women

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…

The power of education: A journey from the mountains of Khorog, Tajikistan, to a world stage

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Muslima Niyozmamadova, a high school student from Tajikistan studying at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa, Kenya, is a powerful and uplifting example of how one person’s journey in life can drive them to seek change and how education can provide the tools to make that change. Niyozmamadova has made two big moves already in her short years, firstly with her family being relocated from their home owing to the construction of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan. Some years later she journeyed further, uprooting herself to a different country, culture and context to pursue her education in Kenya. I suspect she has a long way still to go, and I mean that in only positive terms.

Her story is reproduced in full below so you can share a sense of not just how powerful education can be, but how much we can all learn from this one young person.

(c) Education Week

Today we hear from Muslima Niyozmamadova, a high school student at Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa in Kenya. Issues of poor educational quality in her native country of Tajikistan inspired her to work to improve schooling in impoverished areas of the world. We hope this series of posts by students who are taking action to better the world through participation in the Global Citizens Youth Summit will be an inspiration to you and your students as well.

by guest blogger Muslima Niyozmamadova

Global citizenship means an awareness of the issues in my community as well as those faced by the world. My role as a global citizen is to promote positive change by trying to solve global problems. I am responsible for my city, country, and the world.

When I was six years old, my family moved to accommodate construction of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan. My family talked about how the university would become one of the best in the world. I was proud that the new university was being built where my family had lived. Even as a young child, education was important to me. I decided that I would one day become the head of the University of Central Asia. At the age of seven, I attended the only school in Badakhshan, the eastern part of Tajikistan. The school offered all subjects in English. I felt that learning the language was my first step towards achieving my dream.

A few years later, I was accepted to the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa (AKA), one of the best secondary schools in the world, with a full scholarship. I applied to the school as it gave me the opportunity to become globally competent and prepare me better as a leader. While a student at AKA, I began studying the education system in Tajikistan. I was surprised to learn that Tajikistan’s literacy rate is 98%. However, few Tajiks qualify for professional jobs outside of Tajikistan because students learn basic proficiency in reading, but do not hone other skills needed to be successful workers, such as internationally qualified doctors, engineers, lawyers etc. I began to connect how poverty is linked to the quality of education.

As a participant at the Global Citizens Youth Summit in Cambridge, MA, I had the unique opportunity to engage in conversations with peers from around the world on issues of education and poverty. This experience helped me to build the global skills and confidence necessary to work toward a solution to these issues in my community. With my peers, I developed an initiative called YOUTHeory, which strives to ensure that children from low-income communities thrive in their early years of development. Our mission is to empower young people to exceed their circumstances through self-discovery and identifying their passions in life. We believe that education is the means of breaking the cycle of poverty. For children to thrive, they need resources, direction, and purpose. Together, my peers and I strive to provide these resources to children in different parts of the world.

Having a sesison with the students about techniques of studying effectively[1].jpeg

Since I attend school in Kenya, I decided to implement my project in the local community in Mombasa. I began working with a government school in the lower income area of the city. Eight of my peers from AKA support my work. My group and I have led workshop based sessions with the 140 students at their school on topics like the importance of education, effective study techniques, goal setting, good hygiene, and water conservation. We either go to their school after our classes to spend about two hours with them every two weeks, or we bring them to our school in groups of 50 over the weekends. Aside from academic sessions, we try and engage the students in sports, crochet, and board games. In addition, we raised money for the school to replace a broken water pump, which will give students access to clean water. We also held a clothing drive at AKA and shared these donations with the students in need at the school. My group also works with students to identify their passions through sports and games. In the future, I plan to donate solar panels to provide sustainable and reliable energy to the school. I am also working to identify sponsors who might donate breakfast to the kindergarten students (200 students) every morning. Without these donations, the students go hungry.

Over the coming summer, a leadership camp, Global Encounters (GE), will take place in my school. Because the camp aims to encourage students to engage in community service, I have handed my project to them to continue the work that I have done, as I believe it is crucial to have sustainability to really make a difference. My school falls under the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) which has done several development projects across Kenya. The Service Coordinator of GE has been able to connect with the Ministry of Education of the country and has communicated YOUTHeory vision to him. He was highly impressed by what we do, and therefore, wants us to be the bridge between the government and the individual schools. Many of our visions are similar to the plans of the government, like the focus on Early Childhood Development (ECD) and giving students motivation and support to continue with their education up to secondary school and university. One of the other focuses of the ministry of education is encouraging environmental awareness in the country, and he is trying to achieve this through the youth in schools. We are looking forward to making both our and the country’s visions for education a reality, and with the support of the government, we will reach great heights with this project.

