EDUCATION IN TURKMENISTAN

EDUCATION IN TURKMENISTAN

Education expenditures: 3 percent of GDP (2012). Literacy (percentage of population age 15 and over who can read and write): total population: 99.7 percent; male: 99.8 percent; female: 99.6 percent (2015 est.). School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 11 years; male: 11 years; female: 11 years (2014) [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

According to the U.S. Department of State: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through the 12th grade. There were reports that in some rural communities, parents removed girls from school as young as age nine to work at home. In April the Ministry of Education worked with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to certify seven schools as “Child-Friendly Schools,” bringing the total number of such schools 33. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

In the Soviet era, Turkmenistan’s population was considered to be well educated. However, since independence a serious deterioration of the education system has depleted the overall skill level of the working population. The government has limited curricula by eliminating a wide variety of studies that are considered dangerous or useless. Some 16 institutions of higher learning were operating in the early 2000s, but the government has limited access to higher education by eliminating free tuition (in 2003) and by requiring ethnic background checks on applicants. Instructors in higher education must have degrees from institutions in Turkmenistan. Bribes often are necessary to enter a university. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

The government does not tolerate criticism of government policy or the president in academic circles and curtailed research in areas it considered politically sensitive, such as comparative law, history, ethnic relations, and theology. On January 9, 2013, a presidential decree allowed the government to certify foreign diplomas in January and July of each year. In order to have foreign diplomas formally recognized, graduates must complete an application, submit information on their family history for three generations, and pass regular Turkmen university graduation exams related to their majors. Due to this extensive process, many graduates of foreign universities reported they were unable to certify their diplomas with authorities at the Ministry of Education, making them ineligible for employment at state agencies. Some reported that ministry officials demanded bribes to allow certification of their diplomas.” \*\

Turkmenistan is badly in need of trained people to run the government and the oil and gas industry. The education system fails to provide them. Funding has not matched the growing population, teacher salaries have been reduced, and the infrastructure is in poor condition. The dismissal of many ethnic Russian teachers also has damaged the system. The reduction of obligatory education from 11 years to nine years put Turkmen students at a disadvantage in continuing their education past secondary school. **

Education Under Turkmenbashi

In the 1990s and early 2000s the entire education system was micromanaged by Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov — better known as Turkmenbashi — who died in 2007. He hired and fired chancellors, sets quotas for admissions and determined which students would major in what subjects. Niyazov’s book Rukhnama (“Spiritual World”) is was required reading in all schools (See Niyazov, Literature). In 2006, the nation's education system was based almost entirely on the Rukhnama.

Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev, a correspondent in Ashgabat for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service, wrote in the Washington Post that “Niyazov cut school to nine years and college to two, the easier to hold sway over an ill-educated populace.” A Turkmen bureaucrat told writer Paul Theroux virtually the same thing: stopped education at the ninth grade for most people. He was once asked about that by a foreign head of state. He said, ‘Uneducated people are easier to govern.’ ” One of the first decisions made by Niyazov’s successor, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, was to extend school by a year. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

Lucy Ash of the BBC wrote that “Niyazov's assault on education” was “pernicious” and “a cause of deep concern”: “School and university syllabuses have been drastically cut and fewer girls attend classes. The universal textbook is the Ruhnama, the president's spiritual guide for his people, a mixture of political indoctrination and Turkmen history that pupils have to learn by heart. The result is an increasingly isolated and uneducated generation that, now he has finally left the scene, may prove vulnerable to simple solutions to their problems, including Islamic fundamentalism. [Source: Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006]

Education System in Turkmenistan

Funding has not matched the growing population, teacher salaries have been reduced, and the infrastructure is in poor condition. The dismissal of many ethnic Russian teachers also has damaged the system. The reduction of obligatory education from 11 years to nine years put Turkmen students at a disadvantage in continuing their education past secondary school. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Although the education system in Turkmenistan retains the centralized structural framework of the Soviet system, significant modifications has been made since Turkmenistan independence in 1991, partly as a response to national redefinition, but mainly as a result of the government's attempts to produce a highly skilled work force to promote Turkmenistan's participation in international commercial activities. Reforms in the 1990s included cultural goals such as the writing of a new history of Turkmenistan, the training of multilingual cadres able to function in Turkmen, English, and Russian, and the implementation of alphabet reform in schools. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Experts considered the overall level of education in Turkmenistan in the 1990s to be comparable to the average for the Soviet republics. According to the 1989 census, 65.1 percent of the population aged fifteen and older had completed secondary school, compared with 45.6 percent in 1979. In the same period, the percentage of citizens who had completed a higher education rose from 6.4 percent to 8.3 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan's educational establishment is funded and administered by the state. The Ministry of Education is responsible for secondary education. In the 1990s it oversaw about 1,800 schools offering some or all of the secondary grades. Of that number, 43.5 percent operated on one shift and 56.5 percent on two shifts (primarily in cities). Secondary schools in the 1990s had 66,192 teachers who served 831,000 students. Thirty-six secondary schools specialized in topics relevant to their ministerial affiliation. The primary and secondary systems were restructured somehwat according to Western models, including shorter curricula, more vocational training, and human resource development. *

