Uzbekistan: New Model, Old Problems

new model old problemsWith one third of its population children under the age of 15, Uzbekistan has had little choice but to spend millions of dollars on education reforms since the mid-1990s. But in spite of the increase in funding and successful structural changes, the system remains marred by problems inherited from the Soviet period and the early years of independence, including low teacher salaries, petty corruption, and frequent interruptions to children’s studies.

Two complementary programs form the basis of Uzbekistan’s reformed national education model. In 1996, the government introduced the National Program on Personnel Training, which aimed to extend compulsory education from nine to 12 years – nine years of basic education followed by three years of secondary training in specialized lyceums and colleges. In 2004, Uzbekistan launched the first phase of the National Program for School Education Development, shifting the focus of reforms to improving the overall quality of education through new schools, renovations, and equipment. Reforms under the banner of both programs are due to be completed by the end of 2009.

Sharifboy Ergashev, head of the educational development department at the Education Ministry, says that both programs have so far proven successful.

“Hundreds of academic lyceums and vocational colleges have been built in every region of the country. They have been equipped with skilled personnel and meet the new requirements,” Ergashev said. He also claimed that Uzbekistan is a pioneer in Central Asia in the implementation of these reforms, boasting: “It was our know-how [that was responsible for success], if you like.”

Slow Starters

Dilnara Isamitdinova, the World Bank country officer for Uzbekistan, agrees that, on the whole, the government’s implementation of the National Program for School Education Development has been successful and the program is beginning to show positive results after a few initial hitches.

“The first phase of the program implemented by the ministry was a little slow in the beginning, because they needed to hire consultants and accomplish other tasks, but now it is in full swing,” Isamitdinova said. “There have been some delays in procuring materials for the schools, but that’s because the whole timetable was shifted by a bit.”

Ergashev would not reveal how much government money has been spent so far on implementing the national programs. But the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2007-2008 National Human Development report for Uzbekistan estimates that public expenditures on education exceeded 10 percent of the country’s GDP, based on government-provided data.

Foreign organizations have contributed to the effort. In 2007, the World Bank provided $15 million in loans for a project focusing on training teachers, improving educational resources, fostering community participation in education, and creating more efficient education budgets. The bank plans on lending another $25 million for the second phase of the project. USAID provided technical assistance to the tune of more than $1 million between 2004 and 2007. Besides these major donors, the Asian Development Bank and Islamic Bank, as well as the South Korean and Chinese governments, have provided funds for programs to improve school libraries and train teachers in interactive teaching techniques.

However, after the events in Andijan in May 2005, when Uzbek forces killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, the government kicked foreign organizations out of the country in response to a wave of international criticism. Some education projects funded by international donors ground to a halt. For example, USAID’s Participation, Education, and Knowledge Strengthening (PEAKS) basic education program, which focused on the development of a training course for primary and secondary teachers, was discontinued in 2006 on direct orders from the Uzbek government.

Under the new system, each student is supposed to choose which lyceum or vocational school he or she wishes to attend upon graduating from basic school. “Starting from kindergarten, the skills and talents of every single student will be monitored until the ninth grade, when they will receive a psychological-pedagogical summary and a recommendation for which school they should attend,” Ergashev said. Students then select a school based upon their own interests and abilities.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. “So far we have only seen the ‘side effects’ of the reforms,” said Rohilya, a teacher in the Syrdarya region who spoke on the condition that her real name not be used. “Basically, we now have a nine-year system because most children are deprived of the opportunity to continue their studies in the field of their choice.” She was referring to complaints that not all students actually manage to get into the best lyceums or pursue their desired type of secondary education under the new system.

“Of course, after the ninth grade, the teachers are required [by district education authorities] to enroll children in any lyceum or college,” Rohilya explained. In most cases, students simply go to the schools that have free places, not the schools they want to attend. “Many children attend the last three years of the 12-year education system just because they are required to,” she said.

