women and higher education

University admissions in Tajikistan: Who wants to be an engineer?

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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.

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Sure you can fix it, but the problem is that there aren’t enough engineers to go round in Tajikistan

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…

Women in higher education in Central Asia

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Did you know that as far back as the 1970s – an era when most of Europe and North America was only just waking up to the idea of mass higher education – that more women than men were enrolled in universities in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? And did you also know that these impressively high levels of female participation have been maintained in the post-Soviet period?

These were two of the findings from my recent study comparing how Central Asian women have fared in higher education since 1960. I decided to undertake the study after another paper I wrote last year showed that whilst female students in Tajikistan are more likely to be the subject of higher education reform efforts, they are least likely of all the possible stakeholder groups (faculty, students, government, international organizations) to have a say in the direction of that reform.

As a result, I decided to explore this in further detail through the lens of female participation in higher education between the Soviet era and the current period. I should be clear that I don’t view participation as a proxy for quality of education, persistence (do the students complete the education?) or post-study destination, all of which might tell us more about female empowerment than participation, which is more connected to gender parity. However, at least my study puts Central Asian women at the forefront, which is more than I can say for other studies!

The other point about my study that stands out is the use of two different datasets – the first from the USSR State Statistics Committee covering the period 1960-1989 and the second from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for data from 2000 to date (I couldn’t find any data for the 1990s, which does of course limit the study as it was a period of immense upheaval and you can’t see this reflected in the data). I believe that this is the first time these two datasets have been cross-hatched to analyse gender and higher education in Central Asia.

As you can see from the graph below, there is a very distinct difference between female enrollment rates in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the other three Central Asian republics.

The experience of Uzbekistan was of greater gains towards female equality than Tajikistan, starting from higher participation rates in the 1960s that were more or less sustained throughout the Soviet period. Only Turkmenistan appears to bear a semblance to trends in Tajikistan during the Soviet period, although here too the starting point for female participation in 1960 was higher by 7% than in Tajikistan.

The worrying drop in female participation in the early 2000s in Tajikistan appears to have been remedied in recent years: if the current growth trend continues to be consistent at around 2% per year, then it is feasible to hypothesize that parity in enrollment by gender in Tajikistan could be achieved within the next six years.

2015 data for Uzbekistan is not available but between 2005 and 2010 the picture was similar to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a 1% drop in female participation but from a much lower starting point. It is hard to offer any detailed interpretation for Turkmenistan where data is only available for one of the time points; however, there was a 5% decrease in enrollment between 1989 and 2015.

So: that’s an overview of my data, my rationale, and some of the findings. What do you think? What important stories does the data tell us that I’ve missed? Why is female participation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan so much higher? Could the prospects for Tajikistan be as tentatively optimistic as I’ve suggested (and wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something positive to say about Tajikistan for once)?

Female enrolment across Central Asia
Source data: USSR State Statistics Committee (1960-1989); UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2000-2015)