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Turkmenistan, classes in Russian disappeared from course offerings soon after independence. Whereas the country had nearly 2,000 Russian-language schools in 1991, fewer than 100 existed in 2000, and only 50 in 2005. An additional 50 or so schools teach partially in Russian and partially in Turkmen. At the secondary level, just one Russian-language school exists. Founded in Ashgabat in 2002, during a visit to Turkmenistan by Russian president Vladimir Putin, it accommodates more than 600 students, though its official capacity is only 300. The children of personnel working at the Russian Embassy and other diplomatic missions also attend this school, which follows Russian curricula. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

School Life in Turkmenistan

School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 11 years; male: 11 years; female: 11 years (2014). Students are used to harvest and plant cotton. Sometimes they are out working in the fields from September to December and from four to six weeks in the spring.

Education is free of charge, although introduction of fees is being considered by selected institutions. Formal schooling begins with kindergarten (bagcha ) and primary school (mekdep ). School attendance is compulsory through the eighth grade. At this point, students are tested and directed into technical, continuing, and discontinuing tracks. Some students graduate to the workforce after completing the tenth grade, while others leave in the ninth grade to enter a trade or technical school. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Much of Soviet education system still in place although substantial modification took place in the 1990s to raise quality of work force. However, in the 1990s, there were virtually no textbooks is the schools. Niyazov banned all the Soviet era books and has failed to replace them.

Niyazov cut school to nine years and university to two years. The 10th grade was eliminated and college was shortened, it was said, in part so that women could finish high school and university and find a husband before the age of 20. This made it nearly impossible for Turkmen students to gain acceptance into Russian universities.

In the 1990s, although teaching continues to enjoy respect as a vocation, Turkmenistan's school system suffered from a shortage of qualified teachers. Many obstacles confronted a teacher: heavy teaching loads and long hours, including Saturdays and double shifts; wholly inadequate textbooks and instructional materials; serious shortages of paper, supplies, and equipment; low salaries; and, at times, even failure to be paid. An estimated 13 percent of schools had such serious structural defects in their physical plants that they are too dangerous to use for classes. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 2011, Turkmen authorities tightened their control over Turkmenistan's secondary schools and universities after a violent incident at Ashgabat University. Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reported: “Secondary school teachers are now required to be at work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. each school day regardless of their class hours. No reason for the new measures was given” but it may have been related to a “violent incident in the month at the Ashgabat Polytechnical Institute. A female student from the institute was killed and a second injured after a party involving three male and three female students. See Below [Source: Radio Free Europe, February 26, 2011 ^\^]

School Curriculum in Turkmenistan in the 1990s

The Turkmenistan government limited curricula by eliminating a wide variety of studies that were considered dangerous or useless. In the 1990s, the curriculum followed by schools was standardized, allowing little variation among the country's school districts. The prescribed humanities curriculum for the ninth and tenth grades places the heaviest emphasis on native language and literature, history, physics, mathematics, Turkmen or Russian language, chemistry, foreign language, world cultures, and physical education. A few elective subjects are available. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the 1990s, instruction in 77 percent of primary and general schools was in Turkmen, although the 16 percent of schools that use Russian as their primary language generally are regarded as providing a better education. Some schools also instruct in the languages of the nation's Uzbek and Kazak minorities. Especially since the adoption of Turkmen as the "state language" and English as the "second state language," the study of these two languages has gained importance in the curriculum, and adults feel pressure to learn Turkmen in special courses offered at schools or at their workplaces.

In the 2000s, schoolchildren were required to make a vow each day that bad thoughts about Niyazov are treason. Much of their time in the classroom was spent memorizing The Sayings of Turkmenbashi, singing patriotic songs and memorizing passages from the Ruhnama (“Spiritual Revival”), a rambling stream of consciousness guide to Niyazov’s philosophy, Turkmen traditions and correct behavior.

