Where have Tajikistan’s students gone?

It’s been a while, but the cat memes are back

For the 2022/23 academic year, there are a shortage of students at Tajikistan’s universities. Only two thirds of the places allocated for new students have been filled, according to reporting by local newspaper ASIA-Plus.

That’s a difference of around 25,000 school leavers who would otherwise be eligible to continue to one of the country’s 39 higher education institutions. The largest differentials were in applications to technical and scientific subjects and the lowest in the ever-popular fields of law and social sciences.

The lure of study abroad

Sabzali Jafarzoda, Head of the National Testing Centre (which organizes the admissions exam process that is a requirement to enter Tajikistan’s universities and institutes), has observed decreasing numbers of school leavers who plan to continue to higher education in recent years. This is not due to diminished demand, he says, but rather because the reopening of borders means that many young Tajiks are now heading abroad for university instead of staying at home.

Fear of military service

Others have their own theories. Professor Abdurahmon Kurbonov of the government agency Centre for Strategic Research believes that a recent policy change may be to blame. The amendment means that anyone studying in a military-related department is now bound to serve in the army for a year after graduation, and Kurbonov believes this is enough to put off many prospective students.

What else might explain the gap?

The two factors cited in the article certainly ring true. The attraction of studying abroad has indeed become more popular for Tajik students in recent years, and young people’s fears about life in the army feel appropriately placed. But are those enough to explain where 25,000 potential students have gone?

Of course, it’s possible that the planners have their numbers wrong to begin with and over-allocated the number of places. That seems unlikely given the accuracy with which these allotments have been made in previous years and the apparently very detailed information that the government agencies in charge of education are able to procure.

However, what if the number of school leavers has dropped? We know that millions of children around the world lost out on schooling during the first years of the pandemic, and in many cases, they did not return even after schools re-opened. This has been especially true for female students, who in Tajikistan already face growing societal sex-related discrimination.

In 2020, UNESCO data for Tajikistan shows a 76% completion rate from upper secondary school – 69% for females, 85% for males. This seems to be part of a steady if incremental pattern of growth in higher completion rates in recent years so the drop in numbers theory might not be right. However, there’s no data yet for 2021 or 2022 and that will be important to watch.

Even if the number of school leavers hasn’t significantly changed (to the magnitude of 25,000 students), could it be the case that school leavers have decided not to continue to higher education at all? Do they see their immediate future in the workplace, with family responsibilities, or following the well-trodden path of labour migration to Russia?

I’m sure there is no single explanation for such a large gap, but there are likely to be other factors that would help us understand what’s happening. If this pattern repeats in 2023 and beyond, there’s a serious problem here, not least because the country has been in a demographic boom for years.

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