a new key stage three curriculum being introduced for year VII pupils, with the emphasis on helping children make connections between subjects, and the biggest changes to A-levels (Plus Two) for eight years.

The government’s new diploma qualification, which is being billed as the world’s most important education reform, will also be launched in selected schools and colleges from September this year. The diplomas will include new functional skills qualifications in English, maths and ICT (information communication technologies), which are also being trialled for introduction in GCSEs (class X school leaving exams) from 2010. And teachers will have to start thinking about a reformed set of GCSEs, which are being introduced next year.

A briefing document on the 14-19 reforms, sent to higher education staff by the department for children, schools and families says: "From autumn 2008, students will be learning different things, in different ways and be assessed differently." The new diplomas, which are being introduced in five work-related subjects, have as yet remained relatively hitch-free, despite their complexity.

The A-level (Plus Two) reforms — with most subjects being reduced from six modules to four and an A* grade introduced — raise the prospect of difficulties for exam boards in ensuring standards are maintained. Changes are also occurring away from secondary education. Sir Jim Rose, former head of inspections at Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) is conducting a review of primary education, while Early Years Foundation Stage will become compulsory in September.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomes the fact that the government had managed to stagger some of the changes over the next three years. "It’s not as bad as it looked back in 2005, but it’s still a full agenda. 2008 is going to be a busy year," he says.

United States

Harvard alumni decry student apathy

An unpopular war in a foreign country. a controversial president leaving office. A crowded field of candidates to succeed him. A generation anxious about its future. It could be 1968 on American university campuses, not 2008. Except for a deafening quiet so pronounced that one group of Vietnam War alumni have complained to their university head about "widespread apathy and political indifference" on campus, even as presidential balloting began last month.

And if students have chosen to forgo politics, politics has also chosen to forgo them. Jockeying for advantage in the complicated primary process, one state after another has moved its election forward — directly into the winter university holiday period, potentially excluding tens of thousands of students who will be away at the time.

Regardless of whether an election falls while universities are out of session, says Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt, "student participation is lousy anyways". "Students are between things. They’re not rooted in the location where they are. They’re transitional. In the US, college students generally go to a college or university where they plan to stay as short a time as possible, get their degree and leave. They are not socialised into regularly participating in politics. You can’t get them engaged every four years in a presidential election when they’re not used to voting anyway." Besides, says Dr. Schmidt, US university students are very busy. "They’re working two jobs to pay for their tuition, so their lives are not necessarily focused on civic participation."

After the Iowa caucus on January 3, came the first presidential primary election in New Hampshire on January 8. That was also a month earlier than usual. The important state of Michigan also moved its primary election date ahead to January 15. And South Carolina pushed its election forward to January 19. In each case, these dates fall while most universities are out of session and students are home — often in other states.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama has been particularly aggressive in urging students to return and vote. In the Iowa State poll, Senator Obama enjoyed a wide lead among students — 60 percent of whom supported him. Among Republicans, former New York city mayor Rudy Giuliani led among Iowa students, with 40 percent support.

Some 1960s Harvard alumni have decried what they consider the apathy of current-day students. In a recent letter to the university’s president, Drew Faust, they called for a task force to determine why there has not been more student activism against the Iraq War, among other things.

"It’s always the case that older people criticise the young for being apathetic," says Dr. Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "I think they get a bad rap. It’s also the case that young people are not stakeholders in American society as early as they used to be. Young people don’t own their first house, might not get married and might not have kids until they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. Young adults aren’t expected to carry their weight the way they did years ago," he explains.


Emerging global hub for higher education?

Western universities should stop viewing China "through rose-tinted spectacles" and see it as a major competitive threat, the founding head of Nottingham University’s Chinese campus has warned. In a report on China by the higher education think-tank Agora, Ian Gow, former provost of Nottingham University Ningbo, warns that China is "well on the way to becoming the new global hub for higher education". "I am not saying that we should not get involved with China. However, British institutions must stop viewing this aggressively ambitious country through rose-tinted spectacles," he says.

Chinese universities are being instructed to teach in English, says Prof. Gow. "This means foreign students can study in English in China much more cheaply than they could here in the UK." The country also wants to benefit from Britain’s strengths in science and technology, he adds. "Handing over our research in these key areas is incredibly naïve." Nottingham Ningbo was originally envisaged as a liberal arts college, but it is now shifting in the direction of science, in line with China’s prioritising of the subject.

In a bid to further this agenda, Chinese authorities are making it harder for middle-ranking British universities to partner Chinese universities, Prof. Gow suggests. "There is evidence that only the top institutions will be allowed key strategic partnerships, and they will be urged to make all future partnerships with top 20 foreign institutions," he says.

His comments chime with those of Jiaan Cheng, former vice-president of Zhejiang University, who told a recent Worldwide Universities Network conference that "middle-class universities" were "coming to China looking for students". Those without impressive brand names will have to have something valuable to put on the negotiating table. Prof. Gow warns against rushing into the country without assessing the "very considerable" risks. "The Chinese no longer have to persuade; they seem to have everybody eating out of their hands. The pull factor is being replaced by a push… But we are not thinking sufficiently about how to engineer a win-win situation: we are simply rushing to establish any sort of partnership. Unless emerging Sino-UK strategic alliances are better thought through, British higher education could be sorry."

