Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 1

This is the first part of what I plan to be a monthly update on developments in higher education in Central Asia.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, there is very little research into higher education in Central Asia, and what exists is often commissioned by external donors such as international organisations. These reports can be very helpful but because they have been written to meet the donors’ needs, they tend to be subjective.

So to kick off the first part of this series, November’s country of the month is… Tajikistan.

By way of background, here is a very brief introduction that I wrote recently as part of a contextual report on higher education in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is the least developed of the three countries and around 2/3 of the population live in poverty. There are serious challenges to reducing poverty and stimulating sustainable economic growth, from the reliance on income from migrant workers abroad to extremely low investor confidence (Asian Development Bank, 2011). The country’s own Ministry of Education is keenly aware of the effects this has on education policy and development, and currently focuses its efforts on improving basic education. In its 2006-2015 Education Plan, the Ministry identifies three major issues hindering the management and planning of education at all levels: the absence of a rational and streamlined process of decision making; low capacity in the area of policy development and system management; and the lack of a system to assess learning results and the effectiveness of educational establishments.

Adapted from Sabzalieva, 2011

Tajik students, (c)
Tajik students, (c)

Focussing in on higher education, state policy highlights natural sciences, engineering and technology as priority subject areas for development, and the Law on Higher and Postgraduate Education points to the need for state support in training specialists in fundamental and applied research.

One of the best reports I’ve read about in this area was from the Ministry of Education itself. Co-written in 2005 with the Tajik branch of the Open Society Institute and the Education Reform Support Unit “Pulse”, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly open look at the state of Tajikistan and the challenges of its now post-Soviet higher education system. You can find an English version on the UK International Unit’s website, and although it notes that it is a draft, I’ve not found a more final version.

The report lists no less than twelve groups of problems facing the country’s need to train professionals (see pp8-9 for a summary), This is a sobering register, starting with the challenges of dealing with ‘severely decreased’ state funding – an issue facing quite a few countries these days, the UK included – down to the twelfth point, corruption in the system.

In fact, the Tajik National Anti-Corruption Agency suggested in 2010 that the Education Ministry is the most corrupt government body of all. That’s quite an achievement in a country where corruption has permeated all levels of society and daily life.

Low levels of state funding that are diminishing further mean that most of the innovations in the higher education system are stimulated in some way or another through third parties. These third parties tend to be international organisations with a remit covering education, and the stimulation is usually financial. I have seen two recent examples of this.

Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, Dushanbe
Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, rated the best university in Tajikistan

Firstly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently announced a new teaching course on Human Development. UNDP will provide support for the introduction of the course in the Civil Servants Training Institute and five of the country’s top universities. The objective of the course is a worthy one: to work out ways to utilise the fact that ‘the real wealth of the nation is the people’. These are also smart words, particularly for a country without the same level of financial wealth from natural resources that can fund higher education developments in places like Russia and Kazakhstan.

UNDP has also made a good move by identifying that universities are the right place to generate better understanding of human potential. But whilst this all sounds good in theory, it will be interesting to see what graduates of the course are actually able to achieve: how much will they become equipped to change the realities of life in Tajikistan, rather than just understand them better?

Moving on to the second example, the Tajik news website Avesta has reported on a World Bank  and Russian government initiative to introduce a unified university entrance exam in eight countries, including Tajikistan.

The programme is underlined by principles of fair access, transparency and objectiveness across a new national assessment system. It is intended that this move will help influence the modernisation of the school curriculum and increase the quality of education in the country.

Again, this is another very worthy development that is similar to programmes in other post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan (which has gone even further and submitted itself for assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development-run Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards).

I look forward to hearing more about how this programme turns out in Tajikistan. But, if a unified entrance exam is introduced, will it able to overcome the enormous problem of cash-for-entry into Tajik universities? My view is that unless this reform is coupled with improved conditions for academic staff at universities (mainly through better wages that actually reflect their qualifications and importance to society), a new entrance exam will simply be seen as one more trip to the cash machine.

In early December I’ll publish the second part of this series, which will be looking at Kyrgyzstan.

One thought on “Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 1

  1. Pingback: Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 3: Kazakhstan « Emma Sabzalieva

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