Let them eat bread: Tajik university rector’s gesture to students

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No sooner is he appointed to a new post as rector of the Tajik Pedagogical (teacher training) Institute has Abdujabbor Rahmonov hit the headlines with a publicity-friendly stunt to offer oft-stereotyped hungry students free bread. Whilst there’s no denying that bread is an important part of the Central Asian diet, it doesn’t take a higher education marketing genius to work out that this initiative lays the Rector open to all manner of jokes and criticism.

It helps for context to know that Rahmonov was until very recently the Minister for Education, until he was moved on in January 2012, allegedly for his failure to tackle corruption in the education sector – thanks to Alexander Sodiqov for this link.

To share the joy of this quirky marketing ploy, I’ve translated the original article from Asia Plus into English below. Note that the tone is entirely serious, suggesting that Asia Plus is either desperate for a story (as one of the commentators contends) or is choosing to ignore the humour that could so easily be injected into this report.

I’ve also translated some of the best Russian language comments after the article. The freedom with which people are writing underlines some of the points I made in my most recent post about the role of online media in encouraging government criticism.

The article had been live for about six hours by the time I got pointed to it via a Facebook comment and had already had over 2,200 views and 30 comments.

Tajik Pedagogical Institute Rector treats all students to bread


Lots of lepyoshki

At the Tajik State Aini Pedagogical Institute, an initiative by new rector and ex-Minister of Education Abdujabbor Rahmonov means all students and staff are being offered free lepyoshka (traditional Central Asian bread) for three days.

Asia Plus news agency heard this news from the manager of the teaching department, Iskandar Sulaimanov.

Sulaimanov said that the university had opened a lepyoshechnaya [a bakery specialising in bread] and that the Rector had personally provided flour and given the order to provide free lepyoshka to everyone for three days.

“This is a Tajik tradition: when someone opens a lepyoshechnaya, they invite people to taste the first batch for free,” noted Sulaimanov.

The cost of one lepyoshka here is 70 dirams [15 US cents/9 British pence], when at other bakeries one lepyoshka costs a minimum of 80 dirams or 1 somoni [17-20 cents/11-13 pence].

In addition to this, the Pedagogical Institute representative reported that a hairdresser’s would shortly be opened at the university’s halls of residence. It would offer students a low rate on haircuts.

“The former minister is showing his care for his students,” assured Sulaimanov.

Story (c) Asia Plus. Originally published as Ректор Таджикского педуниверситета угощал всех студентов хлебом on 14.02.2012. , author Mehrangez Tursonzoda. The translation is entirely my own and unofficial.

Selected comments

Rohat: This is a clear example of “kishlakisation” [“kishlak” is a Russian word for village often used in Central Asia] – even sitting in the minister’s chair for 5 or 6 years hasn’t changed him…

Tursonboy: The Pedgagical Institute has around 8,000 students and 2,000 staff. The bread costs 70 dirams. Over 3 days, that equates to a cost of 21,000 somoni. Where has he [the rector] taken this money from? Why are the anti-corruption bodies silent?

Sovest [Conscience]: It looks like his conscience has woken up and he’s finally seen who it was that he was taking $200 for diplomas from all these years [as Minister]…

Abdullo: There are fewer bribes now so [he] needs to find a new source of income. I doubt the rector’s generosity. Everything has been thought up too craftily… he’s a clever guy. Maybe he’ll open a club there – he needs to earn money somehow…

Kto-to [Someone]: Asia Plus, do you really not have any proper news? For some days now you haven’t had any news. As a frequent reader of your articles, I think I have the right to ask you for a good job!?

Piligrim: Is this a university or a shopping centre? And what does “the rector had personally provided flour” mean? What is he, a businessman? I would suggest that the responsible department investigates this fact. The rector should care about the level of students’ education first and foremost. Yes… a new “Tajik tradition”: turn everything into a bazaar [market].

Hats off to Rustam and Gipopotam for my two personal favourite comments:

Rustam: This is called a circulation of funds in the Ministry of Education’s system… students pay [bribe] their teachers, the teachers share funds with the rector, who opens a lepyoshechnaya and offers “free” lepyoshka for three days… it’s both funny and awful… it would all be very funny if it wasn’t so sad!

