CyberChaikhana’s education chapter: “Got Spellcheck, Will Work for Food”

neweurasia’s Schwartz unveils CyberChaikhana’s chapter on education, exploring a complicated and expansive topic with a wide range of sharp-witted posts. “In our estimation, the education chapter has always been nearly pitch-perfect in terms of narrative and content, covering quite an expansive topic in almost its totality,” he writes.

As with three other previous rough drafts, what you’re about to read is an edited re-release, this time of the education chapter. Incidentally, this was the very first chapter rough draft ever released, way back in mid-2008, when the project began. From this point forward, there is only one chapter remaining to be written and released, the one regarding gender, which hopefully I’ll complete this weekend with Ben up in the Hague. That means CyberChaikhana will, as promised from the beginning, have ten chapters.

Ben and I explored many ideas for potential cross-regional/thematic chapters, from the environment to sports. If sales of the first edition go well, we may consider expanding future editions (“CyberChaikhana v. 2.0“) to include more of these thematic chapters — but no promises! As those closest to the project can attest, putting together chapters for this book was always a fun but very arduous process, often entailing months of archival research, many read-overs, and lots of debate. Of course, it didn’t help that I was bouncing between so many countries, either… ;-)

Anyway, in our estimation, the education chapter has always been nearly pitch-perfect in terms of narrative and content, covering quite an expansive topic in almost its totality. That means you won’t find a whole lot different herein from its previous iteration; primarily, the new edition includes more material from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The ending remains a tad bit anti-climatic, but I think we’ll stick with it, because the example it provides is still a good way to cap the chapter.

By the way, we owe the chapter’s title and iconic image to KZblog (see: his post below and the link to the original version). Cheers, mate! :-D

Got Spellcheck, Will Work for Food

Like so many other developing nations, the Central Asian republics have ambitious targets for modernizing their education systems.  Unfortunately, too often these ambitions result in contradictions.  On the one hand, aspirant world-class universities; on the other hand, chronic shortages in the basics of education.  A telltale case is Kazakhstan.  Here we have a strongman leader with a passion for great-leaps-forward:

We need Nobel Laureates, says Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.  Inviting the Kazakh diaspora to come back home, Nazarbayev promises: “We will create conditions for you on par with what you have abroad. Your education, energy, and knowledge are needed at home.”

Kazakhstan recently carried out a comprehensive assessment of the areas in which the republic can compete internationally, and look, it’s an impressive list: nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, technologies for the hydrocarbon and mining sectors, nuclear and renewable energy technologies, as well as information and space technologies. Phew!

Trying to root out the Soviet-inherited entitlement mentality among research institutions, the government has also begun a new international university in Astana, replete with a world-class research center and faculties in the arts, social sciences, and applied sciences.

Let’s not forget the capital’s new biotechnology center, led by Erlan Ramankulov, a US-trained Kazakh microbiologist, or the five national and ten university-based laboratories scheduled to be built over the next five years across the country.

Many observers are calling this the dawn of Kazakhstan’s great leap forward, and they expect that one day soon a Kazakh may be stepping onto the stage of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


…but what about new textbooks? Kazakhstan’s children have entered the new school year with ambitious novelties: more Internet access and 1,000 “interactive blackboards”, all the equipment they need for a twenty-first century education—except that they don’t have any textbooks.

Kazakhstan has been suffering a chronic textbook drought so severe that schools must ration available supplies, typically no more than two or three books per classroom.  Parents don’t know what to do.  Municipal education departments offer them no intelligible explanation for the shortage.  In fact, the line given is that there is no problem at all.

The reality is disconcerting.  According to governmental decree the few textbooks in circulation outside classrooms are allotted to “socially vulnerable” families with many children.  Everyone else must purchase the textbooks.  However, since each book costs 400-500 Tenge, a single syllabus can cripple a family’s budget.  Not only this, but often the required books aren’t for sale at bookstores.

How does the government intend to counteract the shortage and price explosion?  Not by subsidizing textbook purchases; in fact, it has no plan to speak of.  Instead it recommends that parents instil in their children a careful respect for textbooks—as though awe for the idea of reading could make up for its absence in actuality.


The disconnect between Kazakhstan’s aims and means is stunning, if not embarrassing.  In a sense, the Nazarbayev administration’s policies demonstrate a desire to take shortcuts to prosperity—much like how many of his nation’s students try to take shortcuts to academic excellence.

Cheating is a fine business—Walking by bus stops in Astana, particularly those near universities, you might see ads that read like this one: “Will write research papers and dissertations (in Russian or Kazakh). Selection of texts and translations. Written to schedule, high-quality, CHEAP!” Other ads highlight paper-writing services in Kazakh, a big help to those students whose grasp of the language isn’t up to par.

