Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'We Are Tough': How a Rector Is Cleaning Up Kazakh Academy

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'We Are Tough': How a Rector Is Cleaning Up Kazakh Academy

Article excerpt

Krzysztof Rybin´ski tells David Matthews about changing culture and the world's 'best meat'

Two years ago, Krzysztof Rybinski, a Polish economist leading a private university in Warsaw, was contacted by headhunters from Moscow.

They had spotted his profile on LinkedIn and wanted a Russian-speaking European university leader to reform the prominent Narxoz University in Almaty, a city in the far east of vast Kazakhstan, a few hours' drive from the borders of northwestern China.

Sixteen months into his job as rector, he told Times Higher Education about his efforts to root out cheating, plagiarism, corruption and staid teaching, which have led to the firing of hundreds of academics.

"I worked with clients in many places...I thought nothing would surprise me," said Professor Rybinski (pictured), who is a former vice-president of Poland's central bank. Yet he was "shocked" at how different Kazakh culture was, with its strong family ties and old Soviet practices.

Higher education in the country, although "changing very, very slowly", still prioritises "testing and memorisation", he said, even though Kazakhstan has "on paper" signed up to Europe's Bologna Process, which focuses more on skills.

Corruption is everywhere, Professor Rybinski said. "The vast majority of universities in Central Asia...have problems with corruption, plagiarism and cheating," he added. "When the cheating culture is everywhere from primary school to have to take tough measures."

To counter cheating in exams at Narxoz - students routinely talked to each other, took in "cheat sheets" and tried to bring in smartphones, according to Professor Rybinski - the university installed cameras in exam halls.

In the past six months, Professor Rybinski estimates that between 100 and 200 students have been caught and forced to retake exams. Now the level of cheating is "much, much lower", he insisted.

To tackle plagiarism, all first-year students must take an academic writing course that impresses on them how wrong the practice is, and the university runs essays through plagiarism-detection software.

Payments to lecturers to boost grades and to get exam papers in advance also plague Kazakh higher education, Professor Rybinski explained. "Wages of teachers and academics are very low, which forces them to seek additional income," he said. At Narxoz, "we had a few cases, and these people were fired."

To deter bribe-taking, Professor Rybinski has instituted a system of collective punishment. …

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