Crossroads Asia

Uzbekistan’s Educational Challenge: Scaling up for a Booming Population

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Uzbekistan’s Educational Challenge: Scaling up for a Booming Population

Can Uzbekistan’s education system accommodate the growing number of students amid rapid population growth?

Uzbekistan’s Educational Challenge: Scaling up for a Booming Population
Credit: Pixabay

“My children go to school just for the sake of it,” said Saodat, a 42-year-old mother of three from Tashkent who prefers to go by her first name only. “We paid for private tutoring for four years before my eldest could enroll at a university. My second child is in the same situation – besides school, he still needs private tutoring.”

Saodat is dissatisfied with the quality of public education. Classes are overcrowded, she said, with 35-38 students per group. Teachers are primarily preoccupied with paperwork rather than teaching. Saodat’s worries about public school education resonate with thousands of parents across Uzbekistan.

In 1991, at the dawn of independence, Uzbekistan had a population of over 20 million. In the more than three decades since, the population has grown to 36.7 million and by 2040 is expected to reach 40 million. The crude mortality rate has gone down from 7 per 1,000 people in 1992 to 4.8 in 2022. In 2022, Uzbekistan had one of the highest fertility rates among the Central Asian states – 3.3 children per woman (up from 2.7 children in 2007), while in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan the fertility rate was 2.8 children per woman (up from 2.4 children per woman in 2000) and in Kazakhstan 3.05 children per woman (up from 1.8 children per woman in 1999). 

Research conducted in 2022 among women with more than two children highlighted several factors influencing Uzbek women’s decision to have more children – a societal shift toward valuing larger families, rising income levels, limited medical literacy among women (such as pregnancy prevention methods only 41.5 percent women aged 15-45 were reported to use contraception in 2022, a 10 percent decrease since 2007), and the influence of ever-increasing religious beliefs (Islam, followed by 88-94 percent of the population in Uzbekistan, encourages Muslims to have many offspring).

“I have always wanted to have four children. Being an only daughter myself, I wanted my children to have siblings,” said Dilnoza Sheraliyeva, a mother of four from Tashkent. “Apart from that, after marriage, I also started reading more religious books and got to know how our Prophet, peace be upon him, encouraged us to have many children.”

 “In our current state,” she said, “it is hard to send four children to private school, but I hope by the time my two youngest ones reach schooling age, we will be able to afford it.” 

One of the challenges that has come with the population boom is ensuring sufficient provision of secondary education for everyone. In Uzbekistan, general secondary and secondary specialized education is both free and compulsory under Article 50 of the Constitution. It spans 11 years and is divided into three stages – primary education (grades 1 through 4); basic secondary education (grades 5 through 9); and secondary education (grades 10 and 11). Children are admitted to a primary school at the age of seven and graduate at the age of 18.

Currently, 37.5 percent of the population of the country is under the age of 19, with over half of them (6,476,091) in secondary school, placing immense pressure on the education system. 

As of the 2023-2024 academic year, there are 10,522 general secondary schools (up from 8,557 in 1991) in Uzbekistan, including 293 private institutions. However, these schools only have the capacity to accommodate 5.2 million students out of the 6.5 million. As a result, 7,521 schools (73.1 percent) work more than one shift per day. Reportedly 33 percent of all students study in a second or third shift at a school. 

Not only does Tashkent need to build more schools, but it also needs to equip them, as well as recruit teaching and administrative professionals. 

“However, the budget deficit equalled a record 59 trillion soms (approx. $4.7 billion) in 2023, and already reached almost 20 trillion soms for the first quarter of 2024,” explained Komil Djalilov, an education expert and one of the developers of National Curriculum Framework (NCF), a recent large-scale project by Ministry of Public Education and UNICEF. 

“So-called ‘administrative reforms,’ an attempt to reduce the number of government agencies and their expenses, increased the administrative expenses by almost a quarter. Government debt is rising and equalled 36 percent of GDP in July 2023. So, there is simply no money to provide students even with student space, let alone quality teaching. In the draft version of the ‘Uzbekistan – 2030’ strategy, there was a target to create 500,000 student spaces every year, but in the approved version of the document this target was removed – this also shows that there is neither ability nor willingness to solve the problem.”

