Bureaucratic madness

Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarships

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Got a degree but don’t want to use your qualification working out in the middle of nowhere without your family and earning a pittance?

If you’re a graduate of a Tajik university and you’ve had funding from the state to support your studies, the ruling of a regional court this week is that if this rural employment opportunity doesn’t appeal, TOUGH LUCK. You either go or you repay your scholarship instead.

State scholarship students are contractually bound to work in a job that’s in line with their area of study for three years after graduating and this judicial reinforcement of the rules underlines that there’s very little tolerance in Tajikistan for anyone who disagrees with the government’s thinking.

One of four Tajik graduates who’s been ordered to repay their scholarship explains that he declined the school teaching job offered to him because it would have meant leaving his family and children to work in a rural area and on top of that, not earning enough to provide for his children. From that perspective, you can understand why he chose to overlook the clause in his scholarship contract he’d agreed to several years before.

The idea that scholarships are provided conditionally is not unusual – the British government, for example, requires its Chevening Scholars to leave the country at the end of their studies and has the power to cancel UK visas should the scholar apply to stay after completing their studies. In addition, many private foundations and organisations offering scholarships to study abroad do so with the provision that the scholar will return at some point in the future, thus bringing back the benefit of their learning and experiences to their home country (though they don’t have the enforcement power of a government that also manages visas!). Fair enough, you might say.

This case, however, doesn’t come across quite as reasonably as the examples I have just given. Fundamentally, until and unless the labour market improves in Tajikistan, the supply of good jobs for university graduates is slim, which can force graduates to look for opportunities that don’t directly connect to the subject they studied. The connections between subject of study and employment sector are no longer as closely aligned as they were under the centrally planned Soviet system, which controlled not just the flow of jobs but the supply of subjects in each university.

In parts of the world, it is common for graduates to seek work that may not instinctively seem to connect with what they studied at university, but in fact the connections lie in the applicability of the skills the graduate has learned during their study. And there are some jobs that you can’t do a degree in, like many of the jobs in university administration. So, for example, someone with a history degree might end up working as a university manager (like me): whilst I don’t work on the university’s archives or do other directly historical-related work, I do employ the analytical, writing, teamwork and other skills I learned as an undergraduate.

Another reason that this case doesn’t sit comfortably relates to the low salaries of state employees, including teachers. Many graduates who would otherwise be well qualified to work in schools are deliberately choosing work in other areas, notably the private sector and aid/development organisations in Tajikistan because the salaries and conditions are a great improvement on the meagre pay packet the state is able to offer.

Now that this case has been to court and the court ruled in favour of the government, Tajik students should think carefully before signing their names on the dotted line of a state scholarship contract.

My translation of the original article by Alexander Shabalin [ru] that appears in News-Asia this week (and has been syndicated to a number of other agencies) is below, and attached with the original Russian version here: Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship money.

Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship funding for not working in line with area of study

Alexander Shabalin, © News-Asia, http://www.news-asia.ru/view/society//8427

Translation © Emma Sabzalieva

24 June 2015

Four Tajik university graduates have been accused of not working according in line with their area of study (referred to in the region as ‘specialism’) after finishing university. The Sughd Regional Court has ordered the young people to repay 32,000 Tajik somoni (USD$5,000) to the government.

The court found the four graduates of Khujand University guilty of not having completed a government requirement of working in their specialist area (i.e. the industry most closely linked to the subject studied at university). One of the graduates, Abdushukur Ustoboev, who completed a degree with the specialism ‘Folk Art’ at the Faculty of Painting and Graphics at Khujand State University, said that he had to turn down work as an art teacher in a rural school because of the salary, which was so low he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. He also noted that he wasn’t in a position to repay the 8,000 somoni (USD$1,300) payment ordered by the court.

“I understand that the government has supported our education, but you also need to understand that I am not prepared to repay the money following the court order. I was told to work in a remote rural school as an art teacher for three years after graduating and to live there without my family and children. I didn’t do it, and now I’ve been prosecuted for it,” said Abdushukur Ustoboev.

The Tajik Ministry of Education requires university students receiving state scholarships to work for three years after graduating in a job allocated to them according to their area of study. This requirement is in place because the government wants to get a return on its financial investment in the students’ education – and in this case, this meant sending them to work in schools in remote mountainous regions of the country. According to official figures, there is a shortage of more than 600 school teachers in a range of subject areas in the Sughd region.

