Distance learning feels very distant in Tajikistan

With borders still closed and Covid cases on the rise, many of the 26,000 or so Tajik students who study in Russia each year remain stuck at home. With around five million students (a massive number but actually only 2% of the world’s student population) studying abroad, Tajikistan’s international students are far from being alone.

This doesn’t make it any easier to study at a distance and it certainly doesn’t mean this has been a straightforward experience. Based on three recent reports (‘Want to be a student? First, become a billionaire‘, ‘Students at foreign universities are concerned about distance learning conditions in Tajikistan‘ and ‘Borders locked: How Tajik students are studying at Russian universities during the pandemic’), here’s a summary of the obstacles Tajik students are facing.

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By far the biggest challenge is connectivity. This is a common experience for many of their global counterparts, as well as for the many million work-from-homers with domestic internet connections that leave speed at the door (even my high speed enabled surburb of Toronto suffers; I kept losing connection to a Zoom conference being hosted by Hong Kong University just yesterday).

However, what sets Tajikistan apart when it comes to the internet is not only incredibly slow speeds but extremely high prices – hence the need, as one of the reports suggests sardonically, to be a billionaire to study.

According to Speedtest Global Index, Tajikistan ranks 127th out of 138 for mobile download speeds. As one report notes, this helps explain why Tajikistan did not pivot to online learning when the pandemic hit earlier this year, one of few countries not to. Speeds are even slower in rural and mountainous areas of the country, of which there are many.

For fixed broadband, it’s a better picture, with Tajikistan ranked 90th out of 175 countries – but the issue here is that domestic broadband penetration is tiny with just 0.07 subscriptions per 100 people. With an average of 1.1 mobile phone plans per person we can therefore assume that Tajik students are using their phone’s internet connection to try and keep up with their studies.

This is backed up by the reports but here the second factor of cost comes into play. According to one student, they would need to use around 4gb of data per day to fully keep up with their remote learning. And with data costing US$3 per gb – the most expensive internet in the former Soviet space – you can see how the bill would quickly rack up.

(Before you write in, bear in mind that the minimum wage in Tajikistan is US$110 per month, enough to pay for just over nine days’ worth of data for studying – as long as you’re prepared not to eat, heat your home, or pay rent, that is)

For some students, the connectivity issue is different. Not all Russian universities have switched to distance learning, and where that option is not in place, students are not learning at all. In some cases, that’s because faculty can’t or won’t teach online. In other cases, the universities seem incapable of accommodating students who aren’t there in person. For students taking courses requiring equipment (e.g. lab equipment, musical instruments), there isn’t always an alternative that they can take online..

This has led some students stranded in Tajikistan worried that they might be kicked out of their courses because they’ve missed too many classes. One student explained that her university had told her outright that they were simply biding their time before moving her and other international students to a transitional ‘academic leave’ status, removing them temporarily from the register.

The Tajik government has not been able to help. Students have approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tajikistan, asking for negotiations with Russian ministerial counterparts to let them enter the country. Neighbouring Belarus and Ukraine organized charter flights to bring in students at the start of the academic year (which not all could afford) but there have been no such moves from Moscow.

The Ministry of Education and Science, which was gathering a list of students stuck at home, doesn’t appear to have done anything other than increase its capacity to monitor citizens. The Ministry says it has been in talks with international colleagues about the situation, but nothing has been resolved. Rumours that the Ministry has been seeking ways to improve conditions for distance learning while the students are still in Tajikistan are unconfirmed.

One final challenge uniquely faced by male students are fears of unsolicited army conscription. Conscription is mandatory for high school leavers in Tajikistan unless you go to university. Although the law prohibits the conscription of students studying abroad, at least one young man has reported being hassled by enlistment officers who did not believe he was a student (despite him having ID) because he was in Tajikistan during term time.

As one of the reports summarizes, in the best case, these Tajik students will get another chance to go abroad next year. But in the worst case, depressingly, it’s ‘broken dreams or labour migration’.

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