Educating Central Asia, From Soviet Collapse to COVID-19

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Educating Central Asia, From Soviet Collapse to COVID-19

Vasila Bozichaeva and Emma Sabzalieva explain the development of Central Asia’s education systems, and the current challenges faced.

Educating Central Asia, From Soviet Collapse to COVID-19

Architectural details at the site of Ulug Beg’s observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Credit: Catherine Putz

This fall, Central Asian students — like many students around the world — returned to school amid a pandemic. While traditions of education in the region date back centuries, the base of the modern education system in Central Asia dates to the Soviet period. Each country in the region has developed in its own ways and more recently responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in different fashions. An additional challenge is the region’s booming youth population.

The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz interviewed Vasila Bozichaeva, a Ph.D. candidate at the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan in the Department of Sociology studying the modernization of the Tajik higher education system, and Dr. Emma Sabzalieva, a policy analyst at UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education and a research associate at York University, Canada, about the development of Central Asia’s education systems, regional education system responses to the pandemic and more.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, what was the Central Asian higher education space like?

Emma Sabzalieva: The Central Asian higher education space in 1991 looked a lot like its counterparts in other former republics of the now collapsed Soviet Union in terms of how the higher education system was organized and governed. The Central Asian states inherited a flagship university (two in the case of Kazakhstan and three in Uzbekistan) and many tens of higher education institutes offering specialist higher level learning in one area such as teaching, art, agriculture. Teaching and research were largely separated, and each country also took on a branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the main channel for research. What was taught had previously been up to Moscow; all students studied some subjects in common such as History of the USSR, regardless of whether they were signed up to major in engineering or music. Around 15-20 percent of the school-leaving population went on to higher education by 1991: Lower than in some parts of the former USSR (in Russia it was 30 percent) but on a par with many other countries around the world. 

A key difference in Central Asia compared to elsewhere in the former Soviet Union was the age of this educational legacy. The first university in Central Asia was founded in modern day Uzbekistan in 1918, comparatively recently when you think about Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia (founded in 1755) or Estonia’s University of Tartu (opened in 1632, making it older than Harvard). In Central Asia, the Humboldtian/Napoleonic/Imperial Russian idea of higher education was rapidly developed under Soviet rule, but it’s crucial not to see the Soviet period as one of benign enlightenment. While their earlier educational legacies may have been buried by the strength of the Soviet idea of higher education, the tradition of education in Central Asia is incredibly rich and deep. A 10th century medical encyclopedia written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) – claimed by both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – was still being used in European universities some 700 years later; astronomy flourished in early 15th century Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan).

In the years after, how did the region’s education systems cope with such a massive geopolitical shock? 

Emma Sabzalieva: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic and political chaos had a massive impact on higher education that is still being felt to this day. In the 1990s, as the newly national governments of Central Asia grappled with the challenges of sovereignty – and as a civil war ravaged Tajikistan – higher education was largely left to its own devices. 

One major consequence of the regime change was a rapid outflow of academics leaving the system. Some were forced out because their salaries were left unpaid for months by states beset by hyperinflation, instead turning to the nascent private sector or taking on multiple adjunct teaching roles. Others, particularly those who were ethnically Russian or Jewish (to use the Soviet era designations), emigrated to Russia, Germany, Israel, or elsewhere. 

Another even more significant response to the geopolitical shock was the dramatic privatization of higher education. If the Soviet higher education system had been tuition free and populated entirely by public (that is, state funded) universities, in the space of 15 years the situation looked remarkably different. In Kazakhstan, for example, fully two-thirds of all higher education institutions were privately operated by 2005, and in Kyrgyzstan that figure was one-third of the total. Having been legalized in the early 1990s, tuition fees were charged almost universally. This did not dampen demand for higher education, and over time has led to a noticeable shift in universities’ course offerings toward new or popular subjects such as business and management. In 2017, for example, Kyrgyzstan graduated over 6,500 students in law and just 500 in mining, despite the saturation of the employment market for lawyers.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic upended education systems around the world, including in Central Asia. Now that a new school year has begun, how are the states of the region managing educating in a pandemic? What kind of approaches have they taken?

Emma Sabzalieva: Kazakhstan is one of the few countries around the world to have a clearly laid out plan of action for education, which was published back in July 2020. The academic year started in a distance learning format for almost all students; the medium-term strategy is for a hybrid of face-to-face and distance learning as the health situation improves. 

Kyrgyzstan announced in August that schools (except first graders), universities and colleges would begin the academic year online. There are no plans yet to return to face-to-face learning, which is not surprising given both the very difficult time the country has been having in managing COVID-19 and the current political turbulence.

Tajikistan finally admitted that COVID-19 exists, but this has had little impact on regular activities. However, schools did finish the previous school year early (in April) and as a result started back on August 17 – ahead of the traditional September 1 timeline. Students have to follow fairly strict measures such as maintaining physical distancing in the school yard, wearing a mask, and regularly washing hands. As far as possible, lessons are to take place outdoors or in larger indoor spaces to support physical distancing.

