In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.
Avaz Saifiddinov, a journalist with as-independent-as-is-possible-in-Tajikistan Asia-Plus media group, this week reports [ru] – in almost apocalyptic terms – on the devastating impact that a lack of education and skills training can bring to a nation. He calls this qualification deficit the single biggest problem facing Tajikistan today, more so than corruption, lack of electricity and absence of democracy. He even suggests that neighbouring Afghanistan has greater levels of human capital than Tajikistan. Controversial? Yes – but the devastating fact is that despite some exaggerations in the article, much of it rings true.
Saifiddinov offers some good proposals to avoid what may lay ahead for the country if changes are not made. Business owners should be creative in thinking about different types of business and identifying their markets. Education should be properly financed. A renewed importance needs to be place on vocational education and training. Public administration should be reformed.
But – and here’s the big ‘but’… Saifiddinov points out that transformation would have to start from the top, something that’s very easy to say but in reality is unlikely without a change of government. And if you follow Saifiddinov’s logic, that won’t happen unless top government officials advocate for change and in so doing effectively write themselves out of a job… Saifiddinov is absolutely right to point out the importance of having the leadership on board for any major change project to succeed, but doesn’t seem to see or want to admit the terrible irony of this suggestion.
I second the requests from some of the people commentating on the article for more on this theme from Saifiddinov. This article makes a lot of big statements and comes up with some big suggestions. Let’s break those down, qualify and quantify the issues and look at pragmatic ways that individuals can make change happen.
English translation below is mine but the article in all languages is © Asia-Plus.
Lack of qualified staff could threaten terrible poverty
It’s scary to think about whose hands and brains will build and develop the country in 10-15 years’ time when the older generation has passed on…
If you were to ask what the most pressing problem in the country is at the moment, I would be bold enough to say it’s not a lack of communication or a lack of electricity. It’s not even high levels of corruption, the absence of democracy and a poor investment climate.
Our main problem is a lack not just of qualified, but even just competent, staff at absolutely every level…
That’s partly against a backdrop of poor overall understanding of very elementary things and concepts, such as knowledge of geography, basic mathematics, physics and grammar. It is undoubtedly the case that this is a real problem in many countries, especially poor countries, but it seems nowhere more acute than in Tajikistan, particularly among young professionals and government officials.
This is so much so that the Dushanbe City Council has openly stated that it will give preference in recruitment to candidates who graduated from Tajik universities before 1992 and graduates of foreign universities. This is further confirmation that both state and private higher education institutions are producing so-called ‘specialists’ who are either incompetent – or, with a few exceptions, have such a low level of qualification that it’s not appropriate for the modern workplace.
You might say that the problem is exaggerated and that there are countries where the situation with professional qualifications is worse? Maybe there are some countries where the overall socio-economic situation is worse (for example, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Sri Lanka and other extremely poor countries). But even in Afghanistan, for example, the level of competence and qualification of government officials, business and private sector workers is higher than ours. Our saving grace is the workforce trained up to the late 20th century, but this generation will pass on either with age or through migration.
Our problem is really so critical that even if all other fundamental issues were somehow resolved, the lack of qualified personnel would simply not allow the country take advantage of these newly favourable conditions to develop the country’s social and economic sectors. The problem of incompetence often leads to erroneous decisions, ill-considered investments of public and private resources into projects with low returns or projects destined to fail, and these can cause serious damage to the state, private businesses and the public. For example, ambitious projects for new buildings and business centres designed without business plans or for someone’s personal benefit.
It’s unacceptable that in all these years of independence, the drive for high quality education, professional competence, honesty and integrity has been lost. The most ‘successful’ and richest people in the country generally don’t have the professional qualifications appropriate to their status in society or position in the civil service. Then they pass this ‘legacy’ to their children and extended family. This ‘role model’ behaviour is also transmitted more widely in society, undermining its foundations and creating unrealistic outlooks for young people, where they don’t put high quality education and professionalism first. When asked about their future, rural high school students usually say that leaving to work in Russia is their ultimate life ambition.
