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Bribery Rife in Tajik Colleges

Government sends in task force to sort out corrupt and inept universities.
By the.iwpr
Many students in Tajikistan are paying bribes to obtain qualifications that have little value anyway, as the quality of education is so poor overall. That might sound like a statement from a pressure group - but it sums up the official position taken by the Tajik government, which has started taking steps to remedy the situation.

After years of under-funding and decay, everyone agrees that Tajikistan's universities and colleges are in need of reform, though some observers question whether the practice of paying bribes for exam results can be rooted out easily.

The reforms were initiated after President Imomali Rahmonov criticised the standard of education in a speech in December. Rahmonov said students were attaining inadequate levels of knowledge.

In an interview with IWPR, deputy education minister Farhod Rahimov detailed some of the main problems caused by under-funding. There was, he said, “a lack of teachers - especially with degrees, weak material and technical provision, and a lack of literature in the [Tajik] native language".

Sunatullo Jonboboev, coordinator of educational programmes with the Aga Khan Foundation's humanities project, says low funding and poor teaching have caused educational standards to slip in Tajikistan. In part, he believes, this is due to the retention of Soviet teaching methods, whereas what is needed is education that teaches students to think critically and make decisions for themselves.

One of the main factors eroding standards is bribery, where rather than studying, those attending university simply hand over money in exchange for an exam pass. "Corruption is a focus of attention," confirmed education ministry adviser Zamon Alifbekov.

As part of the reforms, a special commission started work in January to inspect and certify all higher education facilities.

Rahimov said the inspections were already under way, and in some places there were special postboxes where students could leave comments and complaints about abuses such as the extortion of bribes by lecturers. "Every day, the ministry gets at least 20 letters from students with complaints about lecturers, which we investigate,” he said.

According to Alifbekov, “Depending on the results of the commission, some universities will undergo a change in status, while others will be transformed.” For instance, those universities which currently specialise in just one field will become institutes.

So far, several university rectors plus a number of faculty deans and lecturers have been sacked as a result of the task force's investigations. The education ministry is not commenting on whether whole universities will be closed if abuses are found to be rife there, but will give a ruling on the matter once the commission completes its work and announces its formal findings, which should happen by the end of June.

The Tajik president also invited students and parents to write into his official website, and many did so. He read out a number of these messages concerning corruption in higher education when he addressed a televised cabinet meeting at the beginning of March.

Students and lecturers interviewed by IWPR confirmed that corrupt practices were commonplace.

“Money decides everything,” said a third-year student at the National University of Tajikistan, who did not want to be named. “Whether or not I know the subject, I have to pay out money along with everyone else. So I don’t prepare for lessons very thoroughly, and after university classes, I have to work as a conductor on a minibus taxi so as to save money for my studies.”

Parviz, an economics student in Dushanbe, said that every term he asks his parents for 200 or 300 US dollars to cover exam bribes.

“You can’t go and see any lecturer at our university if you don't have money," he explained. "What can you do? I need a degree. I won’t work as an economist, of course, but having a higher education will help me in life.”

Parviz's fellow student Bahrom says these costs are an enormous drain on resources which make the education process futile, “I don’t know why I'm studying – it's impossible to find work anyway, but my parents say that everyone studies so I should too. But it isn't study, just a waste of a huge amount of money."

Some students say they can get by without paying bribes as long as they do their homework. Medical student Anvar Sanginov says it is only the lazy – and wealthy – who resort to bribery.

“I am sure of my knowledge, so I've never had to pay money," he said. "Those students who don’t come to lessons rely on their rich parents and connections, and they pay the money and pass the exams.”

However, Bahrom says he recalls just one exam where he was not required to hand over cash – and he says the lecturer testing him was subsequently forced out of the university because of his high principles. Because he refused to accept bribes, this man is now selling schoolbooks at the market.

Other lecturers justify their behaviour by the fact that their salaries are so low, at about 20 or 30 dollars a month.

“My salary is insufficient, so I take money from unscrupulous students, and don’t see anything shameful about it," said one lecturer at the National University, who asked to remain anonymous.

"The president announces from the podium that having a small salary is no excuse to take bribes from students. Sorry, but the realities are completely different. I have children who go to school, which also asks for a lot of money. The children have to go to the doctor, who takes bribes as well."

Ministry adviser Alifbekov accepts that teachers at the state-run universities are paid much less than those at the newer private institutes, and that this engenders both corruption and an exodus of staff from public-sector education.

Lecturers and schoolteachers got a 40 per cent pay rise on April 1. But on a 30-dollar salary, that does not count for very much.

“They’ve raised our tiny salary by a few per cent and they reckon we can live on this money! Prices for literally everything went up immediately afterwards," said lecturer Akmal Sharipov angrily. "Just as we took money from students before, we will continue to do so."

An education expert who wished to remain anonymous said corruption in the education sector was likely to remain a problem for decades as it was only part of a wider problem affecting all parts of society.

Education ministry officials say university funding from the government budget is falling year by year, so alternative sources have to be found.

“Universities need to move to modern educational methods,” said Nazrullo Sanginov, rector of the National University.

Although he sees university fees as the way forward, he accepts that the very low average income levels in Tajikistan are a major constraint. Instead, he says, "At our university, a loan system [for students] has been introduced, and this could solve many problems in the higher education. Some other universities may also adopt this system.”

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