Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]
With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.
If, however, you didn’t score highly enough on the test to gain a scholarship, you can still go to one of Kyrgyzstan’s 50 universities (more than most countries with a similar population – Denmark has 8, Scotland – 19)… but you have to pay fees. These students are known as kontraktniki (контрактники) because of the contract between the institution and the student.
For students in Kyrgyzstan, a recent article from news agency Sputnik has some top tips for those seeking to avoid becoming the angry fee-paying cat [ru] and still get to university. These include:
- Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
- Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
- Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person
But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?
Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.
Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.
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.
Here’s a transcription (though not a literal translation) of a very informative 8 minute video from Radio Ozodi [ru]. It shows a growing interest in studying abroad, but the programme has a clear moral drive behind its interesting content – see the last paragraph. Makes me wonder if the Kazakh government didn’t inspire the piece: the state provides excellent funding for its young people in the form of Bolashak scholarships but the programme notes that more than half of the 10,000+ scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan (which is a condition of the award). Brain drain alert?
Emma’s transcription. Original video can be found at http://rus.ozodi.org/media/video/25299778.html, (c) Radio Ozodi, 12.03.2014
In Kazakhstan, the Bolashak scholarship competition is now open. Thousands of ambitious young people will apply for funding to study in Europe, USA and China. And across Central Asia, study abroad isn’t just a sign of quality and reputation but an investment in their future. The programme discusses the possibilities of studying abroad.
Abu Bakri Saidullo is studying in Dresden, Germany. He wants to graduate with distinction before returning to Tajikistan where he plans to run a business. “We get really up to date knowledge here. I don’t think you can get that kind of knowledge in universities at home,” he says. Abu Bakri is self-funding his studies. The cost per semester is €250 which covers tuition and six months of accommodation in halls of residence.
There are also plenty of opportunities for talented students to obtain funding to study abroad. 30 year old Ilkhom Aslanov from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has studied in India and Japan and is now in Germany. He comes from a modest background and couldn’t have afforded to self-fund his studies. He says there is a good choice of institutions in Germany and that influenced his decision to apply. The application process was quite cumbersome but in the end he was awarded a grant by DAAD (https://www.daad.de).
Young people in Turkmenistan, however, prefer to study in former Soviet countries and Turkey, mainly for language reasons. Eliza Kenenbaeva is completing her studies at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her studies are funded by the Soros Foundation which is why she took up her place, but she says that other Turkmen students are attracted by the low fees and proximity of AUCA to their home country. She also says that it helps that the educational systems are similar, as are Turkmen and Kyrgyz languages.
Although the number of Turkmen students in Kyrgyzstan has fallen in recent years due to travel restrictions on Turkmen citizens, they continue to be attracted by the low cost of study ($2-3,000) and the absence of a language barrier.
The criteria for obtaining a scholarship to study abroad, which the commentator points out is the only way to study abroad without cost, can include:
- Academic achievements
- Research and academic potential
- Leadership qualities
- Financial situation
Aynura Chollonkulova, a Bishkek-based careers adviser, says that funding bodies will also consider your personal characteristics. Students initially want to base their choice by the country they want to study in, but she and her experienced consultants advise them instead to focus on their area of specialisation.
In Kazakhstan, the state-funded Bolashak scholarship programme has enabled more than 10,000 Kazakh students to study abroad over the last 20 years. More than 6,000 of them have already completed their studies. The aim of the programme is to train highly qualified specialists who can work at an international level.
Scholars have to return to Kazakhstan and work for at least five years for any public or private sector company or the state as a condition of the funding. However, according to official figures, more than 50% of scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan.
Gulzira Amanturlina did her Master’s at LSE, one of the best universities in the world. She then returned to Kazakhstan where she pursued a career in banking. She says she found work in a bank straight away after graduating, and that she was able to put into practice what she learnt in London. She was promoted to Director in 2010. Now she runs Eldani, a non-governmental organisation working with disabled people. Her work on social entrepreneurship and charity developed from what she learnt when studying abroad.
So, studying abroad provides a launching pad for your career – but it isn’t always a guarantee of success. Much depends on what you want to get from it: are you doing this just to live abroad, or do you want to obtain valuable knowledge and experience? It shouldn’t just be the scholar that benefits, but society as a whole.