Marifat Abdullaeva

There follows, also in a shortened form, a report on the situation in Central Asian countries, where the emphasis of education programmes is not on literacy but principally on initial and continuing training in the areas of vocational education, languages, new technologies, etc.. Marifat Abdullaeva has 15 years of experience in teaching statistics, demography and health care management in the State Medical University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and has conducted more than 300 training courses and seminars in adult education.

Review of Central Asian Countries

Review of Central Asian countries

By the end of the 90's Central Asian countries had a sustainable and effective system of education formed during the long existence of the Soviet Union. The system had a common structure for all Soviet republics and it was managed centrally. It is necessary to note that the USSR's education system was able to reach a high level of coverage of almost all the adult population of the republics. The level of literacy of the adult population was about 96-100%. According to 1989 USSR census data the number of people having incomplete secondary, secondary, secondary special and higher education in Central Asian countries was as follows:

Table 1: Number of people having education above incomplete secondary education (% of the total population above 15)

(% of the population above 15)
Incomplete higher
special dary spezial
spezi ondary
Incomplete secondary

Note: the proportion of people having incomplete secondary education includes the number of persons having primary education according to the existing Soviet educational system and correspondingly these indices are taken into account while calculating the final index

Thus, out of the persons over 15 having above incomplete secondary education every 13th (Tajikistan) and every 7th (Armenia) had higher education; and every 2nd (in almost all countries) - secondary or secondary special education.

Positive Results

Such good results were achieved due to the following advantages of the education system in these countries

  1. Assured accessibility of school education to almost every citizen from the point of view of:
    • Proximity to the place of residence: virtually every village had an elementary or secondary school. The most remote and small villages had branches. Sometimes student residents of these villages were provided with transport to attend school if the school was located in another village.
    • Financial potential of families: All levels of education from elementary to higher and to post-graduate were free. In most cases textbooks for students were also provided for free. Studying on refresher courses was systematic and mandatory.
    • Provision of teaching staff: Availability of sufficient schools for training teachers, strict system of assignment of young specialists to schools with a shortage of teachers, where they were required to work for 3 years, and an incentive system for rural teachers contributed to provision of even the most remote villages with teaching personnel.
    • Education in native language: In every republic there were schools were education was conducted in the national language. Also ethnic minorities living in these countries had a chance to study in their native language. Considering that the system of education in the USSR was common, schools for ethnic majorities were provided with textbooks by neighbouring republics where that language was the language of a national majority.
    • Education of people with disabilities: There were special boarding schools for children with disabilities. The education took into account the physical and mental health of students and was conducted considering their specific character of perception and assimilation of teaching materials.
  2. Common requirements for curriculum and programs
  3. Mechanism for management of the education system
  4. Stable funding
  5. Good image of teachers and prestige of this profession among the population
  6. Availability of a developed network of pre-school institutions especially in urban areas


Besides positive factors, by the 90's the system of education in Central Asian countries also had problems:

  1. Insufficient although stable funding of the education system:

    Many schools did not have modern equipment, school buildings did not always meet requirements, teachers' salaries were not high.
  2. Strict centralized development of educational programs that did not consider the local context.
  3. Decrease in teaching of the history of the indigenous population
  4. Pronounced politicization of the liberal arts
  5. An education system developed for the average student, not taking into account the personality of students.
  6. Decrease in availability of education for people with disabilities who did not attend boarding schools, i.e. who lived with their families.
  7. Conservatism and rigidity of the education system

The end of the 90's was marked by an important historic event - the disintegration of the USSR, and each Central Asian country selected its own way of development. Independent states were formed following different models and the education system of every state underwent significant changes under the influence of different factors that had an impact on the level and quality of literacy. Change in the way of life and abrupt transfer to the market economy showed huge the inconsistency of the quality of education of adults. Despite the fact that every adult residing in Central Asian countries had reading and writing skills (in accordance with the accepted definition of literacy by UNESCO, p.7), the main problem for them was lack of adaptation skills, perception of the new conditions of life and the need to acquire new knowledge and skills.

The first and foremost problem for the adult population of Central Asian countries was so-called functional illiteracy. That is why the good indices of the level of literacy of the adult population for the last 10 years indicated in the following table should not be seen as reassuring:

Table 2: Comparative table of coefficient of the level of literacy of the population of Central Asian countries



Some of the main factors influencing the problem of the quality of education and leading to a high level of functional illiteracy among the adult population of Central Asian countries are the following:

