The education sector in Uzbekistan was hit hard by the collapse of the USSR.
A quarter of a century after independence, this Central Asian state, in which young people under the age of 24 comprise 46% of the population (see graph below), continues to be seriously lacking in school and university infrastructure. These challenges raise many questions about Uzbekistan’s development. As Uzbekistan opens up to the rest of the world, it is an opportune moment to recollect the importance of investing in human capital.
Sebastien Peyrouse, PhD, is a research professor at the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (George Washington University). His main areas of expertise are political systems in Central Asia, economic and social issues, Islam and religious minorities, and Central Asia’s geopolitical positioning toward China, India and South Asia. He has authored or co-authored several books on Central Asia such as Turkmenistan. Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe), and, with Marlène Laruelle, The ‘Chinese Question’ in Central Asia. Domestic Order, Social Changes, and the Chinese Factor (London, New York: Hurst, Columbia University Press) and Globalizing Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development (Armonk: ME Sharpe). His articles have appeared in Europe Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, China Perspectives, Religion, State & Society, Journal of Church and State.
An Education System Undermined by Economic, Social, and Political Challenges
Since the 1990s, education in Uzbekistan has been continually weakened by economic crises, budget cuts, and social difficulties.
Today, less than one-quarter of age-eligible children are enrolled in nursery schools. At primary and secondary level, hundreds of thousands of students attend overextended schools in shifts. Symptomatically, the state struggles to recruit teachers: low salaries, extremely long hours, and low prestige make teaching an unappealing career path. The limited number of teachers means that fundamental subjects such as mathematics are poorly taught or not taught at all. Upon leaving secondary school, just one in every eleven students can expect to be admitted to an Uzbek university—and even then, employers disparage this education, which they consider to be rote learning based on state ideology, disconnected from the needs of the labor market, and possibly even for sale (corruption pervades the country’s higher education).
With independence, Uzbekistan was suddenly deprived of the subsidies it had received under the Soviet system, which had—for all the system’s shortcomings—guaranteed a certain level of social welfare. To deal with the budget shortfall, the Uzbek state, by the end of the 1990s, reduced the share of GDP devoted to education by one-third. In 2012, just 3.4% of national revenue was directed to education, one of the lowest figures in the world, although this had officially risen to about 7.5% of GDP by 2014.
Budget shortfalls have also led political authorities to prioritize secondary education at the expense of other levels, with several consequences. Firstly, the number and quality of nursery schools has considerably declined. In the 2000s and 2010s, only 22 percent of Uzbek children had access to childhood care and education. Close to 1,200 nursery schools require renovation, while about 1,000 others have fallen into disrepair. Secondly, the cuts to school infrastructure have led the government to establish a quota system for children aged six in order to partly delay their entry. In the middle of the school year, these six-year-olds are given a test. Those who fail are sent home and can enroll only the following year, when they are seven. Despite close to 100% enrollment, for a variety of reasons, some 178,000 Uzbek children were not regularly attending a primary school in the early 2010s, which accounted for half the children outside the school system across the whole of Central Asia.
Notwithstanding the government’s efforts to direct resources to secondary teaching, it reduced compulsory education from 11 years to 9 years in 1997. On top of this, many schools operate in two or three shifts: pupils receive only a few hours’ instruction every day so that every student can be taught. Classes continue to be overcrowded (as many as 40 pupils) and many school students must work three to a desk.
Finally, at the tertiary level, the government has greatly increased the number of institutions, from 37 in 1991 to 59 in the mid-2010s and 75 in 2017, in response to the steep rise in the number of applicants, which grew from 540,000 in 2014 to 729,000 in 2017. However the percentage of applicants for tertiary studies who manage to actually get into a university has significantly declined, falling from 15% in 1986 to 9% in the mid-2010s, or only one applicant in eleven, a figure that puts Uzbekistan 144th in the world.
The budget crisis has likewise had a negative impact on the teaching profession. The average salary of a teacher or professor is vastly insufficient to ensure a decent standard of living. Many teachers are obliged to hold several jobs just to meet their family’s basic needs. The difficult working conditions and meager salaries breed corruption among teaching staff, in particular at the tertiary level.