Mamura Yusufzoda, Press Secretary for the Rector of Khujand State University, said that there was no one to teach the specialisms studied by the four graduates who came before the court (painting and graphics, geo-ecology, biology and chemistry) to in schools outside of large towns in Tajikistan. As a result, the university decided to take tougher measures against any students who didn’t want to take up work in their specialist area. According to the figures held by the university’s lawyers, 40 out of 500 completing students at Khujand State University refused to work according to their specialism in 2014. The university’s lawyers also reported that, before enrolling at university, every state-funded scholarship student signs a contract which explains their obligation to work for three years in a place where they can use their specialism. Only after that time does the graduate have the right to receive their degree certificate.

High heels in the headlines again

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What is it about Tajik educational leaders and fashion? Not content with the controversy this caused last year (see my articles high heels for higher learning and high heels hit the headlines), the Pro-Rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has followed in the (high-heeled?) footsteps of his Rector Abdujabbor Rahmonov by banning several female students from class yesterday… for wearing shoes without heels.

Pro-Rector Iskandar Aminov said “We don’t want these girls who’ve turned up in shoes without heels to fall ill in this weather. These girls are future mothers, and our roads are full of water. In those shoes they could get ill. It would be better if they wore heeled shoes. Scientific advice supporting this initiative suggests that girls [coming to university] shouldn’t be allowed in with shoes without heels.”

The six ‘girls’ (where has the respect gone for these poor women?) were sent home to change their shoes.

The story [ru], reported yesterday by Ozodagon, a Tajik news agency, is starting to spread very quickly on social media. People are discussing it vigorously; there is outrage (especially among women) that people are being dictated to about the way they dress; there is also bemusement that someone in such a senior position could genuinely think that there is ‘scientific’ evidence somewhere out there to support this.

Readers outside of Central Asia may well be wondering how on earth a university – supposedly a fount of knowledge and learning – could make such an outlandish proclamation. Those of you who are more familiar with Tajikistan are more likely to see this absurdity as yet another example of  the misguided way that the country is supposedly being run.

 

High heels for higher learning?

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A scandal is bubbling between the Rector of the Tajik State Pedagogical University, Abdujabbor Rahmonov, and the only vocal national newspaper (inasmuch as it can be vocal in Tajikistan), Asia-Plus. The reason? The rector’s decision to impose a supplementary dress code on female students requiring them to wear high heeled shoes (though only up to 10cm high) and clothes made of single-block colour [ru].

I read through Asia-Plus’ latest reportage on the situation with complete bewilderment. Could it really be that the Rector believes that ordering such a dress code (which is much more explicit than the national dress code for university students) – and having security guards at the entrance of the university checking this in what in Russian is called face control – will enhance female students’ learning experience? Will it make them smarter or better equipped to learn?

Of course, the answer is no.

This is not the first time Abdujabbor Rahmonov has interfered in such affairs. As Minister of Education, he introduced a dress code into schools which included such rules as banning male teachers from having beards.

The worrying part of what would otherwise be simply a farce is that the Asia-Plus journalist who attempted to ascertain whether the university really had imposed this enhanced dress code by interviewing female students wound up in the local police station. The Rector then requested that the police investigate [ru] what he calls the ‘incorrect and illegal actions of the journalist’, allegedly so because Rahmonov happened to appear in the background of some of the journalist’s photos (she explains that he was driving in to the university when she was taking photos of the female students she had been interviewing). The good news is that the police have decided not to take the request forward [ru], as they don’t believe that the journalist had been breaking the law.

Public reaction on Asia-Plus’ Facebook page [ru/tj] has been one of both outrage, disbelief and lack of surprise. Here’s a typical (repeatable!) quote: “Where is Tajikistan and its government heading? Rather than starting with high heels… it would be better to strengthen teaching, stop bribe-taking and simply give students the chance to study…”

New Year, new you? Father Christmas redesigned, Uzbek style

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Uzbekistan has bowed out of 2012 with a final “fingers up” to one of the best loved Soviet traditions, that of Father Frost (Дед Мороз or Father Christmas, reimagined for the Soviet New Year holiday) and Snow Maiden (Снегурочка – she has no European/American equivalent that I’m aware of). uznews.net has a remarkably critical article on the proposed government imposed change:

Father Frost, Snow Maiden renamed in Uzbekistan
The Uzbek Culture and Sport Ministry has recommended that all of the country’s theatres rename Father Frost to Star Magician and Snow Maiden to Star Fairy.Uzbekistan is trying to depart from traditions and images introduced during the Soviet period and changes being introduced in this connection have impacted New Year celebrations as well.