In the United States, professors struggle with similar problems.  Fraternities are notorious for keeping file cabinets freshly stocked with cut-and-paste essays from Wikipedia, and Craigslist brims with advertisements for paper-writing services.  The situation is no different in Kazakhstan.

It’s sad that something like this can be advertised so freely on bus stops.  The question that arises isn’t so much who or how many are buying, but why?  After conducting an informal interview with some students I discovered that those likely to cheat view term papers and dissertations as nothing more than bureaucratic obstacles.  Overall, they are happy to use paper-writing services as a way of hastening the process of earning credentials necessary to attain lucrative jobs.

Of my interviewees, some even expressed admiration for the people who run the paper-writing services as savvy and successful businessmen.  One even argued that it was an honourable profession because the illicit paper-writer must be using his brain, a kind of chicanery-as-knowledge-work.


Were it that cheating is the only form of corruption in academia.  Alas, Kazakhstan also has problems with extortion of an extracurricular variety…

Nookie in the Ivory Tower—Karaganda State University is hooting!  A lecturer from the department of mathematics has just been fired.  The reason?  For soliciting a student for a monetary bribe and sex in return for a good grade.

And now the most interesting fact about the story: the lecturer is a 49-year old woman, an associate professor and doctoral candidate.  The student is in his third year studying at the “department of mathimatics” (this is the way the poor fellow spelled his alma mater’s name).

As far as I can recall, this is the first case of a public row over academic corruption. But all the uproar should not be taken to signify that extortion in the academy hardly ever occurs.  On the contrary, ask almost any student how much it costs “to start” this or that exam and you will easily get a full low-down of rates and prices.

What makes this case so intriguing is that the lecturer was actually dismissed without further consequence. Corrupt professors caught red-handed hardly ever suffer anything worse than a slap on the wrist and instructions to hide their dirty laundry better.  To me it sounds like the real reason for the Karaganda lecturer’s dismissal wasn’t the money, it was the sex.


Similar problems like the above ones exist throughout the region, but the other Central Asian republics do not have the economic means at Kazakhstan’s disposal to buttress their often crumbling and corruption-riddled educational systems.

A learning process… Presently there are 31 institutions of higher education in Tashkent, which is half of all such schools in the country.  This means that the city must house students from other regions; instead they are faced with extortion and bureaucracy.  Besides being forced to pay bribes to the dormitory leaders or other students, on average 100 USD per bed or 200 USD per room, they are also required to submit the following documents: an application to the dean, the dean’s written response, a letter from the faculty, an extract from their admission letter, a copy of their passport, and a copy of their military identity card.

Take for example “XY”, a student who asked for his identity not to be revealed.  He gathered all the documents in September 2008 only to have the commandant of the dormitory tell him no rooms were available.  XY tried again in December, whereupon the commandant officially repeated that no rooms were available, but were the student to slip him 100 USD, he could be a third tenant in a triple room.


Revenge of the ghost teachers—An illicit practice in Kyrgyzstan is the “dead souls” method of personnel management, when school principals have more teachers on the payroll than they really have working at their schools.  This is a legacy from the Soviet Union still used by Kyrgyz schools to earn extra money from the ministry.

Parents also continue to be a source of additional financing despite the government’s ban on the practice four years ago.  “When Bakiyev came to power in 2005, he prohibited collecting money from parents to maintain and repair school buildings. However, many school administrations ask parents to contribute 200 Soms [approximately 4.60 USD] per pupil,” says Bakhtiyar S., a parent and car dealer from Osh. “I have three children, so I have to pay 600 Soms.  I don’t mind paying the money, but I know it will go into their pockets.”

Other parents complain but do not report such cases of abuse to the police. “That won’t stop corruption at schools, anyway,” says Bakhtiyar, “and if I do report anything, I will only spoil my relationship with the school administration, which may affect my children’s life at this school.”

One place that the illegal payments probably do not end up is in the pockets of real primary and secondary school teachers. Their salaries continue to be abysmal, contributing to a worsening exodus from the teaching profession. According to the figures provided to the media by the parliamentary education committee, in 2007-2008, Kyrgyz schools were short 3,000 teachers, and in 2008-2009, the number increased to 3,500 specialists. And 40% of school teachers have nearly reached retirement age.

“The average salary at our school is about 2,000 Soms [approximately 46 USD],” says Zumrat Mamashayeva, a teacher from Osh.  In April 2009, the minimum subsistence level in Kyrgyzstan was 3,571 Soms.

And there is little doubt that the quality of services is inadequate: according to a 2009 UNDP report, only about 13.6% of fifteen-year-old schoolchildren in Kyrgyzstan were able to pass a reading exam at the level of minimum international standards for their age, and only 11.7% and 11.8%, respectively, managed to pass natural science and math tests. The report says that the country’s management of the education system has not proven effective at addressing reform and development challenges.