The new education model created more opportunities for corruption, said Rohilya, because only the children of families who can afford to bribe teachers and administrators at the more prestigious lyceums and colleges are able to secure places in these schools and thus improve their chances of being admitted to university. Since many Uzbek families want their children to study law, medicine, or any field that would ensure a white collar job in the future, places in secondary schools that prepare students for these professions are highly coveted.

Unlike universities, which admit students based upon the results of strictly controlled standardized tests administered by the state, academic lyceums and colleges hold their own entrance examinations, creating opportunities to manipulate the results. Regardless, the competition to get into these schools is fierce.

“Last year, many children from my school wanted to go to a medical college in the Hovost district,” Rohilya explained. “But most of them failed, and because they are required to continue to study they ended up in colleges that nobody wants to go to, like construction colleges, which train them to be builders or plumbers. I would not want my own child to go there,” she said.

Ergashev of the Education Ministry admits that not every one of the more than 600,000 children finishing secondary school can choose a school according to field of interest. “But at least they have a profession in case they are not able to enter university,” he said.

The new model has also done little to settle old disputes between Uzbekistan and the country’s ethnic Tajiks, who form 5 percent of the country’s population of 27 million. Tajiks are considered the country’s second largest official minority, yet neither of the two national education reform programs includes any activities directly targeting this community. Only 1.7 percent of Tajik schoolchildren studied in Tajik-language schools last year, according to the Education Ministry. The number of Tajik schools has steadily declined since the mid-1990s, with more than 50 Tajik schools closed down just in the last four years due to Uzbekistan’s bad relations with neighboring Tajikistan.

Struggling to Get By

Another side effect of the new system is that schoolchildren now have to rent their textbooks. Under the old system, schools were supposed to provide textbooks for free.

“For most families who are struggling to make ends meet, this extra expense is too much,” said Zamira (a teacher whose name has also been changed to protect her identity). She is from the Oltiarik district of the Ferghana region.

Zamira and her husband are teachers in a local school, and it is their duty to collect the money for textbook rentals. “We distribute the books to children and it becomes a big problem when we have to collect the rent. Many families cannot afford to pay, and I understand them. I have four children and for each of them we have to spend an extra 7,000-8,000 soms [around $5] for book rentals. With our family’s modest income, it is an extra burden for us,” she said.

However, both Rohilya and Zamira say that the income from the book rental system allows schools to provide all the necessary textbooks to their students.

The increase in funding for education in recent years has not translated into higher wages for Uzbek teachers. An average teacher makes 100,000-110,000 soms a month [$70-$80]. That amount is on par with what constitutes the nationwide average (though President Islam Karimov recently claimed that the average salary is around the equivalent of $300 per month).

“My monthly salary and that of my husband are merely enough for a bag of flour and other basic foods,” Zamira said. “The low income of teachers makes the profession quite unpopular among young people and does not inspire teachers to develop their skills.”

In the last 10 years or so, a large number of educators have switched to other professions. Many are now engaged in unskilled labor, working in markets or driving taxis. Some have long since left for Russia or Kazakhstan as labor migrants.

Such modest salaries also contribute to the persistence of corruption in Uzbekistan’s public schools.

Unlike in some other Central Asian countries, such as neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbek officials have never admitted to the practice of collecting money for school renovations from children. Children are still unofficially obliged to submit the sum once a year, though authorities continue to deny the fact.

Most parents do not doubt where the money ultimately goes. “We never check up on the real use of the money,” said Sadriddin, a father of four children in the Syrdarya region. “Last year it was up to 8,000 soms for each pupil in my children’s school. Not many renovations are being done at the school. We know that most of the money is divided between form masters and the school director – the bigger portion going to the director, who shares it with people at the district education department. It is a type of 13th salary for them.” Sadriddin was referring to the old Soviet tradition of giving public employees a 13th monthly salary at the end of a successful year.

Rohilya, the teacher, believes that the reforms will yield results sooner with greater involvement of those who are directly affected by the changes. “Because the national programs lack one important thing – feedback from teachers and students, who are the main players in this new system – it feels like we, teachers and pupils, are the subjects of an experiment, and it is very difficult to predict when it will be a success.”


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