Classes in Uzbekistan are crowded. The Institute for Macroeconomic and Regional Studies reported that in the 2022-2023 academic year, 521,000 teachers were working in secondary schools nationwide, a ratio of one teacher per 12.4 students. This, however, does not mean there are actually 12-13 students per class. While legally there cannot be more than 35 students per class, anecdotal evidence suggests that classes with 40-45 students each were common just a few years ago. From 2022 onward, however, classes are arranged through an electronic system that aims to keep 35 students per class.

Even with 35 students per class, schools cannot accommodate the growing numbers. New schools are being built, but not enough and the pace is slow. In the early 2000s, Uzbekistanis welcomed slightly over half a million newborns annually. This means in the early 2010s, secondary schools would admit 500,000-600,000 students to Grade 1 classes. 

Last year, 968,140 children were born, meaning by 2030, nearly 1 million new students will be starting primary schools each year.

Made with Flourish

In 2019, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree establishing presidential schools – elite secondary schools that select very few students each year on a competitive basis. There are at least 14 of them operating currently.

“The government would need to revise its policy of dividing schools into a handful of presidential and specialized ones, which serve as window dressing – with much better funding, reduced class size, a single shift, state of the art facilities, better-paid teachers – and thousands and thousands of ‘ordinary’ schools with cramped classes, two or even three shifts, lacking basic facilities such as toilets or running water, and teachers struggling to make ends meet,” said Djalilov. 

“The public funds should be distributed equally to provide adequate conditions for learning for everyone, not to a very small number of students whom authorities see as ‘gifted.’ Research shows that such an approach does not lead to higher human capital indices, but contributes to widening inequality, as, for example, in neighboring Kazakhstan with the Nazarbayev schools.”

One way of coping with the overwhelming number of students has been the encouragement of the proliferation of private schools. In 2018, Tashkent issued a presidential decree that allows private schools to partner with the government to rent plots of land for buildings for at least 30 years and to use empty, unused buildings and re-purpose them for private schools for at least 20 years for free. Agreements between the state and private schools are concluded based on a tender held by the Ministry of Public Education. A 2024 presidential decree outlined additional support for private schools, such as tax cuts, reduced loan interest rates, partial utility bill coverage by the state, and more. 

Following the 2018 decree, the number of private schools skyrocketed from a mere 58 in 2018 to 293 in 2024. But these institutions still do not accommodate even 1 percent of Uzbekistan’s 6.5 million students. There remains a persistent lack of teachers, regardless of the kind of school. 

Made with Flourish

“In public primary schools, one teacher teaches one group of students for four consecutive years. It is good for children that their first teachers do not quit halfway,” explained Sheraliyeva. “But in private primary schools, teachers sign contracts on an annual basis, and if a teacher is unhappy, they leave at the end of the year. It affects the child very badly. This happened to my child. She still has affection for her first teacher.”

Not only have private schools not solved the overcrowding issue in secondary education, but they are also a clear testament to socioeconomic inequality among the people. 

While sending one child to a private school costs parents 1 million som ($82) per month outside of the capital, in Tashkent the average monthly payment is 4 million som ($320). Elite private schools such as the British School, Cambridge International School, and Westminster International School charge over $10,000-$15,000 annually, in a country where the minimum monthly wage is just over 1 million som ($83) and the average nominal monthly salary is 4.5 million som ($360). 

The poverty rate across Uzbekistan hovers at 11 percent of the population (in the capital it is below 10 percent, but in the regions it is higher). In 2020, the Central Bank of Uzbekistan reported that 78 percent of households in Uzbekistan spend between 51 and 69 percent of their income on food products, while only the top 22 percent of households spend more than half of their income on non-food products. 

“I have thought about sending my children to private school,” said Saodat. “If possible, I would, because I already spend about 4 million soms per month on their private tutors alone. It is difficult to get into universities in Uzbekistan even with the knowledge obtained in a private school, but at least study conditions are better there.”

“Another important thing the government needs is a plan, a strategy, carefully designed to make clear what and how we want to achieve in the long and medium terms,” said Djalilov. “Currently, public education has become a large experiment site or a place of constant reforms: ministers responsible for education keep changing, and the first thing a new minister does is to reject everything the previous one has initiated, and start everything fresh. Goals keep changing, curricula keep changing, approaches to teacher appraisal keep changing, with no analysis or research behind.

“But education is not a sphere where you can keep experimenting, because you will be playing with the future of hundreds of thousands of kinds and eventually, with the future of the nation.”