As a result, everyone suffers, both rich and poor:
– A Minister makes ignorant statements or can’t coherently argue the state’s position;
– A government official can’t make an educated decision about recruiting staff and allows corruption and misuse of public funds;
– A Member of Parliament makes a declaration in all seriousness that marriages between Tajiks and foreigners (non-Muslims) should be banned;
– Builders build poor quality houses and take too long, leading to many contracts being given instead to Turkish or Chinese companies;
– There’s a lack of qualified plumbers and electricians;
– A doctor makes a wrong diagnosis, often leading to fatal consequences;
– Teachers make students learn songs, history and poems by heart, instead of offering them basic knowledge;
– Students often do not have a basic grasp of elementary mathematics and can’t write properly, whilst at the same time most textbooks aren’t even in the state language;
– A traffic inspector doesn’t even know the rules of the road and doesn’t know how to control traffic;
– Lawyers and judges don’t know the law, and economists have no idea what the model of supply and demand is;
– Trader don’t know anything about the goods in their shops other than their price…
This lamentable list goes on and on.
Separately, we should also mention our migrant workers who through blood, sweat and tears earn a living in Russia, and in so doing uphold the country’s economic solvency and social security. However, due to their extremely low level of education and qualifications and ignorance of their rights, they are employed in the lowest paid and the most difficult jobs. This leads to low earnings, widespread violation of human rights, extortion and a high death rate. And so the story of the lack of education of our migrant workers is becoming the talk of the town.
As for the local labour market, there is a serious and imminent prospect of our local workforce being replaced by invited [foreign] specialists not only in high-tech sectors, but also in construction and even in agriculture.
On the plus side, however, the problem of incompetent staff is a universal one for rich and poor, the powerful, the oligarchs and ordinary citizens. The funds of rich and successful businessmen, bank and factory owners are also affected: whilst they have money and the desire to invest it profitably, they often – through ignorance – are unable to find a decent and professional team of employees to be entrusted with management and business development. Distrust between company owners and their managers is a particular problem. The owner doesn’t pay the employee for poor performance, and the employee tries to steal or cheat it out of the company. The state itself often does the same when it comes to public property, public services or state-owned enterprises.
Among company owners, there’s also an extreme shortage of ideas for the development of a productive and interesting business. Everyone’s building houses, business centres, hotels, supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants, and demand for these is not that high. Or things are done without consideration about whether there are workers qualified enough to take the business forward. Few people are thinking where money could be invested effectively, for example, in private medical clinics, quality nurseries and children’s centres (in a country where many children), private tourism, consulting, and so on.
And even if you have ideas and investment, it’s impossible to find specialists who could make them into reality, whether these are educated waiters and good cooks, traders, educators and so on. Where such specialists exist, there is a fear that a successful business will be forcefully taken over. When this happens, the new ‘owners’ aren’t in a position to support and develop these ideas to make a profit for themselves and society, because once a team leaves, the business often goes too, even if there’s money in it.
The problem of unprofessionalism and incompetence is fundamental and universal. This does not mean that the people in themselves aren’t good, but it means that for a number of reasons they don’t have a competitive advantage or professional skills. At the highest level, this means that the entire country is not able to develop effectively and compete in the region, to defend and promote our interests in both foreign and domestic policy.
It is very sad that the phrase ‘Made in the Tajik way’ (‘Tojiki’) is increasingly associated with poor quality, poor service, but high cost.
But there is a solution
The solution to this problem must also be fundamental. Starting right from the top, we must fundamentally change the way people are motivated towards a high quality education, putting professionalism at the forefront, particularly for the leaders of the country (instead of regionalism and tribalism). It will demonstrate a new scale of values for the entire population which in turn will help to bring in a new wave of civil servants from top to bottom. This should be followed by major reform of public administration and the civil service.
The education system needs to be radically reformed at both school and university level, so that pupils and teachers stop being undervalued in themselves and as a profession, and so that schools and universities are properly financed by the state and not by parents’ pockets.
And finally, the system of vocational education needs to be restored so that, as before, the role of the worker and the master become more valued professions – instead of the tax inspector or the state worker. This would also improve the competence and skills of potential migrants. And for that we need incentives and people, people, people – experts in their field, of whom we have so few left.
The very first step must be made from the top, otherwise the best case scenario is that we’ll continue to remember our glorious past, praising the greatness of culture and poetry of the 10th century. At worst, we will be absorbed by the new great empire of the East.