Central Asia

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Experts situated in Central Asia


Regional overview

Historically, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Asia), Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north.

It is also sometimes referred to as Middle Asia, and, colloquially, "the 'stans" (as the five countries generally considered to be within the region all have names ending with that suffix) and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.

Various definitions of its exact composition exist, and no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. As a result, it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, West Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.

In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia consensually include these five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), Turkmenistan), and Uzbekistan, with a total population of 61.5 million as of 2009 - in other words, in total around the size of one of the larger members of the European Union.

Other areas often included are Mongolia, Afghanistan, northern and western Pakistan, northeastern Iran, Kashmir, and sometimes Xinjiang in western China and southern Siberia in Russia.

For VISCED purposes, Central Asia is defined in the stricter sense above purely as the countries of the former Commonwealth of Independent States that are mainly or partially in Asia, as judged by cultural as well as geographic frontiers.

The complete list is:

  1. Kazakhstan (pop. 16.0 million)
  2. Kyrgyzstan (5.5 million)
  3. Tajikistan (7.3 million)
  4. Turkmenistan (5.1 million)
  5. Uzbekistan (27.6 million).

This corresponds exactly to the definition of the Central Asia subregion in the UN geoscheme (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_geoscheme_for_Asia). It is thus a subset of the countries in the wider supraregion of Category:Asian former CIS which includes Transcaucasia also.

Education in Central Asia

The collapse of the Soviet economic block and the move to a market economy brought two fundamental needs to the education systems of Central Asia. The first was to create functioning Ministries of Education with the capacity to establish education policy as well as to oversee the provision of education and to ensure its quality. The second was to reorient education programs to the new needs arising from the transition from a command economy to a market economy. The countries have dealt differently with these challenges resulting in quite significant variations in the education systems.

Kazakhstan - Once leaving lower secondary school after 9 years of study, there are three tracks available. Students are free to choose any track of higher secondary education but are required to pursue one track. Graduates of all three tracks are eligible to enter university. The first track is a general secondary school which covers grades 10 -11 and provides general education covering a variety of subjects. In addition, there are two curriculum tracks for vocational education: Initial vocational education which is provided by training schools and lycees, and secondary vocational education provided by colleges and trade schools. Tertiary education is provided by a number of public and private institutions.

Kyrgyzstan - Education in Kyrgyzstan is compulsory for nine years, between ages 7 and 15. Following four years of primary and five years of lower secondary school, the system offers two years of upper secondary school, specialized secondary school, or vocational/technical school. In 2001 some 89 percent of the relevant age-group was enrolled in the compulsory program, but this figure has decreased in the early 2000s.

Tajikistan - Education in Tajikistan consists of four years of primary school followed by two stages of secondary school (lasting five and two years, respectively). Attendance at school is mandatory from age seven to seventeen.

Turkmenistan - Education in Turkmenistan is obligatory for nine years. However, the government has limited curricula by eliminating a wide variety of studies that are considered dangerous or useless. Funding has not matched the growing population, teacher salaries have been reduced, and the infrastructure is in poor condition. Some 16 institutions of higher education were operating in the early 2000s, but the government has limited access to higher education by eliminating free tuition in 2003 and by requiring ethnic background checks on applicants.

Uzbekistan - In Uzbekistan, eleven years of primary and secondary education are obligatory, starting at age seven. This requirement includes four years of primary school and two cycles of secondary school, lasting five and two years, respectively. The rate of attendance in those grades is high, although the figure is significantly lower in rural areas than in urban centers. Lack of budgetary support has been more noticeable at the primary and secondary levels, as the government has continued to subsidize university students. Between 1992 and 2001, university attendance dropped from 19 percent of the appropriate age group to 6.4 percent. There are 63 institutions of higher education in Uzbekistan

Schools in Central Asia

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the gaining of independence by Central Asian states, the education sector also had to be adjusted to the new political, economic and social conditions. Despite major reform efforts since the early 1990s, the education systems do not as yet offer the required high-quality tuition for children and young people.

