Tajik higher education: dress smart and pay up

Hello! Long time, no see… It’s been an eventful summer with the events in Khorog, Tajikistan causing us great concern and anxiety. Life appears to be normalising again and I do hope the current calm prevails. On the home front I have been elected Chair of the Governing Body at our local primary school and that has been keeping me very busy as I get up to speed on everything from school finances to strategic planning to recruitment and retention of pupils. All this on top of my full-time job (getting even fuller as we approach the start of the Oxford term and the descent of 200 new students!) and the to-ings and fro-ings of family life.

Whilst I’ve been watching out for stories on Central Asian higher education over the last couple of months, there hasn’t been much of interest. Last week, however, a first-hand account  by Temur Mengliev of the current situation in one Tajik university appeared and that’s what this posting is based on. Thanks to Alexander Sodiqov via Global Voices Online for bringing my attention to this.

Mengliev’s blog post on the brilliantly named site blogiston.tj (Russian) is called:

Высшее образование: корочки, коррупция и галстуки

which roughly translates from Russian as:

Higher education: cards*, corruption and [neck]ties

*Cards here meaning the ID-card style diploma booklet awarded to graduates. The same word is also used to describe (in vernacular) the ID cards that the police carry. It’s a shame the word doesn’t work as well in English as the title has nice alliteration and rhythm in Russian: korochki, korruptsiya i galstuki.

On to the content of the post. The original version is at http://blogiston.tj/index.php/ru/blogi/vysshee-obrazovanie-korochki-korruptsiya-i-galstuki and I encourage Russian readers to see the original. (The comments thread underneath was less interesting than some I’ve seen so don’t dwell there). Here’s a rough translation in English:

So, now everything’s changed. I’ve finished my five years at university. I got through several pairs of trousers [there is a lovely Russian verb here which makes a literal translation ‘I have sat through several pairs of trousers!’] and got through tons of science. And now it is my younger brother’s turn to become a student.

What is it exactly that’s changed? It’s that my little brother looks on university only as a place where he needs to go regularly and at the end he’ll get a much-desired degree certificate. I do mean literally ‘to go’ – studying, in principle, isn’t compulsory. He says that there are some girls and *even* one guy who genuinely study! They read books! But everyone laughs at them – it just isn’t cool to study. Especially at the Pedagogical University [which trains teachers!!]. No one wants to become a teacher once they’ve graduated. So it makes no sense to study.

What’s also changed is that bribing to pay your way in to university is no longer a last resort that you call on only when you couldn’t get in the usual way, but pretty much the only way to become a student (and get out of conscription to the army). If five years ago, students hid the fact that they’d bribed their way in to uni, well, now they actively discuss amongst themselves who paid, how much and to whom. My little brother told me that one of his coursemates was an idiot because he’d paid $1,000 [USD] more than the others.

Another changes is that many students quite happily wear (neck)ties, and this “forced labour” doesn’t drive them crazy. Their teachers honestly believe that the wearing of a tie is an obligation, and that the student in a tie studies better.

And there is a genuinely sad change: the older generation of university teachers has pretty much gone. Their places has been taken by plenty of young and inexperienced teachers, whose level of knowledge isn’t that much greater than that of their students.

So that’s what’s happened: students now bribe their way into university, study just to get the degree certificate… but wear a tie with pleasure.

Yes, this is a slighly light hearted look at the higher education scene at one particular university in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, and the author’s obsession with ties is slightly bizarre. Yes, there’s an element of nostalgia from someone who now needs to make the next step in life. But beyond the humour there are some very serious undercurrents and that’s why I felt it was important to share the post with an English-language audience.

We are told very directly about outright shameless corruption, and amongst young people too. The Tajik government has confessed that the Ministry of Education is the most corrupt department in the national government (which, as I have pointed out before, is quite some achievement) and it is well known that university teachers are paid very poorly indeed. This helps explain why teachers are taking bribes: if their own salaries don’t suffice, then you’ve got to live somehow.

Nonetheless, I’m not excusing this behaviour, and I find it desperately sad that paying your way has become commonplace. Many young people’s aspirations are raised as they go through school education to consider staying on for higher education but at what price is this for their sense of moral direction? (Whilst the lure of avoiding conscription is a strong draw for many young men, this isn’t unique to Tajikistan and that has been the same for some years so isn’t a strong argument for the growth in corruption).

What value is ascribed to higher education when you neither need to be smart to get in or work hard to do well? What example is being set for the future of these young people once they graduate? And does anyone in the national government care enough to do something about this before another generation waste their time wearing ties and visiting their campuses just so they can be seen there?

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