Kyrgyzstan: Seeds for a Poor Harvest

seeds for a poor harvestIn the Soviet era, a student from Central Asia who wanted to study international law would have had to compete with thousands if not tens of thousands of other students from around the Soviet Union for a spot in Moscow. The odds were long, and such courses of study far less available than more “practical” pursuits such as engineering and agronomy.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, higher education in Kyrgyzstan–and throughout Central Asia, with the exception of Turkmenistan–has undergone rapid changes toward fulfilling the demands of the market. Now even the smallest and most provincial colleges can offer a degree in international law or related subjects such as international relations and business. And given the massive demand for such subjects, most do.

In 2003, almost half of Kyrgyzstan’s 200,000 university students–49 per cent–chose subjects in the humanities. Nearly one in four–23 percent–chose economics and management, and another 12 percent chose law, according to a 2003 Education Ministry report. Just over 17 percent chose technical courses. But fewer than 2,300 students, or 1.1 percent, chose to study agriculture.

Even those who do end up in agricultural courses of study don’t always seem to have chosen it for themselves. One fifth-year student at the Agricultural University, the “cheapest” university in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, says he entered the agricultural field after he “was not accepted by other universities,” while adding that he now “does not regret his choice.” Another student there, a fourth-year studying agricultural ecology, said she was attracted by the school’s “low tuition fees.”

The strategy of the average Kyrgyz student seems logical: Working at an international organization as a lawyer, economist, or translator will almost certainly lead to a more lucrative career than would studies in agriculture. In this way, Kyrgyz students have become more like their Western counterparts, choosing subjects they see as most likely to lead to personal income growth.

The difference–and the conflict–arises from the vast difference between the Kyrgyz economy and development prospects and those of the more developed nations.

Skills Versus Trends

In Kyrgyzstan, industrial employment has dropped dramatically since the country gained independence in 1991. Meanwhile, employment in agriculture has grown by 50 percent, according to a 2003 report by Central Asian economy expert Gregory Gleason. Agriculture today represents the largest sector of the Kyrgyz economy, contributing 45 per cent of the GDP. Industry accounts for 20 percent and the service sector, 30 percent.

Given the rapid acceleration of agriculture, the choices of the current generation of university students seems to be setting up a dichotomy. The skills that students are learning do not necessarily reflect the future needs of the country’s economy. Moreover, as a result of decreasing enrollment and the resulting reduced financing, vocational training is also on a downswing. According to a 2002 report by the science training organization the National Observatory, Kyrgyzstan is almost sure to face a labor shortage in areas such as equipment maintenance, agricultural management, engineering, and mechanical fields.

Meanwhile, those who aspire to work in business, law, and international relations have to compete for scarce jobs in those fields. Large numbers of these graduates end up underemployed in the services sector–holding the diplomas perceived as absolutely crucial, but without relevant jobs.

Much of the demand for university degrees can also be traced to the Soviet legacy in higher education in Central Asia, which dates primarily from the World War II period and its aftermath. During the war, vast numbers of unskilled workers had to be trained quickly–in two to six months–to become technical workers. At the time, it was called “transforming shepherds into electricians.” Those technical workers were later called praktiki (practitioners) because they had learned their professions on the job. A decade or two after the war, diplomniki*–those who had graduated from “real” training schools and institutes–gained a privileged position ahead of the praktiki, taking the best positions at factories and other work places.

The Soviet system bestowed favor on technical education, since technology and industrialization were seen as the key to economic and social transformation. With the tremendous rise of plants, factories, mines that often turned into towns, villages, and social communities, technical education enjoyed high prestige and importance. Social sciences, though popular with the masses since they also provided a path to the urban intelligentsia, were secondary under Soviet educational policies and used primarily for ideological indoctrination.

Whether pursuing technical or ideological studies, young people and their families quickly learned that a degree was even more important than whatever service they might have contributed during the Great War for determining social mobility. Without a diploma, an “unenlightened” praktik was unlikely to ever gain more favored status.

Given this history, it is unsurprising that higher education–even with all the market changes–remains a highly valued commodity. With a population of only about 4.5 million, Kyrgyzstan has more than 60 public and private universities, roughly the same as the Czech Republic, which has more than twice as many people.

The International Role

Kyrgyzstan has been the recipient of massive international input into its educational system. Under the terms of educational reform dating from 1994, international organizations have been able to start new training programs and even universities, provided they follow the basic terms set out by the Education Ministry.

The most important and successful international donor organizations such as the Open Society Institute (OSI) have invested heavily into subject specializations that already enjoy high prestige and are taught by major universities that offer competitive training. Vocational and technical education enjoy no prestige, and the colleges and universities that do offer them are not famous for the quality of education.

As Mathias Rufer, a geographer who consulted for the Swiss Kyrgyz Agricultural Project explained, “Social sciences came into the mainstream during the mid and late 1990s, when [the international] projects started. Building up a ‘new, modern’ society meant to some people achieving a low level of agriculture and industry and a high level of services in the economy. Therefore agriculture received less attention, was perhaps even considered as backward.”