As to curricula, this is a critical concern for any country.  Governments can, do, and should, take an active role in shaping the content of studies.  Yet, where does one draw the line between pedagogy and propaganda?

We strongly suggest you read this… “We are not forced, we are ‘asked politely,’ explains Vladimir, a young teacher of English in a local school.  “But I tell them I am not going to play this game anymore.”

The “game” Vladimir is referring to is the policy of Kazakhstan’s national and municipal governments to require public school teachers to purchase government-approved newspapers.

Ostensibly, this policy is intended to keep teachers well-informed and provide information useful for their lessons. “We have a problem,” says a local school director, “Adults and children do not read enough. But with these papers, teachers can write their own articles about teaching methodology and find information about the whole republic.”

There are at least two kinds of newspapers teachers are “asked” to buy: the first is a local paper, with news, events, and the declarations of the city hall. The second is a national paper, often containing news on economics, culture, and of course, the constant flow of rhetoric and pronouncements from Astana.

Both of these papers are either published by the government, or by companies that have connections strong enough to make it on the lists. “Of course, these particular papers are never critical of the government,” states Vladimir.

“I do not think it is political,” defends the director, “except that some of the articles are meant to make children more patriotic. Many children want the news of our republic.”

The director may be right in that the papers are not aggressively denouncing the opposition (what little exists). However, neither are they drawing attention to problems within Kazakhstan’s incumbent government, or digging deeper into the nepotism, corruption, and inefficiency that continues to plague the country.  Certainly, those are topics teachers and students deserve to read about, too.


As the next post will show, we’re really talking about the difference in degree of control.  Kazakhstan is a soft case compared to what’s going on in Turkmenistan.

School’s out! 25 May is the traditional last day of school in Turkmenistan, during which graduation ceremonies are conducted in secondary schools around the country.  But not during 2007.  This year, there will be no graduating class.

The first decree of our new president concerned major reforms of Turkmenistan’s educational system.  With language echoing his predecessor, Turkmenbashi, Berdimuhamedov declared the start of reforms intended to “enable the national system of education to reach new world levels”.

Among the changes: the reinstatement of “physical culture” classes, i.e., gymnasium, which were cancelled in the mid-nineties; the introduction of new courses in the social sciences, civics, and arts; and more vocational training as part of the compulsory curriculum.  But in immediate practical terms this means that students currently in their ninth and last year of school will be attending an unexpected tenth year.

The Ministry of Education, with only half an academic year to manoeuvre, successfully implemented the reforms.  Remarkably, textbooks revised and expanded to meet the standards of the new ten-year curriculum quickly rolled out hot off the presses.  The speed with which this was all carried out suggests that the reform program had been well in development, perhaps even before Berdimuhamedov’s ascension to the presidency—only to be dropped like a bombshell upon this year’s graduating class.

How innovative and new is the reform?  Not much.  Essentially it is just bringing back what was taken away by Turkmenbashi’s reforms in 1993 and 1999.  I remember when the nine-year system was introduced. The new class schedule was so overwhelming and busy.  Curriculum developers were trying to fit everything that they had planned for 18 months into nine.  We skipped hard sciences, yet were “advanced” to the next grade.


Can education thrive when open discussion is stifled and students refrain from speaking their minds for fear of retaliation?  What follows is a post and a conversation it inspired in its comments section about the nature of freedom in the classroom.

The world is your classroom—or your prison. The Voice of Freedom’s analytical bulletin for 18 January contained an interesting article about Turkmen students studying in Kyrgyzstan being afraid of tell the truth about the political situation in their homeland.

Khalik Dustiyev (which is not the true name of the author), a Turkmen student and a journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, reports that students who speak out are victimized by their government in several ways: they may be blacklisted by the border service agency and not allowed to leave their home country once they return home; the secret police intimidates or exerts pressure on their relatives; and male dissident students are called up for obligatory military service.

Young Turkmen who study abroad are also often compelled into collaboration with “National Security Committees.”  They gather intelligence on the country of their expatriation.  They are also forced to spy on each other: in this way their collective conformity is ensured.


Otto Pohl, 01.02.2008:  I have a lot of Turkmen students in my classes at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) and I have not found them afraid to speak about conditions in Turkmenistan. In general students from Turkmenistan have been some of my most outspoken class participants. Granted my sample size is limited, but the thrust of this article does not match my personal experience.

CXW, 01.02.2008:  Otto, there’s a big difference between speaking about issues in a class at AUCA, which is a private and “safe” environment (as well as predominantly English-language), and speaking about issues in a location that is less insulated from the influence of Central Asian officialdom. Added to which I would suggest that AUCA students generally tend to be bolder, more politically outspoken, and arguably more liberal than average—all factors that encourage greater freedom of expression, particularly given the environment and community AUCA provides.

My personal experience of talking to students outside Bishkek is that they would rather avoid talk related to politics in Turkmenistan, though there may be an element of disinterest rather than/as well as fear.

