It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.
This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.
(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)
In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.
The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:
-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?
-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?
-Can this area satisfy your needs?
-Can you make a living from this area?
The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.
With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.
Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.
The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.
People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.
Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.
The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.
Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.
I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.
Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.
And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.
And so the cycle continues…
In my most recent post, I passed on some tips on how to get into university in Kyrgyzstan. Today I’d like to share some more advice, this time on how to pass your university exams, courtesy of Ernist Nurmatov at Radio Azattyk [Liberty].
In an article entitled “Osh: did students get grades without going to university?” [ru], Nurmatov recounts the experiences of a university instructor in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who didn’t give pass marks to students who didn’t actually turn up to class.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? You come to class, put in the hours, write your exam at the end, and hopefully pass. Don’t turn up, don’t submit assessments – don’t pass.
Apparently not at the Osh State Law Institute.
After the instructor failed some of her students for not turning up for the exam, she asked some to write an explanatory letter setting their reasons for absence. The letters she got back are shocking.
One student claims he was “cheated” by another instructor who didn’t let him pass even though he paid 6,000 Kyrgyz som (nearly USD$100) as a bribe. That’s not far off an average person’s entire income for a month.
Another, who had to stay at home to look after his parents, claims he paid the local equivalent of USD$75 to one of the university’s most senior officials, who then told him he didn’t have to come in to take the exam.
Naturally, the university completely denies the allegations. One senior official is quoted not once but on two separate occasions as saying “There’s nothing illegal about that” in defence of the university’s actions.
The instructor who bravely refused to pass these students has taken up her case with the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies but in the meantime she has been sacked, according to her because of this incident (again, the university denies this).
Whether you believe Mamatova, the students, or the university officials, there is so much that feels wrong about this situation. Why is that young people feel they have to get a degree so much that they’ll even consider paying for it? How has bribe-taking become so normalized and how might this trend be reversed? What are the implications for the quality of education and of the nation’s graduates? What is going on with the national economy that going abroad to work has become so common? Why are cultural and economic conditions in universities such that an instructor or official will accept a bribe? What happens to others who might now be too scared to shine a light on such rampant corruption?
The picture may be frivolous (and hopefully drew you in to read this far – if so, please read the original article in Russian or my edited translation below) but the issues it belies are serious. The cat in the picture may be saying “don’t ask questions” but I am encouraging you to do just the opposite.
Loosely translated by Emma Sabzalieva; original article (c) Ernist Nurmatov for Radio Azattyk
An instructor at Osh State Law Institute Syuita Mamatova claims that 100 students are being allowed to progress to the next year of study without actually having been to class. These students are working abroad in Russia and paying to receive grades instead of studying. The university administration completely denies these allegations.
Mamatova says that the number of students who take the final exam but don’t turn up for classes is growing. She teaches a class in Banking law where she says around 20 fourth year (in a five year system) students never turned up. When she asked the administration to remove from the class, she got no answer.
Mamatova says that as a rule, instructors aren’t able to record these students as absent, but that she did. Mamatova also took her quest for justice one step further by informing the Rector’s office in writing that these students were being expelled from her class. Yet instead of expelling them, Mamatova claims that the Rector Egemberdi Toktorov and First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov told her to give the students marks.
When Mamatova refused, she was fired. She then turned to the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies. Claiming she was put under pressure, she gave marks to students who did produce final assignments or other work in lieu of attending class. However, she refused to give grades to anyone who had not come to class at all and says that this is why the Rector fired her. As a pretext, the administration claimed they didn’t have enough hours for her to work.
Mamatova is convinced that senior administrators and other instructors are covering for these students and that they took umbrage at her interfering with them receiving money from students for grades.
As insurance, Mamatova took statements from students who did not attend in which they explained their absence. Some students admitted that they were working abroad and paying for their grades instead of studying.
Final year student Aybek Taalaibek uulu said in his letter: “I didn’t attend any of the 22 hours of teaching or any of the 14 seminars for Banking law. I was in my village. But I gave 6,000 som [a little under USD$100] to the teacher Gulzirek Anarbayeva and asked to be let through the course. But she cheated me and didn’t let me pass. This year I had to go to Moscow to earn for my family and Aysinai Alymbayeva promised to let me pass, but she didn’t. I was cheated.”
Nurlan Asanov, another final year student, wrote: “I didn’t attend because I was at home looking after my parents. I gave 5,000 som [USD$75] to First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov and asked him to let me pass. He told me it was all sorted out and I could skip the state exam. I apologise for not attending the Banking law classes.”
The university management refutes Mamatova’s allegations. First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov had the following to say: “We don’t have any students who don’t attend exams. Everyone comes and studies. If there are students who for some reason or another can’t make class, they make up for it either through independent work or reports. Nobody takes money from anyone. All students go to class and take exams by themselves. In the specific case Mamatova is referring to, the letters she presented were written under duress. These students had various reasons that they weren’t able to attend. Their parents have come to me and complained. It’s true that I phoned Mamatova and asked her to give them marks for the catch-up work the students did. All of them had written up to 20 short projects and she gave them marks. There is nothing illegal about that.”
Mamatova also claims that the university gave out documents to 120 Kazakh students who were not studying at the Institute. Again, First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov denies this and accused Mamatova of incompetence: “We had an agreement with a university in Almaty [Kazakhstan] for 120 Kazakh students to join our courses by distance learning. I went to Almaty myself to oversee the admissions process. After six months, they all decided of their own accord to transfer to a different university. We didn’t give them documents saying they’d completed their studies with us, just a letter explaining what they had done during that time. There’s nothing illegal about that.”
