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…
Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).
This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.
Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.
The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.
This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.
Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.
Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)
There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.
Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.
The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.
Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.
Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”
On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.
Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.
During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.
After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.
The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.
The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.
Who leaves Tajikistan to study abroad, and why?
Where do these students go, and what do they study?
What are their post-study destinations?
These are some of the questions I address in my new essay on Tajikistan’s international students, out today in Higher Education in Russia & Beyond (HERB).
As I conclude, studying abroad can be a profoundly transformational experience. Many of the people that participated in the research I am reporting on said they had changed greatly as a result of their experiences.
This feeling is neatly encapsulated by the words of one respondent:
“I am so much [a] different person now than I was back then. Education here has broadened my mind to the things that I had no idea of their existence and as I grow in possessing my knowledge I see the opportunities that I can get, and the things that I can do in my life and with my life. I am [a] much happier person now than I was before.”
This issue of HERB looks holistically at international students across the former Soviet space, and I encourage you to take a look at the other essays in this collection.
Higher Education in Russia & Beyond 2(12) – link to whole issue
New education research on Central Asia – “Problems of forming tolerance in the educational environment of Tajikistan” by Diloro Iskandarova
Welcome to the first in a new occasional series on the blog called New education research on Central Asia. The idea is that from time to time, I will review new book chapters and journal articles written about education in Central Asia. My aims are to raise awareness of these new publications and offer a summary of the key points and my views on the piece.
If you would like to suggest a publication for review – or would like to review something yourself for this blog, then please get in touch to discuss. I’d be pleased to hear from you!
I also welcome your feedback on the new look for the blog. I hope it now looks and feels “cleaner” and the links to various pages are easier to navigate.
So – back to new research from Central Asia. The book chapter I’m reviewing today is called “Problems of forming tolerance in the educational environment of Tajikistan” by Diloro Iskandarova of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The chapter appears in an edited collection called Digital Transformation in Journalism and News Media published by Springer in 2017.
Iskandarova describes a research project carried out with university students in two different locations in Tajikistan, one in the north of the country (Khujand State University) and one in the south (Kulyab State University and Kurgan-Tyube State University). The aim of the research was to use linguistic association to test levels of inter-ethnic tolerance amongst young people. Put in straightforward terms, the research team asked students to list words that they felt best described different groups (both as noun and adjective) – Tajik, Russian and Uzbek. If the respondents listed negative characteristics, it would suggest lower levels of tolerance than if they gave more positive word associations.
The chapter provides detailed description of the words/phrases that came up in the students’ responses, which in general were positive towards the ethnic group at hand across both regions under study. Tajiks (noun) were most associated with hard work, hospitality and Islam, for example.
There was, however, some ambiguity in the words used to describe Uzbeks, which the author ascribes in part to the Uzbek government’s policy of exclusion and generally poor relations between the two countries [though since the chapter was written, there has been a change in President in Uzbekistan and some early signs of a detente in the Uzbek-Tajik relationship].
The overall conclusion of the chapter is, as shown in the key quote below, that students are in general tolerant people. The author found some difference between the two regions, with students from the north being more open to the study and actively providing responses (which were all collected anonymously). An expressed desire to conduct further research, both in other parts of the country and using different word associations, would add greater value to the findings.
Whilst the chapter is rather short and the English language is clunky – and it seems a rather odd choice to publish this in a book on digital transformations – readers should look beyond this to the real value of the study, which is the rich data it has generated. The use of word associations is a smart idea, even if I’m not convinced that testing against ethnoynms tells us much about tolerance in general.
Key quote: “university students [are] fairly tolerant people with very little negative judgments. At the same time, we must remember that stereotypes tend to develop quickly enough in a particular environment” (p.554)
Link to publication: Iskandarova – Education tolerance Tajikistan (whole chapter) 2017
As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.
Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.
The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.
As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.
The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.
Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.
‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.
The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.
The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).
These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.
Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.
In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.
Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.
Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.
Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.
Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/higheducation/istoriyaobrazovaniya/.
Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.
Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.
The month of March brings with it the official start of spring, the vernal equinox (this year on 20 March), and in Tajikistan – as with other Central Asian countries – the celebration of Navruz / No’rooz, or New Light/Day. There are multiple spelling variations of what has been classified as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO.
In recent years, celebrations of Navruz in Tajikistan have taken on a distinctly nationalist character as the government seeks to appropriate it as something that embodies the modern Tajik state, shifting the festivity away from its ancient pan-Eurasian and Iranian roots.
Like the other post-Soviet states, Tajikistan has been frantically building an identity for itself as an independent state over the last quarter of a century. This has been done within a framework that is more globalized, placing unprecedented pressures on the formerly Soviet countries in ways never experienced by other ‘new’ countries of the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. Yet unlike some of the post-Soviet states, Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbours experienced independent statehood (with their current geographic boundaries) for the first time in the 1990s, making the nation-building imperative even more urgent.
