The collapse of the Soviet Union had a profound impact on the education systems of Central Asia. Drastic cuts in funding; the cessation of directives and guidance from Moscow; the repatriation of Russian administrators back to Russia; the emigration of local professors, scholars, and students to the West; and the rejection of outdated Soviet curriculums by students demanding training relevant to a modern economy drove many institutions of higher education in the region into a state of near paralysis.

Today, after 15 years of reform, the education systems in Central Asia have recovered a lot of lost ground. With the assistance of international non- or inter-governmental organizations such as UNESCO, the World Bank, USAID, the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundation, British Council, TEMPUS and many more, the governments of the newly independent states, with the notable exception of Turkmenistan, have adopted new norms and drafted legislation in an effort to raise the quality of their education systems to international standards. While not all reform measures have been fully implemented or successful, there are many promising developments.
Broadly speaking, four of the five Central Asian republics have undertaken similar reform strategies. The fifth, Turkmenistan, regressed significantly under the authoritarian leadership of President Saparmyrat Niyazov whose cult of personality transcended all walks of Turkmen life. In education, teaching centered on the president’s quasi-spiritual guide, the Rukhnama, breeding a generation of students ill-equipped to function in a modern economy. Since Niazov’s death in December 2006, there appear to be signs that the new leadership is aware of the need to reform the country’s crumbling education system, and decrees repealing Niazov’s shortening of school and university study cycles are positive developments.
Beyond Turkmenistan, a pivotal goal of educational reform in Central Asia has been decentralization and privatization. With the implementation of government regulations allowing for the operation of inter- and non-governmental institutions of education in 2004, Uzbekistan officially joined Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in allowing for the creation of private institutions. While it is generally recognized that the state still exerts significant control over private institutions in Central Asia, especially in curriculum development, the simple fact that more than 120 private institutions exist in Kazakhstan alone represents significant change from the command economy of the Soviet era.
Beyond the widespread proliferation of private universities in the region, state universities have also been granted greater autonomy, a situation that has given administrators and faculty increased powers and freedoms in determining their missions, programs, curriculum, and admissions policies. In the case of Kazakhstan, for example, rectors elected by the ministries of education under the Soviet system are now elected by non-state academic councils.
Accountability and Transparency
A second goal has been to implement accountability and transparency measures to ensure integrity in the university admissions process and to curb broader corruption in education, for which former Soviet republics have become notorious. In admissions, standardized university entrance examinations have been instituted in favor of university-administered exams to ensure enrollment based on merit and not bribes paid to professors or administrators, and to provide disincentive for students to cheat and plagiarize on course work.
Uzbekistan was the first to introduce a standardized nationwide admissions test. The National Entrance Exam is based on multiple choice questions, and is organized by the State Center for Testing. In 2002, an estimated 300,000 students took the test. Sixty percent successfully gained admission to state universities based on their results.
In Kyrgyzstan, the National Scholarship Test (Obščepespyblikanskoe Testirovanie – NST) was introduced in 2002. Testing aptitude, rather than knowledge retention, the admissions test is seen as a means of de-emphasizing rote learning among secondary and tertiary students, as well as a tool to curb corruption in the admissions process. With the award of scholarships and stipends based on results, the test also has been introduced to promote competition among test takers. Approximately 50 percent of all secondary school students took the NST last year.
In Kazakhstan also, school leavers are now required to pass a centralized admissions exam if they want to enroll in state universities. The Edinoe Nacional’noe Testirovanie (Unified National Testing Exam) and its diploma the Certificat o Rezul’tatah were introduced in 2004. As in Kyrgyzstan, the test has primarily been introduced as a means of curbing corruption in university admissions.
Regulation of quality standards remains for the most part an instrument of the state. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan independent accrediting bodies have been developed, but their efficacy remains unclear at this point, and it can be assumed that accreditation decisions are made through the offices of the ministries of education. Theoretically, however, standards are maintained according to a three-stage process: licensing, attestation, and accreditation. Licensing permits an educational institution to operate and issue diplomas in the state format but does not guarantee any standard of quality. Attestation determines whether an institution meets the state educational standards and is a prerequisite for accreditation. Attestation is usually valid for a 5-year period after which the institution has to undergo another review process.
Accredited institutions are eligible for state funding. Both state and non-state institutions are eligible for accreditation, although virtually all state institutions are accredited and many private institutions are not. This translates into difficulties in assessing the quality of education offered at private institutions. Accreditation can be suspended or withdrawn at any time if it is discovered that the institution is not in compliance with the established criteria.
New Funding Schemes
A third goal has been to diversify funding to allow universities to generate new sources of revenue. State institutions that were formerly funded exclusively by the state now enroll fee-paying students. In Kazakhstan, approximately one in four students pay full tuition fees at public universities, while in Kyrgyzstan more than 72 percent pay tuition fees. In Uzbekistan, state institutions are permitted to offer fee-paying places equal to the number of state-financed students they enroll.
