The education system's downward spiral stands to undermine long-term Turkmenistan's stability, contended a former government official. Niyazov's policies "will produce a dangerously isolated and uneducated generation that is unable to comprehend the challenges [presented by] a changing world," the former official said. "The longer it is left, the worse things will get, and the higher the likelihood of the state collapsing under [the weight of] its own contradictions."
In particular, Niyazov seems keen to limit the influence of Russia and the Russian language. Nearly all Russian-language schools in the country have been shut, and both English and Russian-language curricula in Turkmenistan have been drastically reduced over the past five years. Universities now teach almost exclusively in Turkmen, meaning that professors and students who do not have a thorough command of the Turkmen language are being pushed out.
A former teacher of Ukrainian descent told the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative; "By removing people like me, they place ethnic Turkmen in our positions, and the fact that I have a diploma of a Ukrainian university is just a good excuse."
For students now enrolled in universities abroad, Niyazov's decision not to recognize foreign degrees has delivered a demoralizing blow. "All of the students studying abroad and working hard for their degrees will now feel that their hard work is wasted," explained one Turkmen student currently studying in the United States. "Most students studying abroad plan[ed] to go back and work for the development of Turkmenistan, so for me and them, this new decree makes no sense."
The former teacher in Turkmenistan suggested that it would be a mistake for those now studying abroad to return to Turkmenistan. "All Turkmen students who already receive higher education abroad should start looking for jobs outside their own country," the teacher said.
Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, its education system has been in steady decline. As former Turkmen Foreign Minister, Avdy Kuliev, now a prominent Niyazov critic, explained; "Children are still using textbooks and supplies left over from the Soviet era, and all schools outside the capital are closed from September 1 through November 1" so that students can help with the cotton harvest. In recent years, Niyazov's regime has reduced the duration of education from 10 to nine years, and has discontinued subjects deemed unnecessary, including foreign languages, art and physical education.
In 2001, Niyazov replaced much of the traditional school curriculum with his spiritual treatise, the Rukhnama. The move effectively transformed the education system into an instrument for political indoctrination. In the opening chapters of his book, Niyazov explains that the Rukhnama contains "the total of the Turkmen mind, customs and traditions, intentions, doings and ideals."
"The Rukhnama has literally taken over the school system in the country. It has become the universal textbook," said Michael Clarke, a former US Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan. This year's International Helsinki Federation report on Turkmenistan suggests that the goal of the Niyazov's administration is not to educate children, but rather "to enforce propaganda and to prevent children ... from critically analyzing the political regime."
Educators have found themselves marginalized under Niyazov's regime. Most teachers wait months to receive their salaries of about $60 per month, and are expected to pay out of their own pockets for classroom supplies and renovations. Schools outside of the capital are mostly dilapidated Soviet-era structures, and few have heat or adequate plumbing. In 2000, through another presidential decree, Niyazov reduced the number of teachers working in the country, leading to vastly overcrowded classrooms.
In 2003 Niyazov announced that higher education would no longer be free a move that makes it more difficult for students from poor urban and rural backgrounds to attend university. As it is, observers say, widespread corruption at most universities already imposes high costs on students. "The future success of a student does not depend upon knowledge acquired during years of study, but rather on his ability to pay professors for desired grades," Kuliev said.