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Limited Progress in Turkmen Education

The improvements the Turkmen government claims to have made to the educational system are still far from evident in practice, say NBCentral Asia observers.

A new science and education exhibition which opened in Ashgabat on September 9 is intended to showcase the country’s achievements, including international exchange programmes.

“The priority for our country is to raise honest, educated, well brought-up, moral and healthy young people, who will go on to become good professionals and serve their country,” Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, said at the opening ceremony.

Berdymuhammedov launched education reforms shortly after coming to power in 2007, rolling back some of the more retrograde policies of his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niazov. For example, schooling was increased to ten years – Niazov had reduced it to nine – and university education from three to five or six years. The authorities opened new university departments, introduced interactive teaching methods, provided equipment for computer labs, and allowed institutions to charge for tuition.

Mandatory study of the Ruhnama, the moral treatise written by Niazov, gradually faded from the national curriculum.

Observers inside the country say the changes are less apparent on the ground.

An education ministry official, who declined to be named, said the system had changed superficially but in essence remained the same as before.

Despite being sidelined to an extent, the Ruhnama remained “an important subject” at school and university, he said, adding that corruption was the biggest problem of all.

“Ninety per cent of university entrants pay a bribe to get in,” he said.

This summer, the dean and lecturers of the oriental languages department at the Azadi Institute of World Languages appeared on Turkmen state television to apologise, after apparently being arrested while taking bribes. They confessed on air to receiving a total of 119,000 US dollars in bribes from eight prospective students.

Students say that on the scale of illicit fees, the highest – ranging between 10,000 and 20,000 dollars – are charged by the Institute of Economics and Management, the Police Academy, and military and energy-related institutes.

One observer, based in the Mary region of southern Turkmenistan, says that vocational schools and colleges are beginning to catch up with the universities. “You pay the same bribe to get into teacher training college in Mary or Dashoguz as you would to enter a university,” he added.

Berdymuhammedov’s education reforms are also constrained by a lack of competent teaching staff.

Many teachers left the country during the Niazov era, and standards have fallen as a result.

A former lecturer at Turkmenistan’s Agricultural Institute who has emigrated to Russia, says the authorities should consider recruiting abroad as a way of getting better-calibre staff,

“I would be willing to return myself, but only on condition that the state change its attitude to education,” said the teacher. “But that change will only come when the quality of education becomes the top priority.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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