The might of Chinese businesses operating in Tajikistan is growing, with news emerging of one company alone that will build three new schools in the country [ru] later this year, supporting over 1,000 students. This is not the first such initiative, which is being posited as evidence of Chinese corporate social responsibility. Other road-building companies have already financed the construction of of seven large schools in Tajikistan.
As the article on Radio Ozodi’s website [ru] points out, China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan. For a number of years it has been providing goods for markets and financing and undertaking a great number of construction and infrastructure projects for new roads, buildings and factories.
Chinese companies engaging in extra-mural activities to build schools is in keeping with the Chinese government’s foreign policy on education towards Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole. In higher education, for example, Chinese efforts have led to the creation of initiatives such as the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road which includes a Kazakh university partner and the Belt and Road Scholarship scheme targeted at students from Central, South, and South-East Asia.
Radio Ozodi also notes a proposed new Chinese-funded International University in Tajikistan which would accommodate an enormous 40,000 students (to put that into context, the entire tertiary student population of Tajikistan is around 250,000, so this new university would be able to teach nearly a fifth of that number!).
On the one hand, this is a clear example of a foreign government extending its ‘soft power‘ to another state, in this case China continuing to grow its influence in the Central Asia region through marketing-friendly projects in education.
On the other hand, there are also indications that the Tajik government is not just blindly accepting foreign cash. From my thesis research, for example, I’ve found that whilst the government is happy to allow such investment, it is far less content to accept Chinese cultural influence, something that often comes as a by-product of soft power initiatives. So yes, the government takes the money – and goodness knows it needs it – and it’s great that it is being invested in education, but once it’s in Tajikistan, the line is drawn and the money/investment is controlled locally.
Oh, and one of the three new schools – the biggest of the trio – will be in the President’s home region of Dangara. That must be a coincidence. Right?
In this round up of education news from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan at the start of 2015, a number of paradoxes emerge, none of which lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. Here are the four issues that I think will be on the agenda for education in the region this year:
1. Reform needed, but at whose cost?
There is a growing acknowledgment of the problems in the school sector and the need for reform that is particularly evident in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the two most politically open countries in Central Asia. Everyone from the President downwards is calling for improvement, but this is set against real economic difficulties that are both internal (slow economic growth, lack of investment in the sector) and external (price of oil, what’s happening in Russia. Reform inevitably comes at a price, but it’s not clear at this point how that will be funded.
2. Whose reform is it anyway?
Kazakhstan has had to put on ice plans to lengthen compulsory schooling from 11 to 12 years, the plan being to bring the country in line with ‘international standards’. The as yet unanswered question is the extent to which the government in Kazakhstan genuinely believes this to be beneficial for the national setting, and the extent to which these are part of ‘bottom-up’ plans for the future direction of education, or whether this is an example of change being externally imposed in the name of globalisation.
3. Is education a public or a private good?
Not a question unique to Central Asia, but interesting to observe a growing dialogue around the ‘value for money’ areas that have been creeping into British higher education and are perhaps longer established in countries like the US that have long charged high fees. The Central Asian take on this debate follows the notion that in a market economy, everything can be for sale, including education. But there are a number of commentators who argue that in fact the aim should be a knowledge economy and in this type of situation, education is fundamentally a public good.
4. Education for all?
Under Soviet rule, literacy rates across Central Asia were almost universally 100%. Whilst the respect towards education has not significantly diminished, nor the literacy rate dipped more than a few percentage points, the reality of school education in Kyrgyzstan in particular is that standards are slipping. Fewer are training as teachers because the salary rate is low and professional development opportunities are limited, and there is a growing disparity in the availability of quality education in urban and rural areas. Thus, whilst education is still nominally available for everyone to participate in, the fact remains that the standard of that education is very varied and in many cases, it is easier/more convenient/cheaper not to partake at all.
Government has will to reform educational sector in Kyrgyzstan – Vice Prime Minister, http://akipress.com/news:554283/
Kazakhstan: Education Reform Shelved Due to Economic Downturn, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/71731
Education.kg: paid service or public good?, http://www.eng.24.kg/community/174212-news24.html
Freedom in education?, http://www.eng.24.kg/community/174320-news24.html