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

Dumbing Down Turkmenistan

Thousands of high school leavers find they can’t go to university, and can’t get a job either.
By IWPR staff

The 107,000 young people leaving school this summer in Turkmenistan face a grim future, with few prospects of finding employment or going on to higher education.

Education reforms instituted in recent years by Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurad Niazov – better known as Turkmenbashi – were notionally designed to develop practical vocational skills, but the effect seems to be to turn out young people whose qualifications are neither wanted nor needed in a contracting job market.

School-leavers can no longer go straight into higher education because of another Turkmenbashi-inspired reform dating from 2002, which means that before going on to university they have to do two years’ work experience – something that is now very hard to get, since there are so few jobs around.

In desperation, some people have resorted to forging employment records to try to get into university, but the security ministry is on the case with instructions to check up on every document submitted with application forms.

Those who make it into higher education will find that standards have fallen. Since Turkmenbashi ruled that university curricula contained too many “unnecessary” subjects, degree courses have been cut to just two years, followed by a two-year work placement.

Since 1997, schools have had to teach practical skills so that pupils leave qualified in one of 57 areas ranging from tailoring and hairdressing to tractor driving and carpet weaving. There are no qualifications designed to help those who plan to train as teachers, lawyers or doctors.

School leavers who go straight into the job market find there is little demand for their skills. The increasing use of army conscripts as unpaid construction workers, street cleaners and hospital staff has put many people out of work. This only adds to continuing cuts in the labour force across the board, which means there are always plenty of people with the same qualifications as the new school-leavers but with years of experience, too.

“They always try to pressure us into hiring school leavers, saying that they need to get jobs too,” explained a member of staff at the electrical equipment plant in the capital Ashgabat. “But our factory doesn’t need a low-skill workforce – what we need are highly-qualified specialists, people with intellectual capacity who have a higher education.”

One mother told IWPR of her despair in trying to find her son Aslan a job, “I don’t know what we’ll do. It is unlikely we’ll be able to find a job for him, because who needs uneducated teenagers when there are specialists unemployed? We could send him to the army when he reaches 17 and just hope something changes while he’s there.”

The options for school-leavers have been further reduced by new rule introduced this month forcing certain professionals – doctors, lawyers and teachers – to resign if they graduated from a foreign university after 1993. This effectively cuts off an important route to education, since many Turkmen would typically have studied in Moscow or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

“High school graduates are facing a dead end,” said one father, who asked not to be named. “My son doesn’t have the right to go to university here because he lacks the work experience, and it does not make sense to send him to study in Russia or Kazakstan because foreign diplomas are no longer valid here.”

This man worries that his son will never realise his dream of becoming a lawyer, and fears the curtailment of educational opportunities will have a severe social impact on Turkmenistan.

“I think the situation is absurd and, in terms of social policy, negligent. In the end it will result in a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

One former mathematics teacher sees Turkmenbashi’s education reforms as a deliberate policy of dumbing down by preventing people from going to university.

“All the reforms and innovations in the education system that have taken place over the last two years were designed to lower the standard of education,” said the former teacher, who asked not to be named. “It’s a conscious effort to increase the number of uneducated people.”

More IWPR's Global Voices

Pandemic Highlights Cuban Chaos
Difficulty accessing basic supplies has made it hard to institute social distancing and lockdown measures.
Cuba: Mystery Surrounds Failed Aid Donation
Seeing Cuban Media Through a Gender Lens