After Niyazov died The Rukhnama was slowly phased out as required reading. In 2013, Radio Free Europe reported: “In recent years, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been slowly closing the book on his predecessor's legacy, including "Rukhnama". Now it seems that this tome of spiritual and moral guidance will not make it onto this year's public-school curriculum.” [Source: Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]

Rukhnama

While Saparmurat Niyzov was president of Turkmenistan all citizens of Turkmenistan were expected to follow the moral and spirtutal principals outlined in Niyazov’s book “Rukhnama” (“Spiritual Revival” or “Book of the Soul”). The Rukhnama was required reading in all schools and mosques, even among people taking the test to get a driver’s license. Most schools and workplaces had special rooms set aside for study of the book. A mammoth mosque built in Niyazov’s home town features quotes from the Rukhnama side by side with quotes for the Koran. Some libraries have few books in them other than the Rukhnama. Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “ At Bashi’s command, “Ruhnama” is studied in all the schools of Turkmenistan; a thorough knowledge of it is still an entry requirement for colleges and universities and for advancement in the civil service. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

The “Rukhnama” (also spelled “Ruhnama”) is a rambling two-volume, stream-of-consciousness guide to Niyazov’s philosophy, Turkmen traditions, interpretations of historical events, and advise on correct behavior. Disorganized and quasi-religious, the book was compared with the Koran in Turkmenistan and was one of few books that was freely available there. More than a million copies were printed, in more than 40 languages, including Zulu and Japanese, and in Braille. When Russian translators were asked to translate it one Russian poet said “the gibbersih is impossible to translate.”

Theroux wrote: ““Ruhnama” is a farrago of memoir, Turkmen lore, potted history, dietary suggestions, Soviet-bashing, boasting, wild promises, and Turkmenbashi’s poems. He seemed to regard it both as a sort of Koran and as a how-to guide for the Turkmen people, a jingoistic pep talk. In fact, it is little more than a soporific, “chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain described “The Book of Mormon.” I read it once. Turkmenbashi would have to promise more than Heaven for me to read it two more times.”

In his confused and patchy exposition, Bashi reaches back five thousand years (or so he says). After the flood of Noah, he explains, the original ancestor of the Turkmen, Oguz Khan, emerged. Oguz’s sons and grandsons produced Turkmenistan’s twenty-four clans. The figure of Oguz is key to “Ruhnama”; his name, according to Bashi, was set upon many features of the earth and the sky. Turkmen called the Milky Way “the Oguz Arch,” and the Amu Darya River “the Oguz River,” and the constellation Taurus “the Oguz stars.” Oguz also “implemented . . . the use of the national Oguz alphabet.” “Ruhnama” might as well be subtitled “The Second Coming”: Bashi sets himself up as a reincarnation of Oguz Khan, every bit as powerful and wise—which was why he chose to name cities, hills, rivers, and streets after himself and to dedicate his life to his country.

Contents of Turkmenbashi's 'Rukhnama'

In the Rukhnama are gems of moral wisdom like “Do whatever lawful things your parents tell you to do” and goals of the country like “the main target in agriculture until 2010 is to increase production of grain and cotton.” Niyazov blamed the Soviet Union for disrespecting Turkmen, but conveniently omits his service to the Soviets as a party functionary. In the book he refers to himself in North-Korean-style as “Beloved Leader Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.” A couple of months before his death in December 2006, Niyazov said: "A person that reads 'Rukhnama' becomes smart...and after it, he will go straight to heaven."

Some representative passages from the Rukhnama: 1) Know Your Origins: Turkmenbashi dedicated a significant portion of his book to Oguz Khan, the legendary semimythological leader of the Turkmen nation. "The ancestor of the Turkmen people is Oguz Han" and "the style of our nation's culture and life originates with Oguz Han," he said. 2) Reading Makes You Smart: If you keep up with your reading you will eventually be seen as a practitioner of the sciences. Niyazov’s message to the young: "Today's Turkmen, you will be seen as scientists if you keep reading." 3) Cosmic Portal "Rukhnama" was once promoted by the Turkmen state as being equal to Islam's holy book, the Koran. But it seems it was also a kind of portal. "'Rukhnama' must be the center of this universe," Turkmenbashi admonished. [Source: Deana Kjuka, Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]

4) Like Nation, Nations Will Like: Despite the poetic and sometimes incoherent prose of "Rukhnama," Niyazov did not stray from giving others a lesson in diplomacy and devotion to one's country. "If everybody likes their own nation, then the nations will like each other," he concludes. 5) Solid Foundation: Philosophical, abstract, and difficult-to-grasp ideas are uniting themes throughout "Rukhnama," but most dictionaries would disagree with Niyazov's definition of a nation. "Nation is the transformation of human groups in the context of certain spiritual foundations," he wrote. "A nation is shaped materially according to these spiritual foundations."