Osh State Law Institute’s Rector Egemberdi Toktorov was not available for comment.
Around 5,000 students are enrolled at the Institute. As two undergraduate courses are being wound up this year, a little over 3,000 students remain.
How do you catch the attention of a global audience increasingly used to high participation in higher education? In the case of Kazakhstan, one journalist thinks he’s found the answer, and that is to showcase the high stakes risks some people will take just to have the chance to compete for a place at one of the country’s universities. The language might be a little overblown, but Naubet Bisenov’s article is otherwise an excellent entry point into the world of Kazakhstan’s wannabe student population. The startling fact that is hidden amidst the moral panics created is the very fact that so many young people are so keen to continue their education. Without unpacking the many reasons that this might be the case, I think that makes for quite a different yet nonetheless extremely compelling story in itself!
His article from Intellinews is reproduced below in full.
The al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty is the country’s only entrant in the QS World University Rankings’ world’s top 300 universities.
Kazakh authorities are resorting to desperate measures to stem the endemic cheating at school final examinations.
The tests will be conducted in 166 specially-equipped testing centres between June 2 and 16 to which would-be students will be escorted by police. In order to “ensure necessary security measures” the centres will be equipped with 1,399 jammers of mobile communications, 438 metal detectors and over 2,500 security cameras.
Under pressure to pass the multiple choice test, in addition to memorising answers to test problems and questions, school leavers often resort to all kinds of cheating – from smuggling mobile phones and cribs into testing centres, to sending imposters to sit the test.
Tens of thousands of banned items are seized every year. Last year items such as mobile phones, portable radio sets, calculators and cribs were seized from 20,000 test sitters before the test and 32,000 during the test. In order to smuggle mobile phones into the testing centre through metal detectors pupils were reported to have wrapped them in aluminium foil and put in condoms or have worn a special skirt with secret compartments for hiding mobiles and cribs.
The most controversial case of cheating last year was a third-year male student from Almaty who disguised himself as a girl to allegedly sit the test for his “girlfriend” in South Kazakhstan Region. However, later the police established that the 20-year-old man had not even known the girl but was asked by his friends to do the trick. If found guilty, the trickster was expected to face a fine worth about KZT400,000 (about €2,000 at the time), but prosecutors said they hadn’t brought charges against the man.
The case, which the Education and Science Minister dubbed the “zest” of last year’s university admission season, is symptomatic of the corrupt university admission system: in 2015, the National Security Service uncovered 18 imposters in Almaty Region alone who reportedly offered to sit the test to desperate hopefuls for rewards ranging between $2,500 and $3,000.
Examinations in Kazakhstan are so fiercely competitive because of the shortage of university places paid for by the government, especially at the more prestigious, and often more expensive, colleges such as Nazarbayev University and Eurasian National University in Astana, and Kazakh-British Technical University, Kazakh National University and Kimep university in Almaty. Moreover, the Soviet-era practice of requiring specific diplomas for specific jobs, means that in order to qualify for better positions Kazakh citizens must go to a university to receive the appropriate diplomas.
But at the same time, the performance of Kazakhstan’s schools and universities are still well below that of Western Europe or even Russia. According to the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) tests of schoolchildren in 2012, Kazakhstan ranked 49th against the UK at 26th, the US at 36th and Russia at 34th, with the score for maths at 432 (the UK at 494, the US at 481 and Russia at 482), for reading at 393 (the UK 499, the US 498 and Russia at 475) and science at 435 (the UK at 514, the US at 497 and Russia at 486).
In university education not a single Kazakh university was ranked among the world’s 800 top universities by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016. In QS World University Rankings 2015-2016, there are only two Kazakh universities in the top 400: the Almaty-based Kazakh National University at 275th place and Astana-based Eurasian National University at 371st.
Next year the exam season could be even more competitive because the Kazakh government has cut the number of student grants that will be given to those enrolling in universities. The government set the number of student grants to be offered to university hopefuls at 31,700 grants in the next academic year against 32,788 grants this academic year.
The decrease in the number of student grants to cover tuition averaging KZT346,000 (€927) is explained by the lower number of school leavers this year – 121,091, with 86,991 taking part in the test, compared to 124,346 and 87,783 in the previous academic year.
The number of school leavers reflects a decrease in the birth rate in the country in the 1990s as a result of the economic crisis caused by the breakup of the USSR: it gradually decreased from 22.2 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 14.80 in 1998 and 14.47 in 1999 but started increasing from 14.90 in 2000 to 22.73 per 100,000 people in 2015. This will eventually translate into an increase in the number of school leavers in the near future.
The government also plans to change the current system that combines school leaving exams with university entrance ones in a single test, in order to reduce stress Kazakh university hopefuls endure in the summer after finishing school. School leavers will now sit two exams – one to leave school and another to enter university.
Critics says the current system puts too much pressure on pupils who need to score at least 50 out of 125 in the five-subject 3.5-hour-long test to enrol to university as tuition paying students, 55 to medical universities and 70 to prestigious national universities.
Whether qualified students receive grants or not depends on the number of grants allocated for particular specialisations and the number of hopefuls who apply for them. This year for the first time, the government will allow those who fail to score the minimum to resit the test for a fee of KZT2,242 (€6).
The average score was 79.4 in 2015, 2.5 points higher than in the previous year, with 14,420 scoring over 100 (17.4% of all test sitters) and five girls scoring 125 out of 125. The share of those failing the test was 18.6% in 2015 against 23.1% in 2014.