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Berdimuhamedov University?

Written by on Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
2 Comments

Image by NewEurasia's Schwartz, NewEurasia/CC-permission.

Editor’s note: Turkmenistan’s strongman president has asked his cabinet to consider setting up a new English-language university in Ashgabat. If he’s for real, then for once this is a mega-project, egotistical or not, that we should welcome it, argues NewEurasia’s Annasoltan.

Education, a topic close to my heart and which I like to blog about every year around this time, is one of the most neglected elements of Turkmen society. Corruption is rife among the teachers and administrators, at least in part caused by terrible salaries. Students are frequently pulled from classrooms to attend ceremonial events called “measures” (almost invariably pontifications of this or that grand policy), wasting hours of valuable lesson time under the burning sun or in the freezing cold, cheerfully waving at the Turkmen national flag. Of the approximately 100,000 high school graduates annually, only about 5,700 are capable of passing onto higher education, the key to better jobs and futures. I say capable, because, in fact, slots are limited due to a dearth of viable higher educational institutions.

So, it was with high expectations that the President’s instruction at a recent cabinet meeting to consider establishing a new university in Ashgabat, one that would teach exclusively in English and with a tuition-based payment system. The proposal resembles Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, and say what you will about such an “ego project”, it would be a big change and a big opportunity for our country. If Berdimuhamedov’s for real about doing this, we should welcome it. Certainly, a university is a lot more valuable to our country’s development than the failed Avaza project.

The aspiration

According to the press release:

a new higher education establishment should train highly qualified specialists in different professions, whose qualifications will meet the highest international educational standards. Teaching in the new university should be conducted in English language, full time, on a pay basis.

Speaking about the structure of the new university, the President of Turkmenistan suggested that this university should have the faculties of international economics, international journalism, international law and management.

“The organization of the educational process as a whole should meet the educational standards and curricula of higher education establishments graduating specialists with bachelor and Master degrees,” Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov said.

And I should mention one nice little modernization: two years of internship are obligatory to be eligible to receive a diploma.

The reality

The buzz words “international standards” have become rather precious new additions to Berdimuhamedov’s repertoire. Not surprisingly, the President also talked about the need to build a whole new campus. The country suffers from a chronic shortage of qualified teachers and de-ideologized learning materials, even though there is still a flurry of newly built schools everywhere. Look, I don’t want to be cynical or conspiratorial here, but I can’t shake the scent of lucrative construction contracts at stake in this university idea…

Okay, let’s resist the temptation and look at the underlying reality: what is Turkmenistan actually capable of doing educationally? Unfortunately, I think Berdimuhamedov’s aspirations outreach our abilities. Here’s a list, ranging from the readily fixable to the really-difficult-to-repair:

- There is still no universal entry exam for the country’s higher educational institutions.

- With the exception of the International Turkish-Turkmen University (HTTU), university graduates have no freedom to choose their internships.

- Official recognition is required for diplomas obtained from foreign universities (most people with such diplomas, although they are needed for state jobs, eventually end up in private, i.e., foreign, companies, or have to create jobs for themselves).

- For the university to become internationally recognized, it would need teaching personnel from foreign countries to be brought into Turkmenistan, not to mention cooperate and coordinate with other foreign universities. That’s going to be a difficult sale, and we might end up having to work with some shabby Western universities.

- Foreign students should be invited to study at the university. That’s hard to see happening when even getting a tourist visa is an epic quest.

- The curriculum should be in accordance with other international universities. Again, hard to see pulling off when lesson content must strictly abide the conceptual framework of official state ideology.

- “Modern-day technology” is another buzz word. However, teachers lack the skills to use computers, and Internet access in the country remains, to put it diplomatically, problematic.

- It was just announced that compulsory schooling has been extended from 10 years to 11 and 12. So, we’re climbing out of the black pit of Niyaz, when it was a measly 9, but the extended teaching time has yet to be translated into extended teaching capacity.

- What really bothers me is that while the university will be “tuition-based”, it will not become automatically private university, but probably another state university. I’m not even sure who’ll be able to afford the tuition without a government subsidy…

Unintended consequences

But let’s say Berdimuhamedov is serious about this, even pulls it off, what then? I’ve talked with some colleagues.

Some fear that the situation may even get worse, because in order to staff and otherwise resource the new university, existing institutions may need to be closed. There’s some precedence for this: recently, the Ashgabat branch of the Gubkin Institute for Oil and Gas was closed after the new huge building of the Turkmen Institute Oil and Gas was opened. In other words, concrete replacing the brain.

And from where shall we get international teachers? Inevitably, Turkey is the most obvious candidate. However, the International Turkmen-Turkish University (HTTU) has reduced its number of foreign teaching personnel over the last years. Currently, the university employs a few teachers from Turkey. A few months ago Turkish and Turkmen presidents had spoken about the need to open a Turkish education center in Turkmenistan. But no steps have since been followed.

But again, I don’t want to pour acid on the essential idea. Who knows? It’ll probably be a rough beginning, but maybe in the long-term, “Berdimuhamedov University” could be, for once, a step in the right direction…

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