When it comes to education, Tajik officials are willing to cite statistics, no mater how dire. Indeed, the education sector is one of Tajikistan’s few trouble spots that President Imomali Rahmon discusses openly.
“Along with all our achievements [in education], there are lots of problems, mainly the lack of professionals,” Rahmon said at a school opening in September, the state news agency reported.
The commencement of the academic year saw 3,780 schools welcome roughly 1.6 million school-age children. Included in those figures were 184 new schools capable of educating 35,000 students, local media outlets reported. That’s a substantial achievement for a country as economically hard-pressed as Tajikistan. But the education sector is still struggling to keep pace with the expanding number of students. More serious than the lagging pace of school construction is a shortage of qualified teachers.
At least 10,000 of the country’s teachers lack basic qualifications, such as a university degree, Education Ministry officials admit. Most schools operate in shifts, with students only attending a few hours of classes a day. And in rural areas, high school students now teach grade-schoolers.
Given Tajikistan’s high birthrate, the teacher shortage is set to intensify. According to Save the Children, 35 percent of Tajikistan’s population is under age 15. Though the government boasts of a 98 percent literacy rate – thanks to universal education during the Soviet era – experts say that number is in freefall.
Most teachers are leaving the profession not because they have lost their desire to instruct, but because they cannot afford it. According to government figures, the average monthly salary in Tajikistan is 309 Somoni (about $70). Teachers, among the lowest paid professionals, earn around $56 monthly. Most say it is impossible to live on such a wage and many seek second jobs, or leave their positions to search for work abroad.
“A lot of people with a higher education do not want to work in schools because of the low salary and the low [social] status afforded to the teachers’ profession. They don’t want to work in schools and instead find other jobs,” said Zulobi Mamadfozilov, education program manager at the Aga Khan Foundation. “Only those people who don’t have any other options work as teachers.”
The pay issue affects the whole system – “from village schools up to the Ministry of Education,” Mamadfozilov told EurasiaNet.org.
Teaching standards are quickly “falling behind,” says Nodira Rakhmonberdyeva, director of the Manizha Information-Educational Center in Dushanbe. “Under the Soviet system, every single teacher during his or her entire career had to regularly attend training courses. The Ministry of Education controlled teachers’ proper application of traditional and newly adopted teaching methodologies. Every once in a while teachers had to pass qualification exams to remain in compliance with tough professional requirements,” Rakhmonberdyeva explained. Now the government lacks the resources to properly check teachers’ qualifications, Rakhmonberdyeva added.
According to the Tajik Constitution, general education is free and the first nine years are compulsory. But in reality, parents these days pay a de facto tuition that can get expensive. Many schools collect funds for refurbishment, equipment and teachers’ salaries. These “voluntary donations” vary from one school to the next, but many parents complain they are unable to afford the fees. Failure to pay can mean stigmatization or even expulsion. In some cases, experts say, the imposition of fees discourage parents from sending their children to school at all.
The downward trend for Tajikistan’s educational system started with the devastating civil war in the 1990s that, according to UN statistics, left tens of thousands dead and forced more than 700,000 to flee, roughly one-tenth of the overall population. Tajikistan hasn’t yet recovered from the trauma.
“Deterioration in the nation’s education began right after the collapse of the USSR,” says Roza Umarova, a retired teacher of more than 30 years. “My granddaughter attends a relatively good school in downtown Dushanbe. It still has a good reputation, but the current state of teaching here hardly resembles that in the late 1980s. Students spend limited number of hours in school – many subjects are lacking because of the teacher shortage. However, the school administration consistently collects money from parents, explaining that without these “voluntary donations,” the school would hardly survive at all.”
President Rakhmon declared 2010 “The Year of Education and Technical Knowledge.” But the moniker means little if the state cannot attract teachers and the parents cannot afford to send their children to school.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.