The country is going to see in the forthcoming year of 2013 without the usual Father Frost and Snow Maiden, but with new images which the Uzbek Culture and Sport Ministry started developing long before the holiday.

An actor from one of Tashkent’s theatres has said that the Culture and Sport Ministry on 12 November held a meeting with art managers of Tashkent’s theatres to discuss the New Year celebrations.

He recommended that art managers should develop images based on “American-European” New Year characters.

It is clear from the task’s context that Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden, whom we have known since our childhood, must become absolutely new by appearance and content.

In the vision of culture officials, they can be heroes “approximate to Santa Claus” and its fairy assistant.

As a result of the meeting, it was decided to rename Father Frost as Star Magician, and Snow Maiden as Star Fairy.

The ministerial innovation, the actor said, made his whole company laugh.

“When we learnt about this innovation, we laughed for a long time at this nonsense and are still laughing,” he said.

However funny may it be, Uzbek theatre actors have nevertheless started playing the new New Year characters.

Tajik students not allowed to attend foreign-run events

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Having read about this last week, I was all set to think about the implications of the rather bizarre announcement from the Tajik Ministry of Education that they would be banning students from attending events run by foreign organisations. However, the kind people at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have done this for me, so please find below a reprint of Galim Fastukhdinov’s article. You can also access it at http://iwpr.net/report-news/tajik-students-warned-foreign-events; (c) IWPR.

 

Tajik Students Warned Off “Foreign” Events

Fears that government wants to limit young people’s contact with ideas from abroad.
1 Nov 12
 

New instructions barring students in Tajikistan from attending events funded by foreign donors have alarmed civil society groups, who fear the measure will deny young people opportunities to broaden their horizons.

Commentators struggling to understand the decision have speculated that the authorities are acting out of fears that young people will become politicised by events which focus on democracy-building or leadership skills.

On October 8, the Central Asian state’s education ministry sent out written instructions to the heads of all universities, telling them to stop students participating in conferences, seminars and training courses arranged by international organisations, as such events were against the law.

The move came as a shock, as the Tajik government – which itself receives a lot of donor assistance – does not have a record of clamping down on activities run by international agencies or by local NGOs with funding from abroad.

When the media got hold of the education ministry document, it prompted fierce discussions.

In an attempt to take some of the heat out of the debate, the deputy education minister Farhod Rahimov, who put his name to the instruction, said the sole intention was to ensure that students turned up for classes, and said they were free to go to events in their spare time.

In an interview for IWPR, the head of the ministry’s international relations department, Tamara Nasimova, took a similar line, insisting there was no plan to shut out foreign influence, and pointing out that individual universities as well as the ministry itself had a free hand to set up international ties.

At the same time, Nasimova made it clear the education authorities were concerned about certain unspecified foreign groups which got young people involved in their activities without informing the relevant official bodies.

“No one knows what training methods they use or what they intend to teach young people,” she said, noting that the ministry wanted the organisers of such events to inform it and the university administration about the aim, number of participants and so on.

She said the ministry had refused to grant the London-based group International Alert permission to hold a one-week student camp this autumn, and had suggested postponing it until next summer.

In some cases, university administrators appear to be so keen to be following ministry orders that they have imposed their own, more rigorous rules.

The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, for example, found that a planned meeting with students to brief them and test their language skills was cancelled. DAAD has a cooperation agreement in place with the education ministry, and had advance agreement for the October 23 event, in the northern city of Khujand.

DAAD representative Gulchehra Kakharova said the last-minute cancellation by Khujand university came as a blow to students who had been preparing for the test in the hope of winning scholarships to study in Germany.

Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said he suspected the government wanted to prevent students becoming more politically aware and developing a better knowledge of events in the outside world.

“Participating in foreign [-funded] programmes and projects gives them an opportunity to develop leadership skills and engage with global trends,” he said.

Hakimov said the authorities might be especially nervous because the 2013 presidential election was coming up, and he also drew parallels with the Russian government’s clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs.