Gipopotam [Hippopotamus]: The rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has treated all students to bread. This is to help them get used to a teacher’s rations from the outset. If they were in the Law Faculty there would be shashlik [donor kebabs] to go with the bread.

Tajikistan’s government: how much longer a master of the nation?

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Recently, I wrote about the appointment of Nuriddin Saidov as the new Education Minister in Tajikistan. I wondered at the time whether there was anything underlying the move of President Rahmon’s close relative Abdujabbor Rahmonov from the Ministry to Tajik State Pedagogical University.

It seems I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this move, which was part of a wider government reshuffle. Two recent articles have looked at the way the media has reacted to the reshuffle. Here I briefly summarise the two articles and conclude by asking whether growing media criticism is a symptom of a wider cause.

The ever-reliable Konstantin Parshin on Eurasia.net has a good article on the subject, which suggests that Rahmon may have been influenced by criticism from some media outlets. Online media is proving to be an effective way for independent news agencies and in particular individual Taijks to express themselves: just look at comments left under articles on news sites or the use of Facebook to circulate and discuss information.

Parshin says:

“With the spread of the internet, authorities have found it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information in the country. No longer can the government rely on the use of traditional means of coercion, in particular libel cases, to thwart journalistic scrutiny  of its actions.”

However, he concludes that:

“Despite all the attention-grabbing headlines since the New Year, it is still too early to say whether Rahmon’s responsiveness to the media will last, or is just a temporary phenomenon.”

Lola Olimova of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has an interview with political analyst Nurali Davlatov on Ground Report’s website. Entitled ‘Tajikistan’s limited options’, it also discusses the recent reshuffle and demonstrates why increasing media criticism is important:

“The danger is that the public’s trust has its limits, and could soon be at an end. These media reports are a warning sign that people’s patience is running out.”

On the reshuffle, Davlatov’s points are in keeping with findings that are emerging from my study abroad research:

“Tajikistan has professionals, although they don’t necessarily live here – they are scattered around the world these days.

The people who are actually in power came from rural districts and collective farms…. [but] we need government that is conscientious, not corrupt, and that regards itself as servant rather than master of the nation.”

I find it very interesting that Davlatov also touches on the issue of the lack of a Tajik national identity:

“A nation’s psychological makeup takes decades or centuries to form. Tajiks are currently at a stage where they will place more reliance in their avlod [clan], their village, or their district than on outsiders.”

This is interesting because it correlates closely to comments made in a report by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the OSCE, based on its September 2011 conference. The report, which is available here, says:

“Tajikistan is still in the process of constructing a suitable national identity, that is, a foundational and unifying national narrative that can mobilize the support of all its citizens – one that answers the questions: Who are we? What does it mean to be a citizen of the state? Where are we collectively heading?” (page 8)

It thus seems to me that the growing swell of media criticism is something bigger than a series of responses to specific events: it is a collective expression of discontent at the government’s lack of ability to answer the question: where are we collectively heading?

Whilst there has been some economic growth, this has not been enough to prevent drastic under-investment in critical public services. Talented people, as Davlatov notes, leave the country because there aren’t any opportunities for them at home. For people that stay, poverty abounds. The government looks and acts in an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt way.

It is hard to see how Tajikistan can progress from its current state of malaise until there is a government and a leader prepared to seriously address and offer answers to some fundamental questions about the country’s future.

Study abroad survey attracts more than 100 responses

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On 31 January I closed my study abroad survey for Tajik nationals and I was absolutely delighted to see that in total, I had received over 100 responses! This figure is more than double the number I had hoped for and I would like to extend a huge THANK YOU / РАХМАТ / СПАСИБО to everyone who participated.

Thank you in lots of languages

In its Global Education Digest 2011, UNESCO reports that approximately 5,500 Tajiks study abroad each year, with the majority going to Russia (approx 2,800) and Kyrgyzstan (approx 1,500). Around 300 students a year are estimated to go to the USA. With over 30 responses to my survey coming from people studying in the US that means I’ve managed to capture the views of around 10% of the annual total number going to that country. That’s really good going for a small-scale study.

