Turkmenistan: Doors Opening, Doors Slamming

doors opening doors slammingMuch was made of this year’s secondary school graduating class in Turkmenistan, in both local and international media. This was due to the fact that no students graduated from Turkmen secondary schools in 2007; instead, they entered a 10th year of mandatory education. The reintroduction of the 10-year education system was one of the first orders of business of the newly installed Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a move that reversed one of the more controversial edicts of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of all Turkmen).

Since Berdymukhammedov assumed power in February 2007, the government has pushed through a number of education reforms to great fanfare, including higher salaries for teachers, smaller class sizes, and increased access to computers. However, many feel that these improvements are merely putting the best possible face on a system in which resources are grossly inadequate and badly managed, and Turkmen youth are given few opportunities to realize their potential.

Admittedly, it is difficult to assess the government’s claims to success, because access to schools by foreigners and researchers is still heavily restricted and reliable statistics are not readily available. Still, it is evident that the government’s current strategy is defined by bewildering contradictions. A lingering suspicion of all things foreign is awkwardly juxtaposed with an official policy of introducing international standards. Doors to some opportunities are being opened, while they are being slammed shut to those who cannot afford them.

Struggling on the Inside

In April 2007, Berdymukhammedov promised a 40 percent pay rise for teachers, who remain among the lowest-paid public servants in Turkmenistan. While salaries were indeed raised, the government’s revaluation of the manat appears to have accounted for more than half of the adjustment in real terms. “They broke their promise,” one former teacher says. “[Salaries] went up by only 18 percent.” Many teachers complain that their low wages hardly provide for a decent standard of living and do not inspire them to excel in their profession.

At the same time, the quality of educational resources is poor, if not abysmal. While the government has constructed new, model facilities complete with computer classrooms and digital white boards in the capital, the textbooks being used in ordinary Turkmen classrooms are in tatters.

Nearly all resources in current use are based on outdated Soviet methods. Rote learning and one-way teaching techniques are still considered the gold standard by both the Education Ministry and teachers themselves. “The government is actively trying to recreate the Soviet system, and they don’t realize that it’s not the model,” said one independent analyst familiar with the system who works with the government and chose not to be named.

Parental morale is also in short supply. “[Parents] are always being asked to contribute, to pay for renovations or buy equipment, or to heat the classrooms. They don’t want to volunteer or be involved in school life because they feel they are doing enough already,” a former teacher said.

Turkmenistan is certainly not unique in its need to overcome the legacies of Soviet pedagogy; however, its recent prosperity, spurred by increasing oil and gas revenues, gives it a financial advantage over other countries in the region that could be used to address these systemic problems.

Shining on the Outside

Instead, that advantage has been almost entirely directed to two avenues: building new facilities and equipping classrooms with computers.

While the government has begun to introduce computers into the classroom, particularly in urban areas, its pledge that all schools will be “fully computerized” is vague and largely unfulfilled. The Education Ministry recently procured 12,000 computers to be distributed nationwide; however, this amounts to only one computer per 80 students – even less, if teachers and administrators are factored into the equation.

Where computers are available, Internet connectivity rarely is. Outside of the 20 schools connected by a United Nations Development Program initiative, it is unclear how many schools have been connected, and whether they have any access to the wider Internet outside a locally-based and government-controlled education portal. Education Ministry officials restrict access to schools by foreigners and researchers, making verification of their connectivity claims nearly impossible. One teacher at a newly-built school in Ashgabat complained, “They have said we would have the Internet, but it still doesn’t work.”

Of course, computerization in isolation does not lead to improved results. “It seems that [the government] thinks you can just put in computers and you’ve improved education,” remarked a foreign official who works in the development field.

Many schools and institutes, particularly in the capital, are receiving lavish new marble facades or entirely new buildings. However, renovations seem to be driven more by the government’s ostentatious – and many argue, corruption-plagued – plans for urban renewal than by actual need. Many allege that the bureaucrats involved in these renovations frequently sign dual contracts with foreign construction companies, deliberately designed to allow a huge portion of the reported contract costs to disappear. With officials’ attention focused on completing contracts and obscuring kickbacks, there is little accountability for the ensuing construction, as firms cut corners to increase their margins while almost certainly ensuring that the new schools will be as poorly constructed and maintained as their Soviet predecessors.

There have also been reports of authorities compelling small business owners to serve as unofficial patrons for schools. “They assign them to a school and tell them to fix the walls, or to paint them. Entrepreneurs have enough difficulties here as it is,” one teacher reported.

Opportunity, at a Price

Turkmen young people eager to continue their education after secondary school are faced with another set of obstacles.

Higher education remains a privilege for the few. Government estimates are that only 4,000 students will enter universities in the next academic year. Of this year’s secondary school graduates, just 4 percent can look forward to university education in Turkmenistan. The government reports that 2,200 students will be sent to study abroad, though what proportion of those students will undertake full-time degree-earning programs is not yet clear. Even so, the fact that the current administration has loosened travel restrictions for students aiming to study abroad must be acknowledged as an unequivocal step forward.

Corruption in the university entrance process is another festering problem. Under the previous administration bribes were widely viewed as a secondary prerequisite for university admission after one’s scores on standardized entrance examinations. Today, they appear to be obligatory.

The price for a seat at Magtumguly-Turkmenistan State University is shockingly high – as much as $40,000 according to several parents and students.

Last year, the government doubled the stipends offered to university students to almost $200 per month. However, according to one parent, that initiative actually had the adverse effect of increasing the bribes demanded to enter universities to about $9,000, the sum of the stipend over five years.

Such a system only serves to further stratify educational opportunities in Turkmen society, which are already skewed toward the cities and well-connected elites. Another unequivocal improvement was the elimination of the previous requirement of two years’ relevant work experience in an applicant’s intended field of study before university admission. The corresponding increase in eligible applicants, however, has probably contributed to the steep rise in bribes required to secure a coveted spot.

The number of Turkmen students abroad, as well as employees of government institutions permitted to embark on study trips, has increased slightly in recent years, and the government has been more outwardly encouraging of this trend. However, foreign degrees are rarely recognized in Turkmenistan itself, and some teachers who participated in international study tours have reported being questioned and harassed by their employers upon return.

Most disturbingly, ideological education continues unabated. The Ruhnama, the “spiritual guidebook” ostensibly written by Turkmenbashi, is still studied every Saturday, and is used as a basis for university entrance examinations. The book consists of the former president’s dubious autobiography and his account of Turkmen history, punctuated by his poetry and thoughts on morality. At the Turkmen-Turkish University, once a moderately independent institution, students are increasingly joining their peers from other universities in being sent to official political-cultural events and “volunteer” work camps. And while Turkmenbashi’s quotes and photos have been coming down in schools, shiny new placards with Berdymukhammedov’s image and words have been taking their place.


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