Tajiks opt for revival of the fittest

November 6, 1998

Dushanbe. Tajikistan's education minister Munira Inoyatova is taking the Heinz approach to post-civil war reforms: 57 different types of curriculum are being introduced throughout the small Central Asian republic's schools and universities.

Out goes the old monocultural curriculum of Soviet times which was "aimed at the future builders of Communism", Dr Inoyatova says, and in comes a flexible choice-based system which recognises the cultural, historic, linguistic and intellectual diversity of the Tajik peoples.

"Tajik is part of the world's cultural treasures; we have 1,100 years of history as a nation state, yet until recently at all our universities most subjects were taught in Russian - even maths and algebra, and history was, of course, the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"Today many Tajiks do not even speak Tajik. Economists, for example, think and work in Russian and cannot express their scientific thoughts in Tajik. We have been unable to develop our own individuality and mentality within our own culture and language," she says.

All that is set to change, although Dr Inoyatova is the first to concede that the challenges faced by her ministry in one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics, are considerable.

The minister and her top advisers have spent the past couple of years studying best practice in universities and educational systems in Russia, America, Britain, Turkey, China and Germany.

Tajikistan's bitter inter-regional civil war, in which tens of thousands lost their lives, was brought to an uneasy United Nations-brokered end last year, and Dr Inoyatova is determined that education must offer a passport towards peace and prosperity for Tajiks in the 21st century.

Creating freedom and choice in the republic's secondary schools, where lycees, gymnasiums, technical schools, private and state institutions now compete for pupils, is creating a firm base for better, more forward-looking universities, she says.

The ministry has redefined its role as an arbiter of standards and provider of retraining opportunities for teachers and lecturers: methodologies are no longer prescribed and corporal punishment in schools has been banned.

New courses in management, world culture, the history of religious ethics, ancient Tajik languages, economics and business have been introduced to students at the republic's 26 state universities.

Tuition fees have been introduced, along with tough rules on transparency in awarding degrees to discourage corruption. About half the republic's 85,000 higher education students pay fees for university.

Four private universities, concentrating on business and economics, operate in the capital Dushanbe and other cities.

A text-book reform programme is under way to replace Soviet era Russian texts with modern, updated and, in some cases entirely rewritten Tajik books.

An intensive foreign language programme has also been introduced starting with school students and up into higher education.

It is a brave new world Dr Inoyatova is striving for: one special research project is testing children from primary school onwards to determine future talents and create a picture of the "intellectual potential of the nation" to inform future policy development.

The minister is both a visionary and a realist: she knows that most university lecturers earn less than 10,000 Tajik roubles - about $7 - a month, and even she writes, lectures and does other moonlighting to supplement her official monthly salary of 50,000 Tajik roubles.

Because opportunities for graduates in Tajikistan are rare, the ministry has a programme of international agreement to allow graduates to work and study overseas.

More than 600 Tajik students are developing their skills in countries including Japan, Slovenia, America and Iran.

"In the future we hope these people, the best we have, will return to positions of leadership and influence in Tajikistan," the minister says.

But the reality of most Tajik universities is bleaker: students have hardly any books and classrooms at universities such as the Dushanbe Teachers University, where students sit crammed on hard wooden benches reminiscent of elementary schools in Britain at the turn of the century.

For those with keen minds unable to find opportunities overseas, a good education in Tajikistan today can equal terrible frustration.

Sabzina Shozedova, a 21-year-old graduate of Dushanbe's Teachers' University, who lectures in English and works in a language resource centre, said the ruptured post-civil war economy and unofficial curfew that clears Dushanbe's streets by nightfall, restricted her life choices to the very narrowest of horizons.

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