Uzbekistan: Lessons in Graft

lessons in graftTASHKENT, Uzbekistan | Uzbek authorities may be trying to overhaul the educational system to “renew the society” and implement “democratic transformation.” But any steps toward progress may be hindered by graft that begins in the lowest grades and works its way through to the universities.

Educators and analysts don’t deny that bribery and corruption are a part of academic life – as it is in other aspects of society here. But they say meager wages and poor training contribute to payoffs that form a vicious circle of parents paying teachers, teachers paying school directors, and directors passing on loot to school inspectors.

The mother of one third-grade boy says she gives 5,000 to 10,000 soms ($4 to $8) to a teacher every quarterly term to ensure high marks and special attention for her son. The mother, who asked not to be identified, said a secondary school graduation certificate with high marks costs $100 to $200.

Principals of some prestigious schools reportedly accept personal payments reaching several hundreds of dollars to admit students to their schools. In turn, principals and teachers pay off government inspectors sent to monitor their schools, according to educators who asked not to be identified.

One prominent Uzbek journalist, who has a 9-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter in school, says cash paid to teachers – whether to compensate for school supplies or favors – “turns out to be a large sum of money.”

A global study published last year by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning says graft in education contributes “to developing a ‘culture of corruption’ ” that harms the quality of instruction and forces children into making value judgments.

“Bribes and payoffs in teacher recruitment and promotion tend to lower the quality of public school teachers; and illegal payments for school entrance and other hidden costs help explain low school enrollment and high drop-out rates,” says the report, Corrupt Schools, Corrupt Universities: What Can be Done?

Indeed, Uzbekistan is not isolated in claims of bribe-taking and graft in elementary, secondary or higher education. The UNESCO report notes that corruption in education is a “worldwide phenomenon.” Low wages, poor standards, and chronically underfunded schools and universities are cited as reasons for graft.

Veteran Uzbek teacher Lilia Aisman acknowledges that schools often don’t have money for supplies or maintenance, so that teachers often pay for basic supplies out of their own pockets.

“But our salaries are not sufficient,” she said.

The situation in universities is no better. According to the Uznews.net website, each mark has a price. Many teachers charge 20,000 soms ($15) for “excellent,” 15,000 to 16,000 for “good” and 10,000 to 13,000 for “satisfactory.” Or a student can simply pay about $200 to a dean or pro-rector to have all the necessary signatures for advancement in his or her exam sheet, Uznews reports.

A first-year student of one of Tashkent’s colleges said in an interview that he pays 2,000 soms to pass an exam. Earlier, when he was a schoolboy, he also paid teachers for good marks, he added. The student asked not to be identified.

Routine Practice

“We observe corruption in Uzbekistan’s schools every day,” said Farkhad Tolipov, an Uzbek political analyst. Reflecting the general state of Uzbek society and the problems it faces during a period of transition, corruption in schools is “quite strong and widely distributed,” Tolipov said.

In 2007, Transparency International ranked Uzbekistan fifth from bottom in its corruption index of 180 nations surveyed. The Berlin-based organization defines corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain” and ranks countries based on expert and local assessments of the degree of corruption among public officials and politicians. According to the index, only Somalia, Myanmar, Iraq, and Haiti ranked lower than Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government says it is waging a struggle against graft and even built a jail to house top officials charged with corruption, but critics question the effectiveness of the campaign. One Uzbek political analyst, who asked that his name not be used, believes that this fight does not produce any evident effect because “there is no prestige in being honest.”

Government Plans Overhaul

The government’s education reform plan proposes the strengthening and development of the material and technical resources for schools, equipping them with modern training and laboratory equipment, computers, training aids, and textbooks; improvements to educational standards and syllabuses; higher standards for educators; and the development of sports in schools. It says the plan is designed to “renew the society” and implement “democratic transformation.”

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has called for better recruitment, training and pay for teachers. In 2004, he signed a five-year decree on educational development, saying that the existing system of “stimulating the work of teachers, especially in elementary schools,” was the weak point of the education system, and that teachers’ “talent and professional qualities” had not yet become the main criterion for setting their wages.

The Uzbek Uchitel Uzbekistana newspaper in August 2007 reported that even the most experienced elementary and secondary-school teachers earn less than $100 a month.

Teachers’ “shamefully low wages” of up to $130 a month do not provide a satisfactory living standard for them and their families, Aisman said.

Tolipov, the political analyst, is blunt about the situation, saying corruption is “a method of survival for some groups of the population. The level of corruption depends on the level of economic development of a country, and an economic policy leading to higher standards of living would decrease corruption.”

The average monthly wage in Uzbekistan was about $160 in late 2006. Karimov promised to raise the average monthly wage up to about $215 by the end of 2007. Meanwhile, prices for many goods in the country often are equal to those in the United States and Europe and sometimes even higher.

Information on educational financing in the country is closely guarded, and therefore estimates made by outsiders are sketchy and should be used with caution. Still, a 2002 report by the Open Society Institute’s Education Support Program stated, “The percentage of the GDP spent on education dropped … by a third in Uzbekistan” in the 1999-2000 school year.

Tolipov believes that it is necessary to carry out democratic reforms leading to openness and glasnost, the policy of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that encouraged freer discussion of social problems. “The problem should be brought up at different levels and the masses should discuss it openly.

“It will take a long time to defeat corruption,” he said.

 

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