Russia’s soft power influence over Uzbekistan has increased in recent years with the soaring number of students looking to enter Russian universities.
Looking to capitalize on that, a group of universities have been holding educational fairs in three cities of Uzbekistan — Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara — over the past week. The final two-day fair will conclude in Bukhara on April 27.
Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Vladimir Tyurdenev, said that more than 4,000 Uzbek students had entered institutes of higher education in Russia in the 2016 academic year, according to a report by Sputnik on April 22.
Opening the Tashkent fair, Viktor Shulika, the head of the local branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian state agency ostensibly intended as an analogue of USAID, said that interest among Uzbek youths wanting to study in Russia has been increasing fast.
There are currently 21,642 Uzbeks studying in Russian colleges. In 2015 alone, 24 colleges in Russia admitted 10,572 pupils from Uzbekistan. Almost 2,000 have received Russian state scholarships.
Russian colleges do admittance tests directly in Uzbekistan and the competition is intense.
Vladimir Vasilyev, rector of the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, told EurasiaNet.org that fees at his college cost 50,000 rubles ($700) per year, or 65,000 rubles for those doing their studies long-distance. But strong performers in admittance tests can qualify for financial support.
“Those that get scholarships can get stipends worth around 15-16,000 rubles per month,” said Roman Savchenko, a representative for the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.
Olga Starkova, a representative for Tyumen University in Uzbekistan, said her college issues diplomas that are internationally recognized, making them particularly sought after.
“Many guys from Uzbekistan go and work abroad with our diplomas once they complete their studies,” she said.
The main appeal of a Russian degree is, however, to work in Russia itself. Certificates from Uzbek universities do not cut the mustard on the Russian labor market for anything more high-earning than manual work.
Conversely, Uzbeks with Russian degrees wanting to apply for government jobs in their home country need to have their qualifications notarized.
Although students in Russia are no strangers to cheating in exams, the system there appears to be more stringent. Rigorous invigilation during admittance tests to Russian universities means applicants have no choice but to put in the hard work.
Katya Ilichyova, who is finishing school this year in the town of Chirchik, outside the capital, Tashkent, said she did the tests for the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, but flunked the math component.
“This is already the second college where I have failed to get the grades. Russian tests are hard for me. Still, I do have a chance until summer to try my luck with some other Russian university,” Ilichyova said.
Bakhtiyor went to the Tashkent education fair from Jizzakh, where is studying at the local university, in the hope of finding a Russian college with affordable fees. Life as a student in Uzbekistan is complicated first and foremost by extracurricular issues.
“Since they make us go and pick cotton, which lasts two months, we never manage to complete the semester, so nobody really studies properly.” said Bakhtiyor, whose surname has been withheld to avoid reprisals from the authorities.
Nigina Lutfullayeva, from Samarkand, said she wanted to do studies that would help her become a technical communications manager, but that nowhere in Uzbekistan offered that option. She said she would return to her home city if and once she completes her studies in Russia.
University places are highly limited in Uzbekistan. According to government figures, more than 605,000 people applied for a college place in 2015, but only around 63,000 got in. That translates into one place per 10 applicants.
Uzbekistan has 67 domestic institutes of higher learning, as well as branches of three Russian universities — Moscow State University, the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics and the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas. Other international colleges represented in the country include Italy’s Polytechnic University of Turin, British college Westminster University, the Tourism Management Institute of Singapore, and South Korea’s Inha University.