6) Reinventing The Wheel: Writing a book that strings "the past, present, and future on a single rope" is no easy task. So who would notice a few facts that border on the improbable? This may explain why the father of the Turkmen nation boldly stated that the Turkmen people invented white wheat, mechanical robots, and the wheel. 7) The Apple Of His Eye: Niyazov was obsessed with Turkmenistan's famous horse breed, the Akhal-Teke. Niyazov's writing on the Akhal-Teke is quite enamored. "I caress his head. I comb his mane. I look into his eyes that are like apples." 8) One sentence taken from "Rukhnama's" fifth section, "The Spiritual World of the Turkmen," aptly encapsulates the propagandistic authoritarian rule of Niyazov. "Let me see what I've done for you in your smiling faces!" 10) Devotion To The Motherland: "Rukhnama" includes seven poems that highlight the glory of being Turkmen. Perhaps the English translation does not do their meaning justice, but this stanza gives you an idea of their devotion to the Motherland:Oh my crazy soul! Conceiving wishes and peace I find in my Motherland, / Determination, learning, diligence, fame, glory, I find in my Motherland,/ The winter over the raging spring I find in my Motherland.”

Close inspection by a contributor to Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service, also a historian, ago revealed that the "Rukhnama" contains more than 70 pages of material taken word-for-word from Clifford E. Bosworth's "The New Islamic Dynasties." [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, August 16, 2011]

Turkish Islamic Schools in Turkmenistan

In the 1990s political Islam entered Turkmenistan by way of Turkey. A group led by a Turkish missionary named Fetullah Gulen opened up 14 Turkmen-Turk magnet schools in the country. The schools had commuters, teachers trained in Turkey and much better facilities than local schools. [Source: Ilan Greensburg, New York Times, January 5, 2003]

The journalist Ilan Greensburg visited done of these schools and was welcomed by children singing the Beatles Yesterday and turning to each other and applauding. Greensburg wrote in the New York Times, “Although these schools are financed with Turkish money and the classes are taught mostly by Turkish teachers, the classroom walls are covered with aphorisms taken from the Ruhnama (albeit in English), and a shrine to the president’s book takes center stage on the school’s lobby.”

“The schools also, very covertly, proselytize their version of militant Islam, which includes advocating the need for Islamic law.” One graduate of a Turkmen-Turk school told the New York Times. “Being religious wasn’t compulsory, but it was coerced. After a couple of months boys stopped looking at girls. I always tried to argue with their views, to not be a zombie about things. But they wanted to pray five times a day, and they noticed who didn’t. People would talk about making the country Islamic.”

Higher Education in Turkmenistan

After completing secondary school, students may continue their education at one of the dozens of specialized institutes or at Turkmenistan State University in Ashgabat. Admittance into higher education institutions often is extremely competitive, and personal connections and bribes may play a role in gaining entry and later advancement. Prospective students must pass a lengthy, pressure-packed entrance examination. Like all the other tests and evaluations in the educational system, this examination consists of both written and oral parts. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the 1990s, completion of a course of study in higher institutions sometimes took up to five years. Attempts were made to decrease the number of years one must study so that young women could finish their higher education by their twentieth or twenty-first birthday, by which time they were expected to be married. Graduate study was an option at Ashgabat University or in one of the Academy of Science's research institutes. *

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Turkmenistan, all institutions of higher learning have operated exclusively in the Turkmen language since 2001, and Russianspeaking professors not able to prove their knowledge of Turkmen have been discharged... Since Niyazov’s death in December 2006, the situation seems to have evolved. The new government has once again approved the teaching of the Russian language in all primary, secondary, and university curricula. It will be difficult, however, for the new regime to improve the situation, because it faces a lack of Russianlanguage textbooks and qualified teachers.^^ [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

Universities in Turkmenistan

The Council of Higher Education, created in the mid 1990s, supervises Turkmenistan State University, the republic's institutes, and its pedagogical institutes. These institutes are located in Ashgabat, with the exception of a pedagogical institute in Chärjew. These higher education institutions served 41,700 students in 1991, of which 8,000 were enrolled in the state university. Some institutes that train professionals for specific sectors of the national economy fall under the aegis of the relevant ministries. An education committee also functions under the president of the republic.

