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

Niazov Takes Students Back to 'Middle Ages'

While teachers publicly applaud the president's higher education reforms, many privately fear that they will wreak havoc.
By Nyazik Ataeva

Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niazov, has announced wide-ranging reforms of the higher education system in his latest attempt to rid the country of its Soviet past and rebuild it in his own image.


Niazov, who likes to be known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, has in recent years overseen the closure of the Academy of Sciences, theatres, the state philharmonic orchestra, the circus and has cut compulsory schooling from ten to nine years.


Among the president's new initiatives, announced at the Turkmen Youth Congress on April 8, was to reduce higher education from five to two years. After this, students will be sent on obligatory work experience for the same period at an enterprise appropriate to their chosen profession.


"Let's get rid of useless subjects," the president said, setting out clearly defined options for the teaching of chemistry, physics, biology, psychology and ecology. Either abolish them, he told teachers, as they are no longer needed, or, "introduce concrete elements into the teaching of such subjects".


Other reforms are aimed at eradicating Russian and Soviet influence.


The Russian acronym for places of higher education "vuz" is to be replaced by the Turkmen "yekary okuv mekdebi" and the state university's Russian faculty will also be abolished.


"Only 3.5 per cent of the population is Russian, and because of them you study and teach that language?" the president asked the teachers. "Russian isn't needed in the university. Transfer everything to the Institute of Languages, and let only a small department remain."


Where once it was mandatory for students in higher education to learn the great texts of Marxism, now the study of Turkmenbashi's own book will be compulsory.


The leader considers Rukhnama - a book he wrote setting out his views and beliefs - a suitable moral code for the nation. "In social disciplines, only the history of Turkmenistan and Rukhnama will be taught," he said. " All the inhabitants of Turkmenistan, from the humble to the great, must read and know Rukhnama; people benefit from it."


Teachers attending the April 8 meeting unanimously supported Turkmenbashi's proposals. But although they will not risk their jobs by voicing concerns in public, many in the education system privately believe the president's reforms will wreak havoc.


Whilst the old Soviet education structure had faults, it was also responsible for Turkmenistan's 100 per cent literacy rate. It was widely seen as a key factor in enabling the country to transform itself from an economy based mostly on animal husbandry to a modern industrialised society.


The number of students in higher education has already dropped from 20,000 to 3,000. Academic degrees gained in foreign educational establishments are not recognised in Turkmenistan, just as diplomas issued by Turkmen higher education establishments are not recognised beyond its borders.


As one teacher at the Turkmen State University noted with irony, the new two-year period of further education will mimic the "mekdeb", the traditional system of basic learning, which dominated education in Central Asia during the Middle Ages. "Turkmenbashi will entirely destroy higher education in the country," the academic predicted.


Nyazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan


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