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…
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.