Those who support continued development of social science education say such training is important because it fosters critical and analytical thinking and teaches theories of democracy and authoritarianism, economics, history, and contemporary social issues. Technical training is far more removed from these topics.

Audrone Uzieliene, the deputy director of the Network Scholarships Programs at OSI’s Budapest office, says that the aim of its programs is to build and sustain open societies, which, she says, “involves developing an engaged citizenry who have developed the capacity for critical, rational discussion of the issues facing society.”

“The study of the humanities and the social sciences more directly contributes to this aim than does technical and vocational studies,” she added. “The study of philosophy, for example, should enhance an individual’s capacity for critical thinking. And in some cases, such as economics, the subject not only contributes to the development of critical skills, but the content of the subject is also directly relevant to the issues of the day.”

Still, technical and agricultural training remains vital, and some international donors, including OSI, have tried to recognize that as well.

“The study of more applied subjects such as agriculture is clearly important for economic development,” Uzieliene explained. “But that being so, we expect national governments to invest in these subjects; an investment which will be repaid in terms of economic growth.”

The major modernization of vocational training in Kyrgyzstan has been at the behest of donor-driven projects. But, according to a 2003 report by the European Training Foundation, “Most initiatives remain at the project level and are not mainstreamed into the entire system.” Moreover, the report adds, “the experience accumulated is fragmented and overlapping, due partly to different approaches among donors and party to the lack of mechanisms integrating project experience into an education development strategy.”

As Maksat Abdykaparov of the Swiss non-profit Helvetas group–which recently trained its first 100 graduates in an experimental agricultural vocational training program–said, “Taking into consideration that Kyrgyzstan is an agrarian country, the role of agricultural education is a vital issue. But the government pays more attention to general education rather than to technical or agricultural education.”

But Kai Franke–who worked in Kyrgyzstan for five years as a representative of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which supports students in the region to study in Germany-says that “while some people say that investment into social sciences does not develop societies, the reality is that social sciences can be an investment with spectacular results, whereas investment in technical education such as engineering is slow, very expensive, and difficult to support.”

Regardless of expense, however, other experts say technical and vocational training remains important. Without it, they say, the rural-urban divide, poverty, and underdevelopment are likely to spread.

Not Glamorous, But Important

The low “attractiveness rating” of agricultural occupations is part of the historical process of industrialization and urbanization in Central Asia: Farm work was already the least popular way of earning a living in the 1960s, according to research carried out late in that decade by Murray Yanowitch and Norton Dodge. In addition, the mechanization of the collective farms meant that the need for skilled labor in the fields was decreasing.

If lack of interest among the younger generation in rural life and agricultural work is nothing new, why then should this apathy raise flags now? Wouldn’t it be better to pay heed to developing what Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev once called “human capital”–specialists in important, market-oriented subject areas?

Specialists at GTZ, a German organization that offers technical support to developing countries, argue that the more developed a country’s economy is, the less dependent it is on agriculture. However, they also argue in a 2002 report that “non-farm rural activities depend on a flourishing agricultural sector.” Their policies, therefore, are directed at the development of agriculture in Kyrgyzstan and training for overall rural development, which could then foster non-farm rural activities such as food processing and tourism. Providing vocational training in agriculture and bringing practical know-how to experienced farmers is one of the major activities of GTZ in the country.

For Nazgul Suleimanova, a Kyrgyz research student of agricultural ecology who is studying soil quality on a fellowship in Germany, good agricultural and technical education is not simply about economics, but also about the deteriorating Kyrgyz environment.

“Our farmers do not know how to use land,” she said, explaining that “they do not give land rest time [to lay fallow]. They put chemicals in it–even though all Kyrgyz agriculture takes place on only 7 percent of its land since only 7 percent is usable, and farmers abuse this 7 percent–and as a result we face an ecological catastrophe.”

According to Suleimanova, Kyrgyz farmers have started to notice that their land is losing productivity but, she said, “they do not know how to solve the problem. At the Agricultural University, [students] study the theory of agriculture and ecology but … have very little practice or field research. The teachers are interesting and good, with Soviet education backgrounds, but one cannot learn agriculture in classrooms. Here in Germany, many of my courses are conducted in the field, and I get much more out of the classes.”

Making farming more efficient, argues the geographer Rufer, is not simply a question of machinery, fertilizer, cash, or veterinary services. For him, knowledge is another important factor in productivity. Unfortunately, the available support for increasing such training–which includes funding from the Swiss and German governments as well as the European Union–suffers from an overall lack of publicity.

The successful development of the American University-Central Asia, the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, and Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University–funded by international donor organizations and states including the Soros Foundation, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, the United States, and Turkey–has integrated international standards into the Kyrgyz educational system. These and other institutions of higher education may be able to help boost the prestige of technical subjects and vocational training throughout the education system.

Until then, it seems that few students will choose the agricultural path, even though funds are available to help them do it. One student of land planning says that his parents made the choice for him. “They said that this specialization has a future,” he explained. “I didn’t like it at the beginning, but now it seems they may have been right.”


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