Turkmenistan’s students returned to school on September 1 as usual, but with some changes to the health and safety regime. These include mandatory deep cleaning before the start of the school year, disinfection after every lesson, daily temperature checking for students, class sizes limited to 10-15 students, shorter lesson times, mask wearing, physical distancing in class, and use of larger spaces for classes.

Uzbekistan, which did a pretty good job of pivoting to distance learning earlier this year, sent its students back to school in September with similar enhanced measures to those seen in other Central Asian states. This comes after the Ministry of Education polled parents and found that 75 percent preferred in-person instruction, with the remainder opting for the continuation of lessons delivered by TV. Universities and colleges are currently teaching online with another survey currently underway to assess the appetite for a return to face-to-face instruction.

Tajikistan has one of the region’s largest young populations. Has that stressed the country’s education system? How difficult is it for young Tajiks to get into higher education institutions?

Vasila Bozichaeva: The population of Tajikistan has skyrocketed to 9.5 million and it is estimated to swell to 10 million by mid-2021, with nearly half of the population being youth. Although the increase in youth population ratios is enough to meet the government’s labor market demands, the official unemployment rate remains at 10.99 percent. One of the root causes of this problem traces back to the lack of access to education and the poor quality of education in the country. Despite efforts to reform its higher education system, the 2012-2020 national strategy of higher education development in Tajikistan will shortly come to an end, and it remains unclear whether its aims, or the aims of earlier reforms, were achieved. 

Young Tajiks face serious barriers while getting into higher education. The progression from compulsory schooling to higher education has dropped by half among the current generation compared with their Soviet-era educated elders. The proportion of both men and women with below high school level education has increased more than twice among the 25-34 age group compared to those aged 35-54. The drastic decline in participation in higher education in Tajikistan is also attributed to tuition fees that are higher than many families can afford, the widespread use of informal payoffs to access higher education, poor quality school education that does not prepare applicants to continue their studies, a lack of policies looking at competency based learning, and the diminished image of universities and education in general.

As for gender participation, the situation is extremely alarming. Currently, one in every three girls drops out of school before finishing secondary education. In higher education, the percentage of female students is under 30 percent. Biased cultural norms in Tajik society have very worrying implications for women in the country, with girls dropping out of school because of wrongly interpreted religious beliefs that supposedly espouse that girls should stay at home or get married at an early age.

Students who do make it to university find that the educational infrastructure does not let the system function properly, which leads to having poor-quality graduates. In any case, many graduates later have to migrate to Russia to find work and end up in low level cash paying jobs. As a result, most students wholeheartedly believe that their university degrees are good only for “storing in a trunk,” as a local saying goes. They do not take their studies at universities seriously and get back the same response from the university professors. 

One positive step has been the reform of the entrance system with the 2014 introduction of a unified national system of examinations and admission to higher education. The system covered 30 higher education institutions (HEI) in 2014, which increased to 23 HEIs and 26 secondary professional education institutions in 2016. Today, around 85 percent of school graduates sit for the entrance exams and about 53 percent gain admission. This has gone a long way to reducing the corruption that had been prevalent – bribes were once a common means of getting your university place secured. However, the quality of teaching and learning at universities remains a work in progress; the gap between what students learn and the competencies needed in the labor market mean that education in Tajikistan is still undervalued. 

The whole Central Asian region is comparably young. Has this led to Central Asians looking abroad for educational opportunities? What challenges do they face in doing so?

Vasila Bozichaeva: Educational migration is not a new phenomenon in Central Asia. Historically, people from Central Asia travelled far and wide in pursuit of higher learning, a tradition that dates back many centuries. During the Soviet period, mobility was mainly limited to other Soviet republics, with students drawn to intellectual centers such as Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and Novosibirsk. 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, opportunities for students from Central Asia to travel and study abroad have greatly increased. That said, Russia remains the top destination, hosting around 75,000 Central Asian students in 2018/19. Knowledge of the language, closer cultural norms, and similar education systems drive students’ choice of Russia for study abroad. Finances matter too: Russian universities have lower tuition fees compared to other international counterparts and the Russian government recently announced it would be doubling the number of state scholarships for international students to 30,000 per year. 

Overall, around 155,000 Central Asian students are studying abroad, mostly from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As well as Russia, China, Turkey, South Korea, the United States, Europe, and various Arabic speaking countries are popular destinations. While funding schemes for students to study abroad exist (such as the Bolashak scholarship program for Kazakh nationals, Durakhshandagon from the Tajik government, and European Erasmus Mundus funding), they are limited and difficult to obtain. 

Research has found that internationally mobile students from Tajikistan face challenges such being away from family, differences in learning and teaching methods, academic level of the course, and trouble adjusting to a new country. In spite of these difficulties, once back home, Central Asian graduates of foreign universities may find it easier to get into well-paid jobs compared to their domestically trained counterparts. This is by no means universal, however, neither is it a certainty that students will return to Central Asia after completing their studies abroad.