The Future Short-Changed
The Kyrgyz education system needs a major infusion of cash before it loses a generation of students and teachers. Also in Russian. by Hamid Toursunov 20 February 2006
In the last years of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan’s schools had a budget surplus and the country could boast nearly 100 percent adult literacy.
Times have changed. These days Kyrgyzstan’s schools are in critical condition, and though the government promises that help is on the way, almost no one expects a speedy recovery.
According to one estimate, about 4 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 1 million children do not attend school, and even if they did, there would not be enough teachers or textbooks for them. Those who do go to school often sit in dilapidated buildings listening to teachers who are not qualified in their subject matter.
The problems have a familiar source: money. According to the state-owned news agency, Kabar, Kyrgyzstan spent only 5.5 percent of its budget on education from January until August 2005, amounting to 554 million soms (about $13.4 million). That was a jump of about 37.3 million soms over same period the year before, but schools remain badly underfunded.
According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe, the percentage of its GDP that Kyrgyzstan spends on education slid from 6.6 percent in 1995 to 3.9 percent in 2001.
About 1.144 million students were enrolled in public, general education schools in 2004.
The responsibility for fixing the problems has been passed from one level of government to the next, and finally to parents. Many parents, in turn, can afford neither the fees schools charge nor the absence of their children, on whose labor they often depend.
“I admit that my younger 14-year-old son does not go to school,” said one 46-year-old woman who lives in an Osh suburb. “He can read and write, and that’s enough for him. Making a living is more of an issue for our family. Every year we rent a piece of land where we grow wheat. I have to pay the rent and feed my family, and my son helps me a lot.”
One trader at an Osh market sees the problem firsthand. “More and more children do not go to school. You see these kids at city markets and agricultural fields doing hard work so that their families can survive,” Akylbek Jontorov said. “Due to economic problems, children are doomed to work, trade at markets, wash cars, and so on.”
While the Kyrgyz constitution makes primary and secondary education compulsory, there is no law on truancy.
Even if they didn’t need their children to work, many families simply cannot afford to send their children to school. The Kyrgyz constitution also guarantees free primary and secondary education, but the reality is quite different. It costs about 120 to 150 soms ($2.90 to $3.62) per year just to rent textbooks, while an average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is 700 to 800 soms.
In addition, parents must contribute 160 soms annually to their child’s school for maintenance under a decree of the Kyrgyz government.
Although Kurmanbek Bakiev, the Kyrgyz president, told a group of students at a 1 September meeting, “Getting fees from parents should not turn the education process into commerce,” many schools charge additional fees for extracurricular activities.
THE VERY OLD SCHOOLHOUSE
For all the maintenance fees paid by parents, most schools in Kyrgyzstan are not fit to teach in.
At a 2 September meeting with teachers from the Osh province, Education Minister Dosbol Nur-uluu acknowledged the shabby state of school buildings, but pointed the finger elsewhere, saying, “Eighty-seven percent of schools were passed in extremely pitiable condition from the former authorities.”
A few months earlier, teachers in the Karasuu district of the Osh province had applied to Bakiev and Nur-uluu with a request to take urgent measures to address primary and secondary education problems.
The teachers said that most school buildings in rural areas do not meet building, fire safety, and sanitary standards. In their petition, the Karasuu teachers wrote, “Every day our children have classes in unsuitable rooms that are cold and damp.
“Today in our society we are the most humiliated and aggrieved [citizens]. We are disregarded and we have to solve our problems ourselves. The government abandoned us a long time ago, and the society tries not to see our pitiable condition.”
According to Nur-uluu, in 2005 the local authorities covered only 7 percent of repair costs while the other 93 percent of expenses were covered by contributions from parents, sponsors, and international organizations.
“Under [former President Aksar] Akaev’s regime, an education law was adopted, under which the government passed a part of its responsibilities to maintain school buildings to local authorities,” said a local teacher who wished to remain anonymous. “In turn, the local authorities have shifted this burden onto schoolchildren and their parents.”
The new government, which came to power after the Kyrgyz revolution in March 2005, has had made promises but taken no significant steps to resolve the primary and secondary education issues.
