Turkmenistan reforms begin in education
Chemen Durdiyeva

Turkmenistan reforms begin in education

By Chemen Durdiyeva 

On June 12, President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov held a plenary Cabinet session at the Turkmen State University named after Turkmen poet Magtymguly and signed a major decree on the “perfection of science in Turkmenistan.” In accordance with this new decree, a new Higher Professional Examination Board of the High Council of Science and Technology and a new Foundation of Science and Technology were created. Within the framework of the latest changes in the socio-economic life of the country, Berdimukhammedov’s recent education reforms are decisively promising given the president’s relatively short period of time as a head of state.

BACKGROUND: A large-scale reformation of the educational system in Turkmenistan took roots with the adoption of the Bilim Program in May of 1993. Under the strong personal guidance of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, full compulsory education at all secondary schools was reduced to nine years, and the Cyrillic script changed to the Latin alphabet. Along with other major turnovers in the educational curriculum, the holy script Ruhnama, authored by Niyazov, became a textbook for virtually every single student in the country. Accordingly, education at higher educational establishments (16 in total) in the country were brought down to two years of theoretical knowledge and two years of practical work experience in the respective field of studies. But to be enrolled to the higher educational establishments in the country, applicants first had to get a two-year working experience pass in the field of their respective studies, and only then could their applications be considered. For instance, secondary school graduates were officially encouraged by authorities first to join the two-year obligatory military service and then apply for a university education.

This in turn had resulted in the influx of Turkmen prospective students to foreign universities, mainly in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. However, as President Niyazov personally proclaimed several times, students with education from non-authorized foreign universities abroad were not welcome in Turkmenistan, and neither would their diplomas be recognized nor would they be employed in the government sector. According to the report of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative, a Vienna-based independent human rights organization, the Turkmenistan Ministry of Education in 2003 issued order no. 126, which stated that all specialists holding diplomas of higher education, received outside the country after 1993 would be dismissed from their jobs from June 2004. In so doing, the majority of the university graduates abroad tended to stay in their countries of study to earn a living. This inevitably created a brain drain in the country.

In the eyes of international community, the desperate situation regarding education in Turkmenistan appeared to have created a reasonable concern not only for the country’s future per se, but also raised fears that it might eventually create a conducive ground for a failed state in the region. In reports published in 2003 and 2004, the International Crisis Group (ICG) periodically warned the international community that if the political status quo was kept as such, it would create a “dangerously isolated and uneducated generation increasingly sucked into a vicious circle of drugs trafficking and abuse, and organized crime.” However, Berdimukhammedov’s recent initiatives, particularly his set of decrees on “perfection of national education” appear to have become an initial step to change the dire situation before it reaches its climax. It is noteworthy that Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, as newly elected president, started his first steps in politics by making immediate changes in the educational system of the country.

IMPLICATIONS: On March 17, 2007 President Berdimukhammedov signed a decree on limiting the use of the national state oath in public places, including educational establishments in Turkmenistan. Accordingly, if the schoolchildren would have started the usual school day with a solemn recital of the state oath, swearing loyalty to the motherland and Turkmenbashi the Great, now they use it once only at the school graduation ceremony. Moreover, the words “Turkmenbashy the Great” were changed to the “President of Turkmenistan”. On the one hand, such changes might seem tiny, but on the other, it is one step toward steering clear of the elements of the one-time cult of personality in the educational system of Turkmenistan.

Earlier the same month, President Berdimukhammedov issued another important decree that introduced new fundamental changes particularly in the educational curriculum and teaching methodologies. Starting from September 2007, the weekly workload of a schoolteacher will be 24 hours (less than before) whereas a university professor’s is 850 hours per annum. Full secondary education was brought back to 10 years, and the university education now stretches from five to six years. Moreover, secondary school graduates can go to university right after graduating from secondary schools, without waiting for a two-year work experience pass as before.

Disciplines of physical training and social science, once eliminated from the school program, have been restored to the national curriculum again. Two to three year vocational colleges and professional schools will start enrolling secondary school graduates from September as well. What has caught the attention of the academics, schoolteachers and students the most is the fact that the president raised their monthly salaries and stipends by 40 percent beginning in the upcoming academic year in September. Such reforms, particularly the salary increases and the creation of extra job vacancies, in the meantime, make many qualified professors and scientists who either became victims of regular lay-offs or sought more profitable jobs at other fields, consider returning to educational establishments again.

At the June 12 meeting, speaking to a wide audience of government officials, representatives of public organizations, and scientists as well as students of major institutions, Berdimukhammedov focused the entire session solely on developing science in Turkmenistan. By opening the once-scaled down Academy of Sciences, the president created a Higher Professional Examination Board and a Foundation of Science and Technology to coordinate and finance the research dissertations of national academics. As such, the universities and other scientific institutions will start conferring masters and doctoral degrees from the coming academic year as well. As part of the national plan for the “perfection of science in Turkmenistan,” the president commissioned the Ministry of Education to prepare an immediate plan for implementing the stated reforms and present a specific plan to connect all the educational and scientific institutions to the Internet.
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Turkmenistan, 10 schools in Ashgabat already have access to the World Wide Web. Under the joint UNDP-Ministry of Education project “Information sharing in Turkmenistan – for sustainable human development - InfoTuk” 10 more schools will be connected to the Internet in Mary city as well. Official government sources say that in addition to these schools, 21 scientific and 15 higher educational establishments are presently using the Internet. As such, the schoolchildren, students and professors alike now have access to worldwide knowledge and information in a country where the Internet once was totally limited.

CONCLUSIONS: Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov’s vigorous support for the development of education and science in Turkmenistan brings certain issues to the core of attention. First and foremost, the legal basis and material support the president has given to the development of education and science in Turkmenistan provide a good chance to expand the intellectual opportunities of the young generation and thwart a massive longstanding indoctrination process in the country. Second, paying close attention to getting a proper education and increase enrollment in the universities may in fact facilitate a resolution to Turkmenistan’s long-standing “brain-drain” and ensuing cadre problem.

Chemen Durdiyeva is an Ashgabat-based freelance writer. Published in 06/27/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst.