Although Tajikistan boasts of having a near-universal literacy rate, the Central Asian nation's education system is failing. Deficiencies in primary, secondary, and higher education mean that, in perhaps most cases, parents in Tajikistan are better educated than their children.
At the root of the problem is low salaries paid to public school teachers, resulting in understaffed schools and unqualified instructors. The Tajikistan State Statistical Committee claimed the average monthly wage in the educational sector was 141 Somoni (or $41 US) in 2007. Unable to survive on just over $1 a day, many experienced teachers have sought better paying jobs, or seek to subsidize their salaries with payments from students.
The government's own 2007 National Development Strategy notes that "the shortage of schoolteachers . . . can be attributed, among other things, to the low wages paid in the profession." It also noted that state spending on education has declined from 8.9 percent of GDP in 1991 to 3.2 percent in 2005.
The problem is impossible to hide. "Corruption has penetrated all parts of Tajik education," says a country profile commissioned by UNESCO's 2008 Education for All Global Monitoring Report.
The effect of corruption is most pernicious in the country's higher educational system. At Khujand State University, for example, tuition is officially $350 a year. But the father of a former student indignantly confessed that "to gain admittance, I paid $200 to one of the faculty on the admissions committee." For advanced schooling, the bribes can be much higher. A student at the Tajik State Medical University in Dushanbe said that a payment of $4,000 was required for admission. For most students, such large sums are enough to persuade them to attend to their studies and earn passing grades. But for the less motivated and more affluent, another option exists. In most classes, a passing exam grade can be bought for the right price.
A third-year university student who had recently purchased a passing grade casually explained the process to EurasiaNet. "I had been skipping class all term and knew I wouldn't pass," he said. A friend pointed out that the instructor was known to take payments and, after approaching the teaching assistant with concern over final grades, the student was told that the teacher would give a grade of "three" in exchange for 20 somoni ($6). Under the Tajik system, grades are based on a scale of one to five, with five being the mark of excellence. A three is the minimum passing grade.
"I was also offered a grade of four in exchange for 30 somoni," he said. In some classes, payments may run up to 100 somoni or more (about $30), and while payments are not always required, students who do not pay report that they can be subject to additional scrutiny on their assignments.
For many families in Tajikistan, where roughly 70 percent of the population grapples with poverty, 30 somoni can represent a week's wages. But graft is so deeply entrenched in the educational system that some instructors are known to sell term papers to students in other classes, one student reported.
One factor to consider, regional analysts say, is the strong cultural practice of giving gifts in Tajikistan. A 2006 Corruption Survey Report conducted jointly by the President's Strategic Research Center and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found 58 percent of respondents in Tajikistan did not view offering a gift to a "useful" person as an act of graft.
A 32-year-old university teacher who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity confirmed that the practice of paying for grades is common. "I've had students approach me to arrange a grade and they can usually cite me the prices being charged by other instructors," he said. When asked whether it was diminishing the quality of education, he shrugged and said, "those who want to learn will learn." While making it clear he did not accept bribes from his students, he offered a justification, saying that "it's a system where everyone gets what they want, so it's mostly accepted."
The police are not unaware of the problem, and have acted in the past. In December, student complaints led to the arrest of two teachers in Dushanbe for taking nearly $2,500 in bribes. Penalties vary, but a case in Khujand several years ago resulted in a one-year prison sentence. That convicted teacher has since returned to his classroom.
As with many of the other public institutions where corruption is rife, confidence in the educational system is waning. The 2006 corruption survey found that "for most students, getting complete secondary or higher education has lost its sense [of value]." A university student told EurasiaNet: "It's so frustrating. When I asked my instructor why I had received such a low grade, I was told I should have paid for a better paper."
Tajikistan's National Strategy for Education Development does call for an increase in educational funding over the next several years, but it still falls short of the substantial increases in salaries necessary to curb corruption. Even if the strategy blueprint did call for a drastic increase in salaries, the government's ability to fund the country's educational infrastructure is coming under extreme pressure, given the economic hardships that have befallen the country.
Alexei Ivanov is the pseudonym for a writer living in Tajikistan.