Vice-chancellors and senior managers on trips to China were being wined and dined and given the impression that it is a wonderful place to work, when the reality is much tougher. Gow warns managers against being "sucked in" and signing agreements too quickly. "Often when confronted with the next stage they will find the agreement has apparently changed," he says. "Partners are very adept at changing direction because ‘Beijing said no’," he warns.

Andrew Hapler, head of the China business practice at law firm Eversheds, agrees that there was too much desperation to do deals in China. "People do need to be more careful," he says.

Unique book reading campaign

China is on the threshold of launching a national ‘book-reading campaign’ this year to improve "the cultural and ethical quality" of the country. The campaign will be launched jointly by China’s publicity department of the CPC Central Committee, the General Administration of Press and Publications and the Civilization Office of the Central Communist Party Committee.

Divided into three phases with different themes, the campaign will publicise the advantages of reading books. It will also recommend good books to readers across the country through radio and television broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, websites and short message services.

The first phase will be launched during the Spring Festival in February, a time when many people return to their hometowns. The campaign will suggest taking a good book with them to read in their spare time.

Subsequently, an Olympic-related reading campaign will also be launched at unspecified dates after World Reading Day on April 23 and before the Olympic games commence in August. The objective: to propagate knowledge about the Olympics across the country.

In the third phase the book reading campaign will commemorate 30 years of China opening up its economy in 1978. Apart from propagating books related to the reforms, essay writing contests centred around the reforms will be initiated.


Genocide spectre stalking schools

A parliamentary commission in Rwanda has expressed concern that some secondary schools still circulate "obnoxious genocide ideology", which according to UN estimates claimed 800,000 lives in 1994. The report discloses that "genocide ideology" was recently detected in 84 of the country’s 637 secondary schools.

The 428-page report of the commission was discussed in December by parliamentary deputies in a special plenary session. The report attached copies of anonymous texts and leaflets circulated, one of which read that "Tutsis are snakes, we have enough of them and we will kill them." The report also reveals that some Tutsi students are being forced to wear distinct uniforms, on the basis of which they are discriminated by some of their school mates.

In another shocking example at a secondary school in Gaseke, about 30 km from Kigali, lists of Tutsi students to be killed were circulated. Fortunately no one has been killed so far, according to government officials. "Let the Tutsis die", read another leaflet found in the school complex of Shyogwe in the South Province. The report of the parliamentary commission has advised the government to urgently bring to justice all teachers propagating genocide ideology. "In all the provinces, the exemplification of the genocide ideology is identical," warn the deputies.

The commission exhorts officials of school establishments to work hard to create a climate of peaceful coexistence between genocide victim students and parents prosecuted for their alleged role in the genocide of 1994. The deputies urged speedy adoption of a Bill outlawing propogation of genocide ideology which is before parliament. They also criticised the "lack of push" from minister of education Jeanne d’ Arc Mujawamariya and secretary of state for primary and secondary education, Joseph Murekeraho, on this vitally important issue.


Teachers fleeing hyperinflation

President Robert Mugabe’s government has awarded government school teachers a 1,000 percent pay rise with immediate effect, to stave off another teachers strike. Just before schools were set to open in January, a teachers strike seemed imminent given the country’s galloping inflation. In November last year, teachers served notice they would strike if their Z$ 15 million per month (Rs.19,628) salaries were not reviewed. Under the new pay structure a junior teacher will earn a gross salary of Z$ 260 million (Rs.3.4 lakh). Senior teachers will earn in the region of Z$ 330 million (Rs.4.3 lakh) per month. Additionally, transport and housing allowances will be exempt from tax.

Although the incremental figures and percentages seem spectacular, one teacher interviewed said the increases would do little to protect them from the harsh realities of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary environment. The major unions were heading for a showdown with government over their demands for better wages. A series of strikes last year got their salaries raised to Z$ 15 million, but within weeks that figure actually made them far worse off. The new offer of a 1,000 percent pay hike is almost exactly what the unions had demanded. The problem is, from the time the demands were made in November up to now, prices of basic commodities and services have rocketed upward again.

In this beleaguered nation of 13 million people which became independent of British rule in 1980, teachers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. With a corrupt government intent on plunder and incapable of managing the economy, there is little they can do for themselves or their students.

Jacob Rukweza, a teacher in Harare, the country’s capital, says they have been assured they will receive half of the new salaries in early January and other half at the end of the month. But most teachers are skeptical about the promised increases actually being paid into their accounts.

Zimbabwe was rocked by several strikes in the past year. Doctors, nurses, magistrates and other court staff are on strike over poor wages. Although government has tabled wage hikes in the region of 600 percent, these have been turned down. However some doctors and nurses have gone back to work on humanitarian grounds, but their unions insist that the majority are on strike even as negotiations with government for better deals continue.

The country is in the midst of an unprecedented economic disaster. The official inflation level is 24,000 percent, but independent analysts say in reality it is over 100,000 percent per year. The banking system does not have enough cash to service the population, leading to massive queues outside banks. Water and electricity shortages are commonplace, and political repression of peoples’ movements has created a flood of political and economic refugees. The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe estimates that over 25,000 teachers left the country in 2007. This trend looks set to continue.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Educational Supplement, Times Higher Education Supplement,, SW Radio Africa and Hirondelle News Agency)