There is a high demand for higher education among Uzbekistan’s youth. Each year, more than half a million apply for university admission. The only pathway to enter university is by passing the entrance exams held annually by the State Testing Center. The current admission system ignores high school academic performance, thus completely undermining high school (years 11 and 12) education. For this reason, many high school students do not see value in attending high school classes; rather, they try to convince — in some cases with money — school management to allow them to skip some of their classes and still get a diploma of completion. In order to prevent further corruption and quality decrease in high schools in the country, we need to restructure the university admissions system. Uzbekistan needs to include students’ high school academic performance results in their application for admission to university.
The current university admission process in Uzbekistan, based only on nationwide entrance exam results, is dysfunctional. Students do need high school completion diploma to apply for universities, but their actual academic performance in high school does not matter. Students bribe high school management to allow them to skip classes and attend private tutoring instead to prepare for the university entrance tests. Thus the current system contributes to the diminishing quality of high school education by ignoring the overall academic performance of students in their high school years. It also devalues high school education and puts an emphasis on attending private tutoring aimed solely at preparing students with excellent exam cramming techniques. This system promotes private tutoring — where teachers offer private classes for cash, but do not pay taxes from their tutoring income. This illegal practice further contributes to income inequality. Moreover, students from low-income families who cannot afford elite or even medium-level private tutoring classes are left with simply their high school education. The quality of their high school education is not enough to get high enough scores in a very competitive admission process. Only the top 10 percent of applicants gain admission to Uzbekistan’s universities. This further reinforces inequalities already present in society.
Based on the best international practices, university admissions in Uzbekistan should take into consideration high school performance. The university entrance exam process, in addition, should move to high school. In Year 10, students should be allowed to select their course of study for the next two years. Student could choose courses that they are interested in and plan to study further in their university degrees. If a student is interested in doing a university degree in medicine, for example, he or she can prioritize medical and science subjects in high school. Closer to the completion of high school Year 12, students would sit for university entrance exams at their schools on their major subjects (in this case science, medicine) plus compulsory Uzbek/Russian language, based on the curriculum taught during the last two years of high school. Student exam scores plus their overall academic performance in high school should be the only pathway to get admission to universities.
In addition, each student should be asked to nominate three universities where they would like to study, in the order of preference. In turn, each university in the country should announce beforehand the minimum score required to get admission. This aligns well with the government’s recent plan on letting universities decide their admission quotas and finances on their own. If students do not get the score required to be admitted to their listed universities, they will still have the option to go to any other university that accepts their score.
This reform would have several benefits. First, this system would refocus attention on the necessity of revitalizing high school education. All stakeholders — from the school management to the students and their parents — would have clear interests in bolstering the strength of the high school education system because it would actually matter. This would also have the effect of making the university admissions process more transparent and more equitable.
Second, since this model provides flexibility to apply for three universities in order of preference, students are most likely to get admission to a university of their choice. If their scores are not high enough to meet the requirements of their first choice of universities, they can still go to any other university that accepts their score. This model would, therefore, widen access to higher education. Education at universities would be based on a full fee-paying basis – except if students apply and get merit or need- based scholarships. This model would bring the Uzbek higher education system closer to internationalized market-based higher education systems around the world.
Third, the proposed reform may create less resistance among the general public and in particular, among ministries since it does not fundamentally change the established high school education system’s structure. This model could serve as an initial step toward incremental reforms in the education sector more broadly.
To implement this reform, a Working Group of international and local education experts should be convened to calculate models for exam results and overall high school academic performance results. This model, once approved, should be shared with the public, contributing further to transparency about university admissions.
The public has complained, correctly, about the poor quality of the current high school system and its detachment from the university admissions process. The reforms proposed here guarantee that university admissions would be based on the university entrance exam results as well as overall student academic performance in high school. The reform proposed here would serve to revitalize high school education, make university admissions more transparent, as well as both expand choice and widen access to university study. More than half a million students will have an equal chance to apply and gain admission to the university of their choice. More than half a million students will receive a better high school education, and have a better opportunity for higher education. For the best interests of the youth of Uzbekistan, it is the time to bring about this change.
Dilnoza Ubaydullaeva is a visiting research fellow at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program.