Thus the celebration of Navruz in today’s Tajikistan becomes something more than an expression of joy at the end of winter and coming of a new harvest season. It separates Tajikistan from its past, when Navruz was banned in Soviet times.
It is a ‘safe’ quasi-religious celebration that does not give too much credence to the official religion of Islam, a source of great stress to the leadership of Tajikistan (where even wearing a beard can get a man into trouble). It is the government’s idea of a good social policy, as it can offer public holidays and festivities around the country.
This year the government is taking Navruz to new highs. In a recent letter to all educational establishments in the country, the Ministry of Education and Science has decided that all teachers and students should wear national dress during March [ru] in honour of Navruz. Why, you might ask? Here’s the answer news agency Asia-Plus gives:
В распоряжении отмечается, что данная рекомендация сделана в целях пропаганды и возрождения лучших традиций предков таджикского народа и достойной встречи Навруза.
This recommendation is being made to promote and revive the best traditions of the ancestors of the Tajik people and in honour of the great holiday Navruz.
[Source: Asia-Plus; my translation]
According to information agency Avesta, this ruling only applies to female students [ru]. Once again, it seems to be the women who get the dress code at university. Apparently, some educational institutions might take this ruling even further. A senior (male) leader at northern Khujand State University said that female students and staff might continue to wear national dress through to the end of the academic year, not just for March. (Or perhaps Khujand State is on a mission to prove it can exceed government targets in Stakhanov-esque fashion.)
This isn’t quite the laughing matter that it appears. As Asia-Plus points out, the cost of a dress made of the ‘national’ material of atlas can be around US$30, or around a third of a monthly salary. A government official in the capital city has already had to issue a clarification to its statement noting that kindergarten/nursery children are not subject to the dress code rule after parents reported rumours that their little ones would also need to be suitably kitted out during March.
You’ll doubtless be relieved to know that the Ministry of Education’s Press Secretary has confirmed that no one in schools or universities will be forced to wear national dress during March [ru]. They are also allowed to wear a ‘pretty dress’ instead…
Let me remind you of the last time the government decided that women should dress differently at university, when it was fairly easy to prove that no, wearing high heels did not in fact make you a better learner. Wearing national dress during March may look great for your school photo, but does it make you more patriotic? Work harder? Think more? I think you know where I’m going with this.
Whilst popular opinion across the former Soviet Union generally remembers the Soviet period with more than a hint of the rose-tinted glasses – see this summary of an EBRD survey in 2016 or this Sputnik News story on my blog from August 2016 – one man is seemingly on a mission to upend these conceptions. And he’s someone that people have to listen to – because it’s no less than the President (and Leader of the Nation) of Tajikistan himself.
In his annual address to Parliament at the end of 2016, President Emomali Rahmon apparently delivered a blistering attack on reports from the Soviet period, denouncing their claims that education in the country was operating to a high standard as “lies”.
In an article on the address [ru], reliable local news agency Asia Plus reports that the President told the audience that the Soviet authorities were more concerned with increasing livestock and collective farm numbers than with building schools or hospitals. This from a man who worked on a collective farm for around 20 years from the mid-1970s before entering politics and thus knows his cattle.
Meanwhile, Rahmon’s government has built or reconstructed over 2,500 schools over the last 25 years. In 2016 alone, a total of 540m Somoni (US$64.5m) was spent on building/reconstructing 201 schools and providing new school places for 39,000 students. Furthermore, whereas in 1991 there were 13 higher education institutions with 70,000 students, there are now 39 institutions educating 170,000 students. [Put aside, for now, your questions about relative vs absolute growth (the Tajik population has grown continually from 2m in 1960 to 5m in 1991 to over 8m today) and quantity vs quality.]
Although the official version of the President’s speech [ru] makes no reference to cattle or explicitly to the Soviet period (perhaps the oral speech was somewhat different from the written address to enliven it?), there is a definite sense that the past is being rewritten in the President’s image. The written version of the speech is littered with statistics that aim to quantify the regime’s achievements. This, arguably, is a common tool employed by political and other leaders and thus unsurprising to see such rhetoric in use in Tajikistan too. Little wonder that the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has gained such purchase over the years. Or to give it its new American name, “alternative facts“.
Lest we digress on to the uses and abuses of statistics and comparison, I will end by drawing your attention to one quote from the written version of the speech (not mentioned in the Asia Plus article). Although it is not connected to education, I think it speaks volumes about the rewriting of Tajikistan’s recent history. If you’re unsure or unconvinced, read this article which emphasizes the multi-faceted and national drivers of the civil war after you read the quote.
В начале 90-х годов прошлого века Таджикистан под воздействием вмешательства некоторых зарубежных стран, осуществляемого под лозунгом демократизации общества, столкнулся с острыми внутренними конфликтами, этот процесс довёл нас до навязанной гражданской войны и братоубийственной трагедии.
[In the early 1990s, Tajikistan experienced an acute internal conflict under the influence of intervention by some foreign countries with their banner of societal democratization. This process brought us to an imposed civil war and fratricidal tragedy.]