These conditions have considerably devalued the profession and demotivated a growing number of students graduating from teaching institutions. Many change their career path after graduation or leave the profession after only a few years of teaching, moving to better-remunerated and more socially esteemed professions such as secretarial work or interpreting. In 2017, it was estimated that Uzbek schools need 20-25% more teachers. This deficiency is particularly acute in certain subjects, including English, economics, and computer science.
The disappearance or disrepair of schools, as well as increasingly high school fees, have led to considerable inequality in education. In 2006, only 5% of children from Uzbekistan’s least advantaged families were enrolled in nursery schools, compared to 46% of children from the country’s wealthiest families. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also tend to be concentrated in low-quality schools or overcrowded classes. The disparities are even more pronounced in tertiary education: 59% of university students belong to the quintile of the most well-off families. While 69% of students pay tuition fees at bachelor level and 75% at masters level, many Uzbek households are unable to afford the enrollment fees; sometimes, they cannot even afford lodging near or transport to the university.
In addition, since independence, the “retraditionalization” of society, justified on the basis of patriarchal or religious principles, has increasingly emphasized distinct gender roles, confining a growing number of women to roles as stay-at-home mothers. As the average child-bearing age has fallen, a growing number of women have dropped out of the school and university system. Since the 2000s, more than one-quarter of women have left school at age 15 or 16, while in tertiary education women represent only 39% of students. This gender discrimination is fed by social poverty. In increasing numbers of poorer households, parents give priority to educating their boys, whom they consider better long-term investments, at the expense of their girls, who are pressured to live as stay-at-home mothers dependent on the families of their future husbands.
Lastly, economic and social difficulties have pushed several million Uzbeks (at least three million in 2017 alone) to work abroad, in particular in Russia. While the remittances sent home may contribute to financing the educations of children from underprivileged backgrounds, the absence of one or both parents can also negatively impact a child’s development, including his or her motivation and assiduousness at school.
Can Foreign Assistance Help?
The success of foreign assistance depends heavily on incentives in recipient countries. In Uzbekistan, the state has a record of keeping a tight grip on the education sector, which it has viewed as strategic for its independence and nation-building. Reforms in this sector have also often run up against the government’s desire to control the productivity and capabilities of the population, which is the engine of political activism and therefore potentially capable of threatening its authority.
Foreign education assistance must go beyond engaging with the Ministry of Education to tap into local knowledge. Moreover, the government, despite its firm control over society, does not always have the technological and organizational resources to evaluate the needs and difficulties of the sector, define its priorities, or implement local-level reforms. Under both late President Karimov and current President Mirziyoyev, the base—that is, teachers, parents and students—has rarely been included in the process of determining reforms; as a result, reforms have often been ill-received. Many government programs, whether or not supported by foreign donors, have thus remained simple declarations of intent.
Furthermore, by defining broad objectives that aim at fundamental reforms but that are nonetheless insufficiently connected to the local context, foreign donors have risked having their projects usurped and instrumentalized by the authorities to domestic ends.
Education has been a particular focus of EU assistance in Central Asia. The European Education Initiative, launched in 2007 as part of the EU Central Asia Strategy for a New Partnership, aimed to reform the region’s education systems and adapt them to the needs of a globalized world. The EU has prioritized tertiary education, as well as vocational education and training, through support for the European Training Foundation (ETF).
Uzbekistan is involved in four EU education assistance programs:
Tempus, which promotes university cooperation;
Erasmus Mundus, which promotes student and academic staff mobility at all levels of tertiary education through joint higher education programs and individual scholarships;
The EU-Central Asia Education Platform, which supports reform in the entirety of the Central Asian education system; and
The Central Asia Research and Education Network (CAREN), which seeks to connect some 1 million Central Asian students and researchers, as well as 200 universities and research institutions, in the areas of telemedicine, distance learning, disaster risk management, water resource management, and geo-hazard potential of retreating glaciers.
Among Western donors, the EU has been steadily investing in education projects in Central Asia. But even this approach has inadvertently created a dichotomy between the former Soviet system, which is said to be deficient and outdated, and a European-Western system construed as modern, progressive, and a return to normality. In taking this approach, the EU did not fully take into account the diversity of the post-Soviet space, as well as each government’s distinct policies and ambitions in the education sector. Simply transposing a European system to another region ignored the very “loose coupling (or divergence) between global norms and local meanings”—the Soviet and the foreign (Western)—as well as the tensions between the continuities and discontinuities resulting from the fall of the Soviet regime.