During the Celebration of Service Day in school, I will be advertising my project to get younger students to join so that the project can be continued even when I leave in 2017 to go university. After a few years, I see myself launching YOUTheory in Tajikistan for children from low-income families. I want to continue empowering children to succeed against the odds. Moving forward, I will continue to work towards my goal of serving as the head for the University of Central Asia. Education is a basic right for children, whether they live in Kenya or Tajikistan or elsewhere. If we want a more equitable and harmonious world, we must all consider how we can help a child to learn how to act as a global citizen.

For all the youth across the world who wish to make a difference in the world, I want to tell you that it all starts from identifying the issues in your community and taking an initiative to contribute to the prevention or solution of the problem. It is important to go deep into the issue and find the root causes first, as this is the best way to tackle the issue, although it might take the longest time. Base your project mainly on sustainable development instead of on giving aid or charity. I believe the moment you plan to make a difference in your community you will be on the right path to becoming global citizens.

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)

Steps towards gender equality in Kyrgyzstan

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Happy new year / S novim godom / Soli nav muborak to you all!

Kickstarting this year’s set of posts is a report from Kyrgyzstan on steps being taken – primarily by the government and a small but growing number of local NGOs – to bring greater equality to the country.

The article can be found at https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/cristina-maza/challenging-patriarchy-in-kyrgyzstan.

The author points out the unusual situation of formerly Soviet-run countries where women’s roles have actually decreased in equality terms since the fall of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. Soviet policies towards women were, like many aspects of its rule, largely economic-led (e.g. more women in the workforce = greater productivity), but had knock on social and cultural impacts that benefitted women’s status.

Christina Maza’s balanced and interesting article offers an insight into how gender roles are developing in independent Kyrgyzstan. What is most fascinating is the stark divide for women, where the haves (middle class, educated etc) take bold steps towards a greater role for women by, for example, holding high level government posts but the have nots (often rural and from poorer backgrounds) may marry young and not be able to access opportunities for educational and/or career development.

I have in the past read about initiativesthat are bringing concepts of gender equality and women’s rights to more rural areas, but much more needs to be done to give parity to women within Kyrgyzstan. Last summer, I met with senior female university managers, one of whom has since been appointed to a very high level government post. I was perhaps even more delighted to meet a female taxi driver in Bishkek, a profession in many countries predominantly held by men. These women are in their own right extraordinary people, and I hope that across Kyrgyzstan more women will be able to develop and employ their skills on at least a level pegging with their male counterparts.

High heels in the headlines again

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What is it about Tajik educational leaders and fashion? Not content with the controversy this caused last year (see my articles high heels for higher learning and high heels hit the headlines), the Pro-Rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has followed in the (high-heeled?) footsteps of his Rector Abdujabbor Rahmonov by banning several female students from class yesterday… for wearing shoes without heels.

Pro-Rector Iskandar Aminov said “We don’t want these girls who’ve turned up in shoes without heels to fall ill in this weather. These girls are future mothers, and our roads are full of water. In those shoes they could get ill. It would be better if they wore heeled shoes. Scientific advice supporting this initiative suggests that girls [coming to university] shouldn’t be allowed in with shoes without heels.”

The six ‘girls’ (where has the respect gone for these poor women?) were sent home to change their shoes.

The story [ru], reported yesterday by Ozodagon, a Tajik news agency, is starting to spread very quickly on social media. People are discussing it vigorously; there is outrage (especially among women) that people are being dictated to about the way they dress; there is also bemusement that someone in such a senior position could genuinely think that there is ‘scientific’ evidence somewhere out there to support this.

Readers outside of Central Asia may well be wondering how on earth a university – supposedly a fount of knowledge and learning – could make such an outlandish proclamation. Those of you who are more familiar with Tajikistan are more likely to see this absurdity as yet another example of  the misguided way that the country is supposedly being run.