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Unburdening Rather Than Reforming

A unique cross-border collection of essays looks at 10 years of education reform in Central Asia and concludes that not all is lost. by Botagoz Kassymbekova 23 June 2005 The Challenges of Education in Central Asia: International Perspectives on Educational Policy, Research, and Practice, edited by Stephen P. Heyneman and Alan J. DeYoung. Information Age Publishing, 2004.

In this timely study, Stephen P. Heyneman and Alan J. DeYoung present a collection of articles reflecting on almost a decade of reforms. The featured authors look at the history, economics, and everyday politics of educational institutions in Central Asia, addressing the question of how the transition from a planned to a market economy has influenced the educational system in post-Soviet Central Asia.

Ultimately, the book’s editors conclude that efforts to develop education in the post-Soviet era cannot be viewed as having completely failed and that positive trends do exist in some areas. But because of the difficulty of gaining access to information, this collection – and therefore its conclusions – relate only to the three more liberal states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and cannot therefore be seen as a complete review of the region. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are mostly excluded from the analysis.

Still, a book written from the perspective of international and local experts, academics, and educational practitioners in the Central Asian region is a welcome addition to existing scholarship on the topic. The 21 articles printed in the book range from analyses of policy to ethnographic case studies and are intended for a spectrum of readers from historians and cultural anthropologists to educational experts, economists, and investors.

Education in Central Asia has become an important field for political and civic communication and international relations, and, indeed, as a strong market in and of itself. The publication opens the door to many debates on education reforms in the region that are related to issues such as national identity, the rural-urban divide, government control (or lack of thereof), the formation of new elites, and post-colonialism. Lacking a narrow focus – which in this case turns out to be an advantage – the collection covers the “nuts and bolts” of reform such as the problems of teachers’ salaries and investment as well as the philosophy of reform and questions of identity and ethics.

The book, as the editors present it, deals with three main issues of structure (the successes and failures of the powers-that-be in running the system), finances (the effort to cope with the collapse of the system’s finances) and social cohesion (keeping a “reasoned balance of multi-ethnic objectives and equality of educational opportunity”). But the book also gives insight into many related issues, including an interesting look at international relations: how education has become a tool for international relations in the region.


The failure of early-childhood education, the gaping divide between rural and urban schools, and the transformation of institutions of higher education into big business are three features of education in post-Soviet Central Asia. The authors start with a look at the collapse of the Soviet education system and how the agencies responsible for pre-schooling and primary and secondary schools allowed central government to abandon its responsibilities after independence.

In those instances when governments decided to decentralize secondary school education, both financially and administratively, schools in rural areas came out the losers. In urban areas, private schools are emerging, offering a sophisticated curriculum and individualized teaching that target the next generation of leaders and analysts and the sons and daughters of the nouveaux riches. In schools in rural areas, where the population is mostly poor and is therefore unable to pay for such education, the standards of teaching have declined and school attendance has fallen.

As one of the authors, Michael Mertaugh, notes in the chapter “Education in Central Asia, with Particular Reference to the Kyrgyz Republic,” the decentralization of the management of secondary education has turned out to be a way to for the government to un-shoulder the “burden” of rural education, rather than a serious reform designed to make local schools self-governing.

Articles in the structure section covering higher education provide a strong critique of the inability of universities to control their own agendas. The rigid rules of the countries’ education ministries toward curriculum and workload issues leave universities with little space to maneuver. Several authors in this section call the education ministries the least reform-minded institutions in these countries.

In such a context, it is interesting to read the case study by a U.S. professor of education, Alan DeYoung, who describes and analyzes in a chapter tellingly entitled “On the demise of the ‘Action Plan’ for Kyrgyz Education Reform” the attempt of former Education Minister Kamilla Sharshekeeva, the founder of a Western-type liberal arts college, to introduce changes into the educational system. As an observer of the process, the author argues that the role of ministers, university rectors, and politicians will not be significant in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia as a whole unless a committed executive or developed private sector emerges to pressure for reforms.

These conclusions relate to an issue that is not mentioned in the book: that education systems in Central Asia are generally a workplace for presidential loyalists and thus are directly or indirectly a tool for government control. Students, for example, are often used to ensure “pro-president” votes, and a vicious cycle emerges: most parents and students rely on government educational institutions and even pay to get into them, but government institutions give little opportunity for students to demand higher standards. Moreover, the government’s priority is often to ensure that rectors and students remain loyal, rather than quality and independence.

To break the cycle will require more than appointing a handful of young and reform-minded leaders, the book asserts. The system needs structural, political, and economic reshuffling, which in such politicized systems affect the politics of the state itself.


Perhaps the most fascinating trend in the region is people’s willingness to pay for education at all levels. Universities have become big businesses with budgets heavily, if not entirely, dependent on tuition fees. As several authors present, it is not only the private colleges and universities but also state institutions – which previously were synonymous with free education – that make profits through opening up paid tuition.

