Nearly three years ago a group of European Union specialists came to Uzbekistan in former Soviet Central Asia to launch a programme to train teachers of business management.
The aim was to set in motion a one-year MBA course to meet growing demand for trained business people in a republic tentatively introducing some elements of capitalism. As they prepared to leave this month, the coordinators were concerned the teacher training programme might not have taken off.
The project was launched at two universities in Tashkent: the University of World Economy and Diplomacy (UWED) and the Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE). It was given added impetus by Uzbek president Islam Karimov's 1995 decree ordering the creation of around 13 modern business schools in the newly independent republic, requiring a new generation of teachers.
UWED was set up in 1992 as an elite institution training the president's cadres for work abroad. It replaced the old KGB school and was Uzbekistan's first higher education establishment to levy fees.
Students who want to become business executives have to find $800 for the course (around twice the average annual salary in Uzbekistan) and are expected to get sponsorship from firms requiring specialists. The European Union's Technical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Independent States programme has paid for the training of MBA teachers.
Jennifer Cock, one of the TACIS project coordinators and a teacher of business law at the Rennes International Business School, said that there had been no attempt to impose classic western training.
The MBA project has been adapted to the Uzbek environment, she said, although the methodology has had to be imported "because there is no local method, only what has been left by the Soviet system".
Teaching is in English, as the MBA project is conceived as preparation for an international diploma, and the selection process for trainee teachers included an thorough analytical test.
"Teaching has a more practical base than under the Soviet system," said Abdunosir Mamatkulov, an economics graduate. "If 50 people can do a job, there is no need to keep 100 employees."
Neliya Asadulina, an economics teacher at TSUE, said she was delighted to join the course because for the past year her university had been trying to teach marketing using old Soviet textbooks.
Dilyaver Veliyev, who has a class of students though he has not yet completed the MBA teacher training course, has implemented the course's principles by transforming classes into discussion groups on case studies, rather than giving lectures. "Uzbek teaching is textbook teaching and teachers just lecture," he said. "They open a book and start reading, while the students just write all the time. It's not effective."
Some trainee teachers said they may not be returning to their teaching jobs in Samarkand and other regional towns. Others hoped to be able to escape the state's annual one-month call-up to the cotton fields, a hangover from the Soviet period.
But hard times have meant that out of 60 trainees in the first intake 30 dropped out because of pressures from their other jobs, which they could not give up if they were to make ends meet. Food prices in Uzbekistan are rapidly approaching western price levels, while a professor still only earns the equivalent of about $20 a month.
The project was allowed to go ahead through the president's forward thinking. But not all the university hierarchy has sympathised with it. Some of the people choosing candidates to be trainee MBA teachers do not know what an MBA is, said Ms Cock.
One disenchanted teacher said that many of the people there regard the programme as a threat to their old methods of teaching. Among those chosen by the university hierarchy were personal friends, people not always interested in the subject, plus a sprinkling of informers from the National Security Committee, the successor to the KGB.
The same teacher said that many people interested in reforming teaching methods left the university when its liberal deputy rector, Mir-Akbar Rakhmonkulov, was transferred to a strategic planning institute by the president. The former deputy rector managed to replace around 70 per cent of the "old guard". When he left, they returned, the teacher said.
Trainees feel that the TACIS course does not have strong institutional backing from the university and this has diminished their confidence. "We train them and then want them to teach, but they keep their old, secure jobs, because that is where their work permits are," Ms Cock said. "There is the feeling that the programme has provided all it is going to provide, that it is a three-year project nearing its end, Ecu2.2 million have been spent and they have got a photocopier."
The coordinators now want to make the MBA diploma international through links with universities in the West through teacher exchanges. During a recent study tour for 20 trainees, contacts were established with the International Business School at Rennes and the University of Leuven, Belgium. Both have committed to continuing cooperation with the two Tashkent universities after March.
The University of Westminister has expressed an interest in doing the same.