A particular problem in all five countries is the low standard of the materials used in schools, the lack of a practice-based initial and continuing training system for teachers and their poor remuneration, which results in a shortage of teaching staff. Syllabuses are strongly geared towards conveying theoretical knowledge and leave hardly any room for developing the individual aptitudes of pupils. Teaching content lacks practical relevance. The subjects taught do not sufficiently promote the social potentials of children and young people, and they are not given sufficient careers guidance. The ministries of education and education sector institutions in Central Asian countries are not adequately equipped for translating the reform objectives of national education strategies into pilot projects and innovations.

Further and Higher education in Central Asia

Despite their common origin, each higher education system in Central Asia today is evolving its own national education context or environment and which consist of three dimensions. First, higher education is part of a national education system and responds to the demands of secondary education. Second, education is closely related to and influenced by the labor market. Third, national competitiveness requires an economy that can produce and sustain a broad range of skills particularly associated with science and technology. These three dimensions – the national education system, labor market demands and international competitiveness – are the determinants of higher education in each of the Central Asian Republics.

The patterns of higher education, shown by the five countries, can be examined from one simple perspective. Notably, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republics are expanding their university enrollments to become ‘mass’ systems, while, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with slower growth appear to be willing to remain elite systems. These latter countries continue to support technical-vocational education – reminiscent of centralized planning strategies – as a key building block for skills. The region has seen a rapid growth in the number of students attending higher education since the end of the Soviet period, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic. The coverage rates for four countries as of 2007 are; Kazakhstan, 44.7 percent, the Kyrgyz Republic (36.2) and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with coverage rates of 14.4 and 8.3 percent respectively. However, it must be noted that the expansion of the system has been due to paying rather than state supported students.

Education reform

The severe economic crisis that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced the governments of the new Central Asia Republics to adopt austerity measures and to cut expenditures, particularly in education and social services. Economic contraction was compounded by a decline in real wages of teachers, and pressures to adapt to the changing social and economic needs during the transition to a market-based economy were high. As a result, education systems have dramatically deteriorated and the quality of education has steeply declined. In the mid-90s, the governments undertook a number of reforms aimed at decentralising the education management, diversifying its funding, developing innovative institutions and curricula, as well as increasing teacher’s salaries and social sector spending. In 2003, representatives from the Ministries of Education, from educational scientific research and from public institutions and NGOs met in Bishkek with the aim of defining an effective strategy that will generate dialogue between the education policy makers of Central Asia and support the commitment to achieve the EFA standard by 2015

Ongoing reforms concentrate mainly on the following issues: equal and universal access to education, raising school attendance, ensuring gender equality and integration of minorities, improving qualifications of teachers, investment in facilities and textbooks, tackling corruption. However, in all the countries the processes are hindered by budgetary constraints, shortcoming in the area of effective legislation, infrastructure, equipment and supplies and lack of adequate human resources. UNESCO has been instrumental in supporting these reforms, particularly since 2003. The projects concentrate on providing the countries with advice and guidance in organizing EFA activities such as workshops, case studies and seminars in priority areas. The latter being, e.g., life skills and vocational education (Kazakhstan), adult education (Kyrgyz Republic), and girls education (Tajikistan). Main lines of activities for recent years have concentrated on:

  • Promotion of access to primary education for disadvantaged groups of children
  • Promotion of the development of policies to improve access to ECCE in CA
  • Advocacy for Girls’ Education and Gender parity
  • Support of Life-skills programmes for youth, especially in rural areas
  • Promotion of Non-Formal Education
  • Promotion of Education for Sustainable Development
  • Promotion of improvement of secondary education, technical and vocational education and training
  • Strengthening of national capacities to measure and monitor quality of education and learning achievements

Administration and finance

In Central Asia, as in the other countries of the former Soviet Union, one of the first acts of the newly independent republics was to legally decentralize the responsibility for finance and provision of most primary and secondary education to regional or local governments. Decentralization was motivated both by necessity (falling budget revenues at the republic level) and by ideology (the centrifugal pressures for local governance). Primary and secondary education management has ostensibly been decentralized in Central Asia. School ownership has been transferred to oblast (regional) and rayon (local) governments that are nominally responsible for managing, financing, and maintaining them.

