Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Distance Learning in Tajikistan

Students buy their way through university without attending lectures, just to get a diploma.
By Bilol Shamsov

Many of the graduates turned out by universities in the south of Tajikistan this summer will have attended no classes and sat no exams, whatever it says on their degree certificate.

For some students, going to lectures is an unaffordable luxury because they need to work at day jobs just to keep themselves alive. But others are more calculating, using their earnings to buy their way through examinations they never sit, all the way to a decree which they hope will advance their career.

Resource-starved colleges appear to be happy with the arrangement because it means revenue with no extra outlay on teaching. As a result, they are notionally churning out professionals such as teachers, but in practice there is a dire shortage of staff in the schools.

Khurshed Safarov, a second-year student at Kulyab university in southern Tajikistan, told IWPR, “One of my fellow-students went to work in Russia in spring last year, but he continues to 'study' at the university. He punctiliously sends money to his parents, who pay for [him to pass] his tests and exams.

“There are a lot of students like him at our university. My friend Rahmatullo had a job at a market in Dushanbe while he was still at school. When he'd earned enough money, he enrolled at Kulyab university. But he doesn’t go to lectures – he's working at the market.”

On a visit to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, this IWPR contributor met a number of young men working as migrant labourers at the same time as they were – in theory –full-time students in Tajikistan. They go back home from time to time to bribe their way through exams, and then return to their jobs in Russia.

In some cases, students have little option but to take jobs. Nurali Khudoyarov tried to start studying: even when he became the family's sole breadwinner after the death of his father, he managed to earn enough spare cash to enrol as a medical student. But once classes started, he found it impossible to study and work at the same time, so he went off to Russia to earn what for Tajikistan counts for good money.

“Nurali is now a second-year student," said his uncle. "If he sends the money to pay for tests and exams, he can continue his studies. If not, he will have to take a sabbatical.”

Southern Tajikistan, one of the poorest parts of the country, seems hardest hit by the problem. Although academic officials are naturally loathe to disclose the scale of student absenteeism, between 20 and 30 per cent of the students listed as attending Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube universities and the teacher training colleges and medical schools in the region are believed to be away working in Russia.

A source in the academic community who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that Kurgan-Tyube university last year accepted 600 students above its normal quota. These additional students will not put a strain on teaching resources as they will never turn up for classes –just pay their money and pass exams automatically.

According to a lecturer at Kulyab university, who did not want to be named, “The system is usually like this: the student hands over money to a lecturer and goes off to work in Russia. Then the lecturers reach a deal with the faculty deans. An exam costs 10 somoni, and a test costs five. In total, the student has to give 100 somoni [30 US dollars] to pass all the exams and tests for the given period.”

A biologist working at the same university said wryly, "The students decide for themselves how best to study - either by paying cash and going off to work somewhere, or by going to lectures. What can you do?… Many of the students haven’t learnt anything at school, so what can we teach them at university?”

Possession of a degree has carried a cachet since Soviet times. But times have changed: university study now has to be paid for, student grants have shrunk to five dollars or less a month, and there are few job opportunities for graduates.

However, it still seems to be worth the trouble of acquiring a diploma even if no actual learning lies behind it. A degree, whatever the discipline, still makes a job-seeker look more attractive to employers. More practically, being enrolled as a student is a good way for young men to avoid army conscription.

Madina Ismatulloeva, a female student in her first year at Kulyab's medical college, is bemused at the attitude of male students, “The boys are studying just so as to get a diploma, they use contacts and pay to pass exams. Their level of knowledge is zero, because after they get their diploma they don't go to work in their chosen field. They don’t know themselves why they have enrolled at university.”

Many of the college leavers are, on paper, destined to become teachers, and after graduation they are indeed assigned jobs in the south of Tajikistan, following the Soviet model where people were directed to specific posts after university.

But few of them actually take up these jobs, and those who do often drift away, commonly to Russia where they join hundreds of other Tajik migrant workers.

As a result, southern Tajikistan remains critically short of teachers. Many left the country during the 1992-1997 civil war, and few new recruits are attracted by a monthly salary averaging around 20 dollars. It has been estimated that one in five teachers in Tajikistan does not possess any formal qualifications.

Amir Hisainov, a veteran headmaster from the southeastern Vose district, recalls, “I once saw a class journal filled out by a young teacher. I read his notes and was horrified to see that if you had corrected all his mistakes, the pages would have been covered in red ink. What can such teachers give to children?”

Bilol Shamsov is an IWPR contributor in southern Tajikistan.