Some 16 institutions of higher learning were operating in the early 2000s, but the government has limited access to higher education by eliminating free tuition (in 2003) and by requiring ethnic background checks on applicants. Instructors in higher education must have degrees from institutions in Turkmenistan. Bribes often are necessary to enter a university.[Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

In the early 2000s, there were only 3,000 places in Turkmenistan colleges and universities. This was less than half the number in the Soviet period. Virtually no higher degrees were granted. Admission was determined by bribes rather than test scores. Students had to recite Niyazov’s official biography before every exam. Turkmenistan’s universities were in such a sorry state that they were for all intents and purposes decredentialized by every other nation in the world.

The University of Central Asia, See Tajikistan

Tight Restrictions on Turkmenistan University Students

In 2011, Turkmen authorities tightened their control over Turkmenistan's secondary schools and universities after a violent incident at Ashgabat University. Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reported: “Secondary school teachers are now required to be at work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. each school day regardless of their class hours. University students are not to leave the university premises before 6 p.m. Those who live in dormitories must be in bed before 11 p.m. and are not permitted to do their homework after that time. [Source: Radio Free Europe, February 26, 2011 ^\^]

“No reason for the new measures was given. It is unclear whether they are political, possibly in response to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, or intended to prevent the repetition of a violent incident earlier this month at the Ashgabat Polytechnical Institute. A female student from the institute was killed and a second injured after a party involving three male and three female students. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sacked the deputy prime minister responsible for science and education along with several senior members of the institute's staff after the incident. ^\^

“Meanwhile, two pop singers, one of whom is a university student, were arrested after their Western-style video was played on the Turkish music TV channel TBM. Maksat Kakabaev and Murat Owezov were first summoned by the Culture and Broadcasting Ministry and warned not to appear again in foreign media. But they were later detained by national security officials. It is not clear what charges, if any, have been brought against them.Kakabaev is in the Yashlyk detention center, 40 kilometers east of Ashgabat. He has reportedly been beaten. Owezov has been exiled to the Hanghouz district of Mary Province. Students at Turkmen colleges and universities are not allowed to appear in foreign media, leave the country on vacation, drive a car, or use mobile phones on university premises.” ^\^

Recognizing Philosophy in Turkmenistan

Christopher Schwartz of Radio Free Europe wrote: “ In Turkmenistan philosophy is more than welcomed by the authorities -- so long as it's dead. Magtymguly, one of the Turkic language zone's first prominent thinkers to write in the vernacular, was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant. Although the one preferred lyrics and the other scientific prose, there's a lot of resonance between them. For example, Kant is most famous for distinguishing between “ends” and “means” and for developing the categorical imperative. If you've ever been in the throes of a heated ethical argument and found yourself possessed by talk of doing something “in principle” or “for its own sake,” it's Kant who's speaking through you. [Source: Christopher Schwartz, Radio Free Europe, February 19, 2011 =|=]

“There's a wide gulf between the high ideals of the Turkmen Constitution, which evince numerous human rights and freedoms, and the government's actual repressive practice -- a philosopher might argue that the authorities have a peculiar interpretation of their own principles.” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov established a new "Journal of World Literature" intended to “perpetuate the names of outstanding thinkers, who told about the spiritual world outlook of our people and their heroic past to the world and enhancing their fame are the priorities in our country” as well as to introduce its Turkmen readership to the intellectual traditions of other nations. Accordingly, its scope of thinkers is ambitious, stretching from Jalaladin Rumi to Alexander Pushkin. =|=

“Yet, one immediately worries about the interpretations the new journal shall promote. If philosophy is ultimately about unfettered debate -- “thought for its own sake,” as it were -- then these journals are an exercise in sophistry: all these philosophers have long passed on and any scholarly research done on them must pass ideological muster with the Turkmen authorities.” The people “of Turkmenistan cannot stand up for what they truly believe. Instead, their voices are converted into tools of the regime. As Kant would say, that reduces philosophy to a means and undermines the very definition of speculative inquiry -- a truly sinister new depth of Niyazov's totalitarian legacy.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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