In reality, little real decentralization has occurred, for two reasons. The first is that centrally imposed norms on class size and teaching loads severely constrain regional and local governments’ discretion to manage education programs, including reconfiguring schools and right-sizing the teaching force to achieve better efficiency and performance. The second is that revenues of regional and local governments fall far short of the amounts needed to operate schools. In order to keep schools in operation, teacher salaries (and sometimes utilities) are being financed by state budgets. This is meant to be a temporary measure, but there is very little prospect in any of the Central Asian countries that oblast and rayon revenues will be adequate to finance teachers’ salaries for at least decade.

Collapsing state budgets also motivated efforts to mobilize additional sources of financing through various non-budgetary sources, including contributions of parents and communities for textbook rental and other educational inputs at the school level, through income-generating activities such as rental of school premises and production of articles for sale, and through the establishment of fee-paying “contract” places in higher education for students who fail to qualify for free, budget-subsidized places. Throughout the Central Asia region, as in much of the former Soviet Union, the practice of private contributions to schools has been subverted from its original purpose of augmenting educational resources at the school level. It has often contributed to corrupt practices such as “selling” examination grades and places to the most coveted schools and programs, and has eroded the credibility of diplomas and degrees to employers and the public.

Quality assurance

Both large assessments and informal proxy measures affirm that greater effort is needed to improve the quality of education in Central Asia. Large-scale international and national assessments offer some insights into the quality of education in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan’s overall score on PISA 2006 earned it a last place ranking out of the 57 participating countries in reading, mathematics and science. It performed particularly poorly in reading, where it ranked third to last, and almost 200 points behind the regional average. Kazakhstan’s performance on the same assessment, by contrast, suggests impressive primary school outcomes, but national indicators reveal that only three fourths of students are proficient in reading and mathematics. In other Central Asian nations, proxy indicators are used to monitor educational quality. Proxy measures include student data, teacher competency and school resources. These proxy measures confirm that educational quality throughout this subregion is subpar. In Tajikistan, for example, districts struggle to find qualified teachers, have limited textbooks and worn-out furniture. Challenges in Turkmenistan include the prevalence of traditional rote teaching methodologies and limited student engagement, which affects students’ attainment and retention of knowledge. Kazakhstan faces problems with the retention of teachers as a result of low salaries and the limited engagement of students in classes.

Information society

Both Internet usage and availability of computers in the region are low. According to the “Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009: CIS” prepared by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Internet user penetration rates in the region are between 15‐20% in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and below 15 % in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan reaches the highest mobile penetration level in the region in 2007. International Internet bandwidth per Internet user increased from 192 bits/user in 2002 to 1’052 in 2007, and Internet penetration rate experienced some progress. Despite the improvement, Internet usage was still low and mobile broadband services unavailable in 2007.

Kyrgyzstan made some progress in the last years but it did not match the region’s overall progress. The increase in mobile cellular penetration reached 41% in 2007 from 1% in 2002, and international Internet bandwidth per Internet user increased from 59 to 796 bits/user in the same period, yet in both cases Kyrgyzstan remained below the region’s average. Kyrgyzstan has a very low fixed telephone penetration (9 per cent in 2007).

Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan occupy the last three places in the region. All three countries have a very low proportion of households with a computer (below 2.5% in 2007), and a low proportion of households with Internet access at home (less than 1% in 2007). Mobile cellular penetration rates are low, especially in the case of Turkmenistan (7% in 2007). Turkmenistan has the highest fixed telephone penetration of the three (9 fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants). By 2007, Tajikistan was the only country amidst the three offering mobile broadband services, although with a negligible uptake. Both Internet usage and fixed broadband penetration were low in all three countries.

ICT in education initiatives

Virtual initiatives in schools

Virtual initiatives in post-secondary education

Lessons learnt

General lessons

Notable practices


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