In Tajikistan, he said, there was little chance that civil society groups could source funding locally, so a more restrictive attitude to foreign funding would really squeeze them.

Farrukh Umarov, a researcher at Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, said the ministry instruction followed by a public outcry followed a familiar pattern.

The government had a habit of imposing blanket bans on anything it considered a threat, without trying to test the public mood first, he said. The education ministry had previously outlawed both Islamic dress and miniskirts.

“In our country, a radical decision gets made without preparing public opinion for it. Then it’s implemented and leads to an outcry,” Umarov said.

Students at Tajik universities fear they will lose out on opportunities for contact with the outside world.

“Educational programmes run by international organisations have been useful because they offer us a chance to learn more than we’re taught at university,” a student in the capital Dushanbe said.

Asking not to be named, the student said he feared he could be expelled from his university if he continued attending events of this kind.

Another student asked, “What’s so bad about this? Take foreign-language courses, for instance. They haven’t had a negative impact on my studies. Now we’ll lose out on this.”

Galim Faskhutdinov is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.

 

Tajik higher education: dress smart and pay up

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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?

Uzbekistan: Karimov Decree Makes Schools, Universities Cell-Free Zones (Repost from Eurasia.net)

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(c) Evgeny Kuzmin, Eurasia.Net, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65545

Uzbekistan: Karimov Decree Makes Schools, Universities Cell-Free Zones

President Islam Karimov’s administration in Uzbekistan wants school-age children to be in school and studying. Yet a new rule imposed on schools and universities indicates that officials are worried Uzbek youngsters are learning too much.

Under a decree adopted in late May, students in Uzbekistan are banned from using, and even displaying mobile phones in schools. The official reason for the measure is a desire to ensure students aren’t distracted in class, and cannot cheat during exams. But certain provisions in the decree are prompting regional experts to suspect that the government has a hidden agenda: to restrict the ability of technology-savvy kids to both obtain and share information with the outside world.

These days any student, school employee, professor or visitor must switch their cellphone to silent mode upon entering an educational facility, and keep the device out of sight, in a place that is not readily accessible. It is specifically prohibited to keep a phone in one’s pocket, for example. The goal, according to the wording of the decree, is to “ensure the constitutional rights of students in getting a quality education and professional training, as well as to lower youth health risks for the interests of the nation and society.”

Taken at face value, such goals, as enumerated in this decree, are legitimate, even laudable. But additional sections of the decree suggest it is actually aimed at helping the government defend its own interests, not those of students. In particular, one section expressly forbids students or school employees to use mobile phones to shoot video or take pictures that “‘damages the image of the educational facility.”

“While parts of the law may promote a legitimate interest in combating cheating and minimizing distractions in the classroom, there is reason to view it as an extension of the government’s well-documented campaign to restrict freedom of expression and stifle civic discussion in the country,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.

“Uzbek authorities are well aware that an increasing number of Uzbeks access the internet, get news, and discuss societal issues not via their computers, but over their mobile phones,” Swerdlow added. “As far back as 1992, when authorities in Tashkent brutally crushed student protests, Tashkent has understood that universities are ideological battlegrounds that must be closely monitored and controlled.”

The provision banning the use of video and photography seems specifically targeted at stifling citizen journalism. Cellphones have been involved in reporting incidents in Central Asia over the past few years, enabling information to reach the outside world that was deeply embarrassing for authoritarian governments in the region. The most conspicuous example is the 2011 arms depot mishap in Abadan, Turkmenistan. In one recent Uzbek case, according to Swerdlow, someone caught a school principal in the western region of Karakalpakstan publicly humiliating students for failing to meet their cotton harvest quota. Another set of videos documented bribery in Uzbek schools. The videos went viral in Uzbekistan.

“These are topics Uzbek authorities do not want students and others making films about or even discussing,” Swerdlow said. Uzbekistan is the subject of international criticism for the continuing use of forced child labor in the cotton sector.

If the Uzbek government was interested in merely keeping kids off their cellphones and focused on their coursework, there are more efficient ways of doing it, suggested Anton Nossik, media director at SUP, the company that owns the popular blogging platform LiveJournal.

“The most efficient way to fight against mobiles would be to jam them in the auditoriums where quiet is required, like movie theaters,” Nossik said. “Jammers can have limited coverage – you exit from the room and get your signal back.”

Editor’s note: 

 Evgeny Kuzmin is an editorial associate at Eurasianet.