Student loans, scholarships, grants, and sponsorship opportunities are now available. In addition, universities have been granted permission to rent property, offer educational services, and accept contributions from international organizations and private corporations. However, underfunding remains a major problem, which impacts upon quality, infrastructures, resources, working conditions, salaries, and ultimately morale.
New Degree Structure and Credentials
A fourth goal has been to adopt new Western-style degree cycles and credit hour systems to facilitate the international recognition of qualifications. Commonly, this new model has taken the format of four-year bachelor degrees and two-year master’s degrees. Kyrgyzstan has a slight variation in that 4- to 5-year bachelor/Bakalavr programs are offered plus a one-year master degree program. At some institutions, the bachelor’s program is only three years, while at other institutions, students may enroll in a one year master’s program after having completed the four- or five-year Soviet style Specialist programs.
In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan the new degree structures run in parallel with the old Soviet 4-5 Specialist model, while in Uzbekistan the old Soviet model has been abolished entirely in favor of the bachelor/master model. Turkmenistan, again the exception, has in practice a one-cycle higher education system that requires only two years of coursework and two years of practical training. Earlier this year, however, the new government did issue a decree stating that the old five-year Soviet model would be re-introduced.
Despite the introduction of the new degree structures, Soviet-era degree programs still predominates in the region: five year programs of specialized education leading to the Diploma Specialist (Diplom Specialista), followed typically by a three-year course of study leading to the Kandidat Nauk, and a Doktor Nauk awarded after completion of a thesis based on original research.
No reforms have been undertaken at the postgraduate level. The Soviet/Russian Kandidat Nauk and Doktor Nauk remain intact, although due to limited capacity for advanced research in Central Asia few postgraduate degrees are awarded.
Perhaps the most notable post-Soviet change in Central Asian higher education has been in the proliferation of institutions of higher education, especially in the private sector and from abroad. This has especially been the case in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where private universities have flourished under liberalized regulations. Despite the 2004 reintroduction of legislation allowing for private providers in Uzbekistan, very few have actually established there. In Turkmenistan, private institutions are prohibited.
In addition to private universities, a number of international and transnational ventures have also been established in the region.
The University of Central Asia
Perhaps the most ambitious, innovative, and promising of this new type of institution is the University of Central Asia (UCA). UCA was founded in 2000 as a private, independent and self-governing institution through a public-private partnership between the governments of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in association with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), an international development agency dedicated to improving education, health care, and economic well-being in Asia and Africa. Recognizing the acute and precarious political and economic situation in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and believing in the central role of education in development, AKDN resolved to establish a world-class international higher education institution devoted to promoting the socio-economic development needs of the mountain communities of the region without compromising local cultures and traditions.
The university plans to offer a range of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs, in addition to a range of vocationally and professionally oriented certificate programs. Undergraduate courses will be modeled on American liberal arts programs – two years of general education followed by two years of specialization – with most courses required and some elected. Academic excellence and integrity are central to the university’s core values.
The university will host a campus in each of the three republics – Tekeli, Kazakhstan, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and Khorog Tajikstan — with a mission of encouraging cross-border, regional dialog through the exchange of information, students and scholars.
The university’s School of Professional and Continuing Education began classes in 2006 at facilities in each of the three campus towns of the main university sites. Completion of the three main campuses, which are being designed by a Japanese architectural firm, is slated for 2012, but no firm date has been set. Once fully operational, officials expect an enrollment of over 3,000 students, and they also hope to draw students from mountainous regions in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Iran, and India.
Kazakhstan is a state of enormous natural resources with tremendous potential wealth from untapped reserves of natural gas, oil, gold, copper, chrome, and aluminum. Not only is Kazakhstan immensely wealthy when compared to its Central Asian neighbors, but it has also enjoyed a period of sustained political stability – if not pluralism – since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this climate and with the support of Kazakhstan’s long-serving president, private institutions have found fertile ground to flourish. In fact, Kazakhstan has more private institutions than all other Central Asian republics combined (even though its population represents only 25 percent of the region’s total).
In the period from 1997 to 2002, the number of institutions increased from 125 to 170: eight national universities, 39 state institutions, and 123 non-state (private) institutions. The eight national universities are autonomous and fully government-funded. The 39 state institutions are partly funded by the state. The private institutions are self-funded. In 1998, 20 percent of all enrollments were at private institutions, and today that number is likely to be significantly higher.
The Kazakh Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Planning and Research (KIMEP) is the oldest, best known and most widely recognized of Kazakhstan’s newly established private institutions of higher education.
Occupying the premises of the former Central Training School of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in Almaty, KIMEP offers American-style undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The undergraduate programs are offered at three colleges: the Bang College of Business, the College of Social Sciences, and the College of Continuing Education. Master’s degrees are offered in business administration, public administration, economics, international relations and international journalism and mass communication. A doctorate in business administration was introduced in 2006. Most courses are taught in English and student enrollment has grown rapidly, currently standing at approximately 4,200.
Established in 1992, KIMEP has a diverse staff of international faculty from 25 countries as well as approximately 200 local staff.