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that Kyrgyzstan’s schools face a serious teacher shortage, which is exacerbated by the low wages on offer. A teacher’s average monthly salary is 700 soms to 900 soms (approximately $16 to $22). Kyrgyz teachers are leaving the profession, and university graduates are hardly tempted by such salaries.
The government has taken a few steps to improve the situation. In April 2004, it increased teachers’ salaries by 15 percent and by 15 percent more in October 2004. However, teachers’ salaries remain very low.
On 1 September, Bakiev said salaries of teachers would increase by 50 percent in 2006, but many observers are skeptical. Officials in provincial and city education departments say many problems – a shortage of teachers, poorly qualified teachers, even corruption – could be solved only if teachers’ salaries were doubled or even tripled.
Feliks Kulov, the Kyrgyz prime minister, said at a conference of Chui province teachers in August that the government must step in, warning, “If we do not help teachers, they will be lost as a class.”
In the meantime, teachers still in the system are left to fill in the gaps, teaching subjects for which they are ill-qualified. As a result, the caliber of teaching has declined.
“I have two sons, and I am not happy with the quality of education that the schools my sons go to provide,” Zulfiya Saidova, a housewife from Osh, said. “But it’s no use complaining about this. What I do is I hire private math and English teachers who come and give lessons to my sons at home.” But at 30 to 50 soms per lesson, or 360 to 600 soms per month, this is more than most families can afford in a country where about 40 percent of the urban population and 47 percent of the rural population lives in poverty.
“My son is a fifth-grade pupil, but his knowledge in history, geography and natural sciences is very poor,” said Anara Sydykova, a mother of two from Jalalabat. “I have no idea what to do about it. I can’t hire tutors. One tutor charges a half what I earn for a whole month.”
As dire as the situation is in the cities, it is easier than in the countryside. Ninety-five percent of Kyrgyzstan’s territory is covered by mountains, and over 60 percent of its population lives in rural areas. Outdated or even nonexistent communication facilities, infrastructure, and public services in these areas frighten away graduates of teaching colleges.
Nur-uluu acknowledged at a governmental session in August that, “Graduates do not express any interest to go to remote areas to train children.”
In September 2004, the Kyrgyz government launched a Young Teacher Deposit program to attract teachers to rural areas. In addition to their salaries, paid by the school administration where they work, the national government will deposit 2,000 soms (about $50) every month into each of these teachers’ bank accounts. The accumulated funds become available only after the teacher’s three-year contract expires.
For all its promise, however, the program will not fill the gap. It allocated funds for 200 teachers in 2004 and 300 in 2005, but, according to Bakiev, schools in Kyrgyzstan are short about 4,000 teachers.
As a result, the level and quality of knowledge of rural graduates is much lower than that of their counterparts in the city, where students have access to bilingual or multilingual schools.
LOOKING FOR BOOKS
According to Elmira Imanalieva, the deputy education minister, on average schools in Kyrgyzstan have only about three-fourths the number of textbooks they need. In July, Nur-uluu said annually the Education Ministry needs 100 million soms to supply schools with books, but it receives only 40 million soms from renting textbooks to pupils.
Russian language schools are better off, thanks to the Russian embassy in Bishkek, which gives them textbooks published in Russia at the start of every school year as an act of humanitarian aid.
But local experts say this is not enough and some textbooks need to be published in Kyrgyzstan.
The textbook shortage has hit Kyrgyz- and Uzbek-language schools particularly hard. Only about 70 percent of Kyrgyz-language schools are provided with textbooks, while the figure is closer to 50 percent for Uzbek-language schools.
The local Uzbek-language newspaper, Osh Sadosi
(Echo of Osh), reported in September that only the Uzbek-language primary schools are completely provided with textbooks. As for secondary-school pupils, they use textbooks published 15 years ago.
According to the newspaper, textbooks for secondary schools have been developed, but a lack of funding means that the 21,000 textbooks still needed for Uzbek-language schools cannot be printed.
On 1 September, Bakiev assured Kyrgyz teachers that beginning in 2006 the Kyrgyz government would allocate funds from the national budget for publishing textbooks, but he did not say how much.
Kyrgyzstan has reason to be proud of its record on education, with adult literacy still near 100 percent despite its endemic poverty, according to a World Bank report. But if schools, teachers, and parents continue to be bled dry, it might not have reason to be proud in the future.