Systemic Crises and Prospects for Reform in Central Asian Education

F. Joseph Dresen

The "prevailing global trends in education reform of decentralization and privatization require strong professional capacity to implement these reforms," stated Mark Johnson, Professor of History at Colorado College, and former Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 2 June 2003. "Yet this is precisely the piece that is the most weak in post-Soviet education [in Central Asia]."

The Soviet legacy in the education systems of Central Asia is very important, albeit misunderstood. One stereotype from the early 1990s held that the Soviet education and health systems were so well developed that they would help cushion society's transition from the Soviet system. In fact, Central Asia was always the weakest link in the Soviet education system, according to Johnson. There was much less success in developing Russian literacy than the system claimed at the time, the curricula were highly standardized, and the system was narrowly vocational and institutionally fragmented. By the Soviet Union's collapse, all five Central Asian nations had been dependent for two generations on exchanges with Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, and other regional centers for advanced research and postgraduate training.

The weaknesses inherited from the Soviet era have combined with economic decline and poor governance to bring about what Johnson termed a "systemic crisis" in the education systems of the region. The crisis has been especially bad in three areas: preschool and early childhood education, vocational and professional education, and in gender equity (especially in rural regions). Johnson also noted that the crisis has sparked a "brain drain" of talented educators out of the region and out of the educational sector, especially in information technology and foreign languages. Greater corruption is another consequence—a recent World Bank report, Johnson noted, made the startling claim that higher education may be the single most corrupt sector in the former Soviet Union. This corruption is manifest in practices ranging from unregulated privatization of educational facilities to educators relying on bribes for tutoring and letters of recommendation to augment their salaries, which can be as low as one-sixth of a subsistence wage in some regions of Central Asia.

Johnson noted that international assistance, if sometimes spotty and inadequate, has been vital over the last ten years in supporting education in Central Asia. However, international support has also had some unintended negative consequences, Johnson reported. For example, programs seeking to bolster professional cadres in education have sometimes enabled administrators to capture resources and dominate institutions. Another phenomenon is that of promising pilot programs failing to take root, fostering a patron-client relationship between donors and local partners. Direct assistance to individuals also has complications. Talented young people and professionals returning from exchange programs often returned to unreformed institutions or under-funded universities, where they encountered tremendous hostility and resistance from their colleagues and peers.

Furthermore, an over-reliance on exchange programs for advanced research and postgraduate training, argued Johnson, is fatal for the development of innovative domestic research.
Johnson again emphasized the importance of developing independent indigenous professional networks. He argued for combining international exchanges with programs to reform academic departments on the ground, citing innovative models of this approach in Russia. Johnson noted in particular the Centers for Advanced Study and Education program funded in part by Carnegie Corporation of New York and managed by the Kennan Institute and ISE-Center, Moscow. This program promotes the development of interdisciplinary and interregional networks through centers established at regional Russian universities. The American Council of Learned Societies, added Johnson, runs an innovative program in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia to cultivate professional networks and associations in the humanities.

Johnson explained that there is a varied pattern of reform across the countries of Central Asia. Kazakhstan has great potential given the country's vast energy resources, but corruption and nepotism have taken resources away from educational reform. Johnson stated that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan originally attempted to maintain a Soviet-style system, but inadequate resources eventually forced them to reduce the system to nine years of basic education. He noted that education proponents in these countries have been especially vulnerable to political and ideological pressures. The Kyrgyz Republic, by contrast, boasts a supportive and relatively innovative policy environment that has generated successful reform. According to Johnson, the emergence of universities in Kyrgyzstan such as the American University of Central Asia, and the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University, illustrate the potential for the development of higher education.

Johnson concluded by recommending that the U.S. consider the "human security" of the populations of Central Asia along with military, political, and economic considerations in forming relationships with the governments of the region. The U.S., Johnson argued, should adopt a "more robust conditionality" with these governments and press for greater attention to "the preconditions of security—educational access, opportunity, and environmental stability."

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