This even applies to secondary education, where teachers receive various kinds of “help” from pupils and their parents to continue their work, even in the harshest conditions, as shown in the article on Tajikistan, “The Effects of the Collapse of the USSR on Teacher’s Lives and Work in Tajikistan,” written by Tajik-born international education scholar Sarfaroz Niyozov.

In many cases, ordinary people rescued, if not forged, the prevailing system in the harsh post-independence years. The question now has become what can be done now that the most severe crises have passed, and whether governments can reclaim their role.

Several authors give practical advice. Michael Mertaugh analyzes the reforms of central and local financing schemes of the secondary education system and argues that much of the financial decentralization has failed underprivileged rural people. He offers the “decentralized” practice of turning over responsibility for financing educational essentials such as textbooks, teachers’ training sessions, and salaries to local, poverty-stricken districts as an example of those dangers and argues that such costs should be guaranteed by the central government.

For his part, Michael McLendon in his chapter, “Straddling Market and State,” argues for the autonomy of higher education institutions, which in the Kazakh context are financing themselves successfully. Addressing fears of slipping standards, he suggests creating “charter universities” which would help to avoid the “excessive focus on routinization and standardization of process as means to achieving important system goals” and focus “on the systematic assessment and rewarding of high student performance, faculty performance, and institutional performance.”

In “Diversification of Financial resources in Kazakh Higher Education,” Timothy Caboni suggests that governments should allow businesses and institutes of higher education to help each other through donation taxes, reforms in the system of financial aid, more self-funded students, and community-based advisory boards to address institutional questions such as the issues of corruption.


The ethnographic studies presented in the book present complex pictures of how reforms are understood by students, teachers, and administrators. In touching upon the questions of the role of educational institutions in formation of national identity, the question of language is particularly important. Ethnic and nationalistic policies driven through channels of education are also discussed.

It is within this section that the highlight of the book appears: an article by Britta Korth that presents an excellent analysis of the historical, political and socio-cultural context of the role and status of the Russian and Kyrgyz languages in Kyrgyzstan. By tracing individual life histories, she argues against the common assumption that there has been a rise in official politics in ethnic nationalism and discrimination against non-native languages, showing that it is actually the country’s historical language, Kyrgyz, that has been seen as a source of shame and discrimination in Kyrgyz society.

What could be added to her otherwise excellent analysis, however, is that despite that outcome of Soviet language and nationalities policies, it is still Russian as a language of instruction that makes Kyrgyz universities attractive for foreign students – full-tuition students – from China, India, and Pakistan.

Another highlight is Madeleine Reeves’ essay, which aims to understand the reform and “Westernization” of education through the example of the American University-Central Asia (AUCA). Tracing the institute’s history, she looks at what AUCA has come to represent. If for its students and younger generation of teachers as well as administrators, AUCA stands for liberty, independence, and progress, for some of the older generation of teachers and professors from other universities and many in the public see AUCA as the start of Westernization in Kyrgyzstan – a far from universally popular notion.


Interestingly, though, internationalization and “Westernization” has aided “national” governments to found and fund many of the most successful education institutions. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, as David Mikosz notes in his article “Academic Exchange Programs in Central Asia,” the government was able, through structural reforms, to attract investment by foreign governments and donors even though it cut its budget. Thus, American University-Central Asia, Turkish University Manas, the OSCE Academy, and the Slavic-Kyrgyz University were founded with foreign money. Each university then sends its best alumni abroad on exchange programs and to gain further qualifications.

The book’s internationally focused articles provide an interesting and complex picture of the international influence in the region through education. In “Turkish Higher Education Initiatives Toward Central Asia,” Ahmet Aypay traces the involvement of Turkey, perhaps the most significant influence in the region, and argues that Turkey and Central Asia have a unique relationship and that the Turkish government has a role to play in leading civic transformation in Central Asia, just as it has done in its own country.

Rafique Keshavjee, in “Trials in the Humanities,” describes how the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan was established, while David Mikosz offers a survey of U.S. academic exchanges and the formation of international universities inside the region. All of the international initiatives have the common goal of promoting civic society and liberal progress. With resistance or not, the discourse of liberalism, corruption, accountability, and democracy have entered the public with the help of those international initiatives and will be addressed within the societies of the region.

Overall, this book should not be seen as a survey of educational reforms since it does not provide an adequate overview, but rather as a highlight of examples of the reforms in three different states that face different financial, ethno-cultural, and social issues. The study would benefit from a general overview, comparative analysis, and a single stylistic standard. Even so, it should be greeted as an important collaborative cross-border project of practitioners and researchers who share their experience and knowledge of the field and call for further investigation of the topic.
Botagoz Kassymbekova, a native of Kazakhstan, studied in Kyrgyzstan and has conducted research in both countries on issues including sex workers, mental and sexual health, and Soviet family policies and is planning work on gender issues, the military, and prison systems in Central Asia. She is currently a research fellow at Free University Berlin.
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