Tahir, 02.02.2008:  I completely agree that Turkmen students are afraid of speaking about the situation back home. It’s not only the case with those in the former Soviet bloc, but I found those in Turkey and the Czech Republic are the same.  They hesitate to say anything about political issues, human rights, and social problems, and prefer celebrity gossip, about which they are effusive.

A little while ago I heard about a Turkmen student here in the Czech Republic.  I requested a meeting with him, and even invited him to my home for dinner or lunch.  Shortly afterwards, a mutual friend called me up saying that the Turkmen student had turned down my invitation, as well as refused to speak with the friend ever again.  I heard of a similar incident at Stanford University from colleagues there.

If the above situation seems grim, it eventually got worse.  What began as a difference between two societies’ approach to education ended with the veritable imprisonment of Turkmen students.

Chainlink fences around Ivory Towers—Turkmen students studying at AUCA are not permitted to leave Turkmenistan for any reason!  This is what the deputy minister of education told parents of AUCA students at a meeting in the ministry held on 18 August. He also said the Turkmen government doesn’t need their liberal arts degrees.

A number of AUCA students were rejected at Ashgabad airport yesterday. Some of the students had dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, but their red passport was of no use.  “You are blacklisted. You are not permitted to leave,” said one border official as he returned a young man’s passport, disregarding the fact that the student had a ticket to Istanbul.  “I know you are going to Kyrgyzstan via Turkey; this won’t work.”

According to a source at AUCA, the new rules that required all students to get approval certificates from the ministry of education were imposed by the government solely for AUCA students.  “Finally, now they told this to them straightforward, but everybody knew this from the very beginning,” the source remarks.

neweurasia has reached a source at American Councils for International Education (ACCELS) in Ashgabad via Skype—an institution entitled to manage the Turkmen-American Scholars Program (TASP)—the scholarship held by most AUCA students to attend AUCA. According to the source, ACCELS is trying to negotiate with the Ministry of education, but still fruitlessly.

“We can’t really push them to grant students freedom to choose where to study and what classes to take,” the source said, adding that ACCELS has other programs in Turkmenistan, which “in no way should suffer from our pressure on the AUCA issue.”

When asked what students should expect in the coming days or weeks from ACCELS or the US Embassy in Ashgabat, the source said, “Nothing much.”  He added, “Again, we are doing our best to send the students to Bishkek, but so far in vain.”

Meanwhile, the Turkmen media hasn’t said a word about the issue. Yesterday’s issue of “Neitralniy Turkmenistan”—the only newspaper in the country published in Russian—was mostly devoted to the president’s business trip to Lebap oblast situated on the south-east of the country.

“We are waiting for September to come when Western government officials and human rights organizations return from holidays,” remarks a 22-year-old AUCA student.  “They are our only hope.”


To conclude, sometimes the challenges to a decent education are epic, as the example of Tajikistan demonstrates.

An F for hypothermia… On 11 January school administrators realized it is impossible to conduct classes in freezing rooms.  They extended the winter holiday to keep students at home with their families and thus closer to the hearth fires.

But there’s a problem: the ministry of education did not authorize the extension, meaning that the schools had no legal right to cancel classes.  Today the ministry announced that they have no intention of cancelling classes during the cold period and requested that schools keep classrooms warm by any means.

This puts teachers into a dilemma.  If they continue working in the cold classrooms, they will have very low attendance, and those few who attend, risk getting sick and making the situation worse.  One has to wonder about the quality of a course taught with shivers and chattering teeth.  It’s either this or choosing to disobey their employer.

What should the teachers do?  I think they will choose the first option and continue working.  For all the problems that will result by persisting with class in the cold, sickness will probably happen at the students’ homes, too.  Heaters and electricity are failing throughout the whole country.  The cold is everywhere.  It is unimaginable.


Yet, even in the face of unforgiving nature, there remain some willing to brave the tallest mountains for the sake of knowledge.

…but A+ for resilience. A group of Kyrgyz from the Murgab region in Gorno-Badakhshan are striving to learn the Tajik language at the University of Central Asia’s School of Professional and Continuing Education. The language courses, the duration of which are 250 hours of lessons, are taught by the teachers from Khorog State University. Students must pay 30% of the tuition, which comes to 250 USD; the rest is covered by the university and rooms are provided by the local government.  Pamir Media reports that more than 30 people from Murgab have moved to the second level of the Tajik language course.

Keep in mind that very few Kyrgyz in the Pamir speak official Tajik and that they live in harsh physical conditions.  The altitude of the Pamir reaches 3,600 meters; summers are short, winters are long and freezing.  Somehow, they manage to herd cattle, play strenuous spotrs like buzkashi, and now, learn a foreign language.  Such resilience would humble the hardiest of Brazilian football players.


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