  1. Strong correlation of education with the Soviet economic structure,
    i.e. centralized planning system and neglect of the laws of market relations. After disintegration of the USSR many occupations became non-competitive due to the different level of development of specific countries, and a significant number of specialists were unclaimed in the labor market, resulting in exposure of their insufficient functional literacy.
  2. Redistribution of power during initial years of independence:
    the forming of a new governing elite in Central Asian countries did not allow for solving problems of education in full. Only after stable State machinery was created in Central Asian countries did the situation with the education system begin to improve gradually.
  3. Excessive eagerness of government structures to improve the status of the national language but the basis for successful implementation of the project was not prepared. By the end of the 90's almost every state (with the exception of Kazakhstan) made an effort to impart the status of state language to the national one. The sudden transfer from extensive use of the Russian language to the national one did not have only positive effects. The status of the national language increased as well as its importance, and the self-consciousness of the nations of Central Asian countries improved, but on the other hand
    • The majority of the adult population that had received education and had work experience using Russian language for a short period of time became relatively (functionally) illiterate. Only a small part of the population was able to adapt to similar work in the national language in Central Asian countries. Perhaps, the situation was different in Transcaucasia.
    • The outflow of the Russian-speaking population increased. This part of the population was represented by highly professional specialists in different fields. Many of these people represent a part of the indigenous population who knew Russian language more but did not have enough native language skills. After the law was adopted these people lost prospects of a good career for themselves and their children. Even if they learned the national language, that could not change the opinion of many of them about the possible threat of inequality in future. The outflow of that part of the population from the countries that suffered during civil unrest was faster resulting in a decrease in the number of highly skilled professionals.
    • Limitation of the national languages in all areas of life of society in the former Soviet republics had resulted in slowing down the development of the language. As a result the development of national languages did not have a sufficient base - developed specialized terminology, technical means, specialist translators, educational and methodological materials, sufficient funding, etc. for a quick replacement of Russian language in all areas of social life. That is why rapid transfer to training in the national language resulted in deterioration of the quality of training of specialists in all countries. Transfer to the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan showed that change of the alphabet also contributes to simultaneous occurrence of a huge group of relatively "illiterate" adults for a specific period of time. According to the law adopted in Tajikistan it was planned to transfer to Arabic script but due to the lack of funds and opportunities the Cyrillic alphabet is still used. Kyrgyzstan made a decision to return to the Russian language the status of the state language.
    • Many Central Asian countries (with the exception of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) are small population-wise and that means that the range of functioning of national languages is not big. Transfer to education in the national language assumes professional activities only within the range of functioning of that language. At present there is not sufficient motivation and opportunities to study (lack of highly skilled professionals and of a language environment), and the predominant languages are now English and Russian - in the republics of the former USSR. The existing situation limits opportunities to find a job outside the native country. People who received training in the national language and who do not know other languages on a professional level do not have global prospects. All that forms a new type of so-called "relative" illiteracy. The notion "relative illiteracy" means impossibility of using knowledge and skills outside the range of functioning of the national language.

Situation analysis has shown three main problems of literacy for the population besides lack of funding in Central Asian countries:

  • Unsatisfied access to education
  • Gender imbalance in education
  • Unsatisfactory quality of education

Unequal access to education exists in all Central Asian countries (there is no information regarding Turkmenistan). First of all this group includes the rural population, people without citizenship (refugees, migrants), IDPs and children with disabilities. Wars in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan resulted in destruction of education infrastructure, outflow of qualified specialists, establishment of camps for IDPs and refugees. As these groups of population lived in camps, suffered from extreme poverty, vulnerability and lack of elementary conditions for education in the native language they were often excluded from education.

Limitation of access to education of children with disabilities has special significance; especially those children who live with their families but not at specialized institutions. That happens because children with physical disabilities do not have technical conditions for attending ordinary secondary schools, including lack of special access for persons using wheelchairs, lack of special facilities, etc.

But besides, it also depends on the low level of cultural perception of children with disabilities in the society members by health child dren and teachers. The society has stereotypes of non-perception of children with disabilities in the society of physically health children. Families with children with disabilities hide this fact and as a result the child suffers from the lack of normal access to education, communication and development. The society is not tolerant towards children with disabilities and does not treat them equally. Virtually no one, neither school nor family, nor society makes efforts to change stereotypes regarding this group of population.


Some years ago in one of the northern cities of Tajikistan the nongovernmental organization which works with disabled children, adopted a decision to make a festival. They organized transportation of the disabled children to a concert, so that they could like the others to listen to their favourite performers. Their arrival caused huge indignation from the adults, which was a heavy blow for the disabled children. Many children openly demonstrated their antipathy and adults considered the festival as failed as they had to look at the disabled children. That is why it is very important to breed the sense of respect and equality for children with limited possibilities, and in this regard a lot depends on the employees of the education system, parents and the society itself.

Gender disbalance in educational aspect takes place almost in all countries. It is noted that while in such countries as Armenia the disbalance is in favor of girls, in the republics like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan the situation is vice versa, and the level of girls' education is low. In the first place the reason is the early involvement of boys in maintaining families, and in the second place it is connected with the low education prestige among the girls early marriage and the religious code. A part of the population prefers to provide girls with religious education via private lessons conduced by religious people. Another reason of gender disbalance gender roles in the ingrained concept about the gender roles in the society, which are fixed through the school education due to the stable stereotype of the teachers towards this issue.

Unsatisfactory quality of education is the problem for all countries under analysis without any exception:

  • low proportion of persons who manage to pass the tests,
  • the education minimum is not covered due to the lack of teaching the necessary lessons.

Many school graduates do not have the skills of independent creative thinking. Countrywide transfer to the education in local languages with the weak