I attribute the better-than-expected response rate to two connected reasons: firstly, the snowball sampling method I used and secondly, the power of social networking. When I created the survey, I also drew up a list of people I knew who would be eligible to participate, and – here comes the snowball part – asked them to spread the message to other people they knew. In this way I was able to reach an audience that was much wider than my own contacts. Secondly, thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn and a Central Eurasia mailing list maintained by Harvard University, I was able to reach people out of my network and my contacts’ networks.

The Facebook group Tajik PhDs abroad was a particularly dynamic group and I feel privileged to have been added to the group with its active discussions on everything from representation of the ‘other’ in Russian film to data on cotton production in Tajikistan. The Harvard mailing list also put me in touch with people around the world. The process of doing the survey may well prove to be as fascinating as the results that I will shortly start analysing!

An explanation of the study that the survey is contributing to is in an earlier blog post.

Global, but not local: Tajikistan’s new Education Minister overlooks basic reform needs

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Nuriddin Saidov, the new Tajik Education Minister

Earlier this month, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon installed a new Minister of Education: the former Rector of Tajik National University Nuriddin Saidov.

(The outgoing Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov has been appointed Rector of Aini Pedagogical University. I don’t know if there was a particular reason for the move – the only information I can find is from state agencies who offer information but not analysis).

This week, Saidov presented some of his early plans to the Majlisi Namoyandagon, Tajikistan’s lower chamber of parliament. I found it interesting that he chose to focus on what I would consider the “garnishes” rather than the “bread and butter” issues. That is to say, he did not use this as an opportunity to address some of the fundamental issues in the education sector like low teachers’ wages and poor school conditions (lack of materials, heating etc).

Instead, he spoke about getting more young Tajiks studying abroad and improving the study of foreign languages in schools and universities. He also asked parliament to ratify the Lisbon Recognition Convention, signed by Rahmon in June 2011. This is a European initiative to recognise countries’ higher education qualifications in the European region.

Whilst this is great news for students who want a more international perspective (and would give me more respondents for my study abroad survey!), these initiatives are certainly not going to fix the underlying problems facing the sector.

Potentially positive news for the Ministry known to be the most corrupt of all government agencies in Tajikistan (quite some achievement) was Saidov’s mention of a restructure of the Ministry. However, it remains to be seen whether this mean appointing his friends to posts or driving more fundamental reforms.

Say no to corruption in education... not just applicable to students? Image (c) amandaonmonday.wordpress.com

Parliament’s  speaker Shukurjon Zukhurov was on hand to give Saidov some real-world advice. He noted that ratifying the Lisbon Recognition Convention did not mean that Tajik students’ levels of knowledge would improve. For this, he said, the Ministry and students themselves must work harder and do more.

Saidov responded by saying he understands the responsibility he’s taken on. Let’s just hope this is truly the case.

Students: heads you lose, tails you lose

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Are today’s students in the former Soviet Union too political or not political enough? Two recent stories from Uzbekistan and Russia suggest that either way, students will end up being criticised: you’re damned if you do care and you’re damned if you don’t.

In Uzbekistan, the government has introduced a new moral code – no less than 23 pages long – in an attempt to rectify what it sees as poor behaviour amongst students. Apparently students are getting too wild for the government’s liking, with allegations of inappropriate dressing and listening to music that’s just way too foreign. The government clearly sees this as a threat

On the other hand, a visiting student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in Russia has posted a well-written critique of the lack of politics at the Institute. The author sees this as contrary given that graduates of the Institute often go on to high-level positions in government and business. A small murmur of interest has arisen at the Institute since the post-election demonstrations in Russia in December 2011, but whether this is maintained remains to be seen.

I’d love to hear what current students in the region have to say about this.

20 years on: human rights in the post-Soviet countries

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I’d like to recommend a great article I’ve just read, The Soviet Fall and the Arab Spring.