This lack of local ownership has led some Uzbek stakeholders to resist reforms suggested by donors. Firstly, for many teachers, concepts such as student-centered learning are unsustainable, and therefore unrealizable, unless there is a significant improvement in their social conditions: an increase in salaries, a lightening of the workload, political liberalization, etc. Secondly, the proposed return to “normality” through student-centered learning, decentralization of funding, and privatization of tertiary education actually serves to invalidate the education system as practiced hitherto and cuts against the aspirations of many Uzbek teachers and parents, who would like to hold onto (or reinstate) certain legacies of the Soviet regime. Several scholars have thus noted the very limited impact of European or other Western projects that have pressed teachers to switch from teacher-centered to child-centered learning.
What Can Be Done?
In Uzbekistan, education reforms cannot be implemented effectively without significant prior economic progress, which is necessary to enable the considerable investment required in the education sector. Without a notable improvement in the social conditions of local stakeholders—the teachers, as well as the large number of households for which access to education has become a heavy financial burden—or any real political will from the government to turn from ideologized instruction to the training of students with freer and more critical minds, such programs are not likely to succeed. These issues are ones over which Western donors have little short-term influence in a state that is neither strategic nor a priority for them.
However, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s arrival in 2016 has brought about changes in the education sector. A Ministry for Preschool Education was created in 2017 with the goal of increasing enrollment of children by 50% by 2021. Regional centers for the continuing education of teachers will be opened and financed by the state in order to raise the standard of teaching. In addition, Mirziyoyev has decided to re-increase the years of obligatory schooling from 9 to 11 years, a positive decision but one that nevertheless risks exacerbating the existing teacher shortage by requiring some 22,000 more teachers.
Many of these reforms present new opportunities for donors to contribute, whether directly or indirectly. Through limited and gradual projects consistent with its capacity to invest in Uzbekistan, the West can bring effective aid, provide alternative models, and stimulate change, all without being decried as paternalistic or disconnected from local realities. This will also allow the West to enhance its generally poor image in the region. Beyond tertiary education, donors can and should intervene through targeted support to school institutions, including building schools that, until now, have often been funded by parents, placing an unsustainable burden on them. There could also be more focus on concrete measures, such as assistance in the redaction of textbooks or contributions to building or restoring schools.
At a time when we are seeing a diversification of donors and innovative financing methods, corporations are playing an increasingly important role. However, these corporations currently invest mainly in the energy and technology sectors. Less than one-fifth of the philanthropic resources of large companies given to developing countries are targeted at education. A new public-private partnership could constitute an effective way of mobilizing resources for education.
Last but not least, it will be local actors, trained in Western institutions or according to Western standards and then integrated into the higher echelons of the administration, who will be the source of real change. They will overcome the defects and corruption of the current system and initiate new approaches and substantive reforms.
Education assistance, its modalities, and its impact continue to be intensely debated. As Riddell and Nino-Zarazua have argued, “there is no ‘set’ and established blueprint of what to do that can be applied generally to all countries”. The paths proposed here are therefore not without their own criticisms and potential pitfalls. Targeted, one-off projects, which are sometimes very dependent on donors, are not systematically sustainable. It has been shown elsewhere that project leaders do not always remain in their positions long enough to initiate projects and follow up on them.
A sound education policy is essential to nations’ economic growth and development. Increased access to schooling and better quality of education results in higher lifetime incomes and greater wellbeing. Education generates growth in human capital, which makes long-term development possible, for example through health advances, agricultural innovations, administrative efficiency, and private-sector growth.
The changes initiated under President Mirziyoyev have opened up unprecedented new possibilities for assistance. His own reforms—including the redaction of textbooks—present opportunities for the US to provide direct assistance where there is demonstrated receptivity. Mirzoyoyev’s reforms have also created more space for cooperation with local stakeholders, which had been restricted under late President Karimov, as well as engagement with nongovernmental organizations, local governments, and the private sector.
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Photo: By Andrey N Bannov, Shutterctock