The institution is supported internationally with funding from government and non-governmental organizations that include the European Union’s TACIS program, the United States Agency for International Development, the Soros Foundation, the Eurasia Foundation, and the British Overseas Development Agency through the Know How Fund. Due in part to Kazakhstan’s vast gas and oil reserves it also receives support from a host of energy and other private corporations.
Other private institutions of note in Kazakhstan include the Almaty Institute of Energy and Communication, the Atyrau Institute of Oil and Gas, Kazak-American College of Business and Humanities/Ust-Kamenogorsk, and Eurasia University.
Kyrgyzstan also has been the site of much foreign and private investment in higher education since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russian, Turkish and American institutions all operate in Bishkek, the capital of this landlocked mountainous country with just over 100,000 college students.
American University of Central Asia
The American University of Central Asia (AUCA) is the sibling university to the Central European University (CEU), which was established in 1991 by philanthropist George Soros in Prague, and has since moved its operations to Budapest. CEU was established soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union to assist Hungary and Czechoslovakia in their transitions to free, democratic, and open societies.
With funding from the U.S. State Department, the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, and the Eurasia Foundation, AUCA has a similar mission. In addition, it is dedicated to eradicating corruption and proudly boasts to be one of the few institutions in the region where bribery and cheating do not run rampant.
With tuition fees set at approximately US$1,700, or the average annual income for a Krygyz family, AUCA is beyond the means of the average Kyrgyz student, and hence the university is designed as a small (enrollment is capped at 1,500) American-style liberal arts college. Its academic program consists of undergraduate majors in American studies, business administration, cultural anthropology and archeology, economics, European studies, international and comparative politics, journalism, law, psychology, sociology, and software engineering. It offers one graduate program, a master’s degree in business administration and several preparatory programs in computer basics, English, mathematics, study skills and TOEFL preparation.
Due to long periods of instability and civil war there has been less private and foreign investment in higher education projects than in neighboring countries. At independence there were 10 public institutions of higher education. Today, there are as many as 26 public institutions operating in Tajikistan and seven independent colleges; although reliable information is hard to come by.
The Russian-Tajik Slavonic University
The Russian-Tajik Slavonic University was established through an agreement between the government of Russia and Tajikistan in 1996. The institute with its 13 Diploma Specialist degree programs fulfils educational standards of both states and has the authority to award both Russian and Tajik degrees. A majority of the 2,300 students enrolled at the institution are native Russian speakers.
At independence, Uzbekistan welcomed the idea of establishing private institutions and passed legislation to allow for their legal operation. However, all institutions that opened were closed down between 1995 and 1998 by the Ministry of Education which harbored concerns over the quality of education they were imparting. A new law was passed in 2002 and enacted in 2004 reaffirming the legality of private institutions of education; however, few have chosen to re-open. The International Business School Kelajak Ilmi is one of the few that has been able to attain a license after years of operating without one.
Two autonomous foreign institutions operate in Uzbekistan: the Westminster International University in Tashkent (UK) and the Tashkent branch of the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics (Russia).
Westminster International University in Tashkent
With a mission of providing a program of higher education that meets international standards, London-based University of Westminster in cooperation with the Uzbek government established in 2002 the Westminster International University in Tashkent (WIUT). The university offers undergraduate programs in business administration, legal studies, business computing, economics, and a master’s degree in international business and management . In addition, WIUT offers a one-year foundation program that is recognized internationally as an entry qualification for degree programs.
A majority of the faculty are local academics who have received degrees from institutions of higher education abroad. Approximately 10 percent of the faculty is from outside the region.
Turkmenistan does not have any private institutions of higher education and only admits 3,000 students annually to its public universities – one-tenth the number before independence in 1991. In addition to universities, there are 14 institutes and two pedagogical institutes that students can attend after completing secondary school; all are located in the capital Ashgabat, with the exception of a pedagogical institute in Chärjew.
While other republics adopted strategies to internationalize their education systems and actively encourage and support student exchanges, Turkmenistan does not recognize degrees earned internationally. Additionally, education levels are far below international standards, making it more difficult for students to transfer credits to foreign universities.
Professors and students who do not have a thorough command of the Turkmen language are also being pushed out of the country’s universities, which now teach almost exclusively in Turkmen.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it many challenges, it also offered new opportunities in higher education, the most evident of which has been growth in the number of institutions in the region, driven primarily by the opening of the private sector. The involvement of supranational and non-state organizations in this reform movement, and the creation of transnational universities, is also driving educational change in the region.
With this trend towards diversification in Central Asian higher education, the task of evaluating credentials from universities and colleges in the region has become a more complex and challenging undertaking. The systems of higher education in Central Asia today are no longer homogenous, as they were in the Soviet era. Today, students may hold Soviet-style degrees, new Western-style ones or a combination of the two.
Civil war, a weak economy, and a more traditional society have held Tajikistan back from pursuing reforms more vigorously. Authoritarian and oppressive regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have held back reform in those countries. Kazakhstan with ample resources and plenty of political will is moving rapidly forward with reform implementation, while in Kyrgyzstan reform efforts have moved forward despite substantial political turmoil and limited economic resources.

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