By an experienced human rights researcher, the article provides six ideas “about what has to happen after the revolution to make change stick”.

The six ideas are:

1. There is nothing inevitable about transitions to democracy

2. Guard against misplaced blame (I found this a particularly interesting idea)

3. Institutionalize strong minority rights protections

4. International institutions matter

5. Establish concrete human rights benchmarks and give them teeth

6. Support a strong civil society

However, in the case of the post-Soviet countries featured in the article, it’s more of a sobering lesson in how human rights have not always been prioritised, and how motivation (political, individual) plays an important role in the success – or otherwise – of attempts to “make change stick”.

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 3: Kazakhstan

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Today, a brief overview of the current situation for higher education in Kazakhstan, as part of my monthly series reviewing the Central Asian countries. Click on the links to read earlier posts on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Of the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan in particular has embraced the concept of a market-driven higher education system and national policy is aimed at ‘reforming the higher education system to meet the needs of a modern competitive economy based on international experience’ (National Tempus Office Kazakhstan, October 2010: 6). Both in number and proportion, there are more private providers of higher education in Kazakhstan than other Central Asian countries, which partly reflects low government investment in education.

That said, there has been investment in in the high quality end of the market to support President Nazarbayev’s aim of creating a knowledge economy in the country. The best example of this is the 2006 creation of a brand new university in the capital Astana. Originally called simply the New University, it has now been renamed Nazarbayev University after the President. Despite neither name being interesting or original (although New College Oxford has been around since 1379 so perhaps they should have stuck with the original name!), significant state funds have been pumped into prestigious international partnerships with universities of the likes of Harvard, University College London and the National University of Singapore with the aim of creating – at high-speed – an international standard research university with a focus on science and social sciences.

Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University
Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University

In terms of subject areas, the British Council’s review of the Kazakhstan market confirms that science, engineering and technology are priorities for the country (May 2011). These subjects have been a focus for the state-funded Bolashak Scholarship Programme (which between 1995 and 2010 sent over 7,300 Kazakh students abroad to study), demonstrating a desire to improve capacity in these areas. However, with the rise of Nazarbayev University, it is likely that the Bolashak Programme will be remodelled as a smaller programme focussing exclusively on subjects not available in Kazakhstan.

The Ministry of Education and Science in Kazakhstan has ten stated priorities for the development of higher education that aim to improve quality and enable the achievement of international standards (Omirbaev, December 2009). The priorities are geared around making Kazakhstan’s education system compatible with the Bologna process, for example moving to the three-cycle Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate system and introducing a credit transfer system like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Vocational training is also important, with the government recently announcing that its education development programme will bring standards up to an international level.

In summary, Kazakhstan’s ‘higher education system has come a very long way from its Soviet roots since independence’ (OECD/World Bank, 2007: 24) but it is held back on a global scene because of the slower rates of development (e.g. in institution building and basic infrastructure) in the Central Asian region as a whole. It has not been immune to the global financial crisis, as Lillis noted in 2009, with subsequent effects on the student experience that are demonstrated through student quotes used in the article.


  • British Council. (May 2011). Kazakhstan Market Briefing
  • CaspioNet. (07.01.2012). Kazakhstan transmits to international standards of vocational training. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from http://caspionet.kz/eng/business/Kazakhstan_transmits_to_international_standards_of_vocational_training_1325916289.html.
  • Lillis, Joanna. (07.06.2009) Kazakhstan: Economic Crisis Crimps Astana’s Grand Plans for Higher Education. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav060809.shtml
  • National Tempus Office Kazakhstan. (October 2010). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: European Commission
  • OECD/World Bank. (2007). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: Reviews of National Policies for Education
  • Omirbaev, S. M. (December 2009). Национальные приоритеты развития высшего и послевузовского образования Республики Казахстан на 2010-2012 г.г (National Priorities for the Development of Higher and Post-Higher Education in the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010-2012)

See also blogger Kazakh Nomad’s December 2011 posts answering some important questions about Kazakhstan, including on the education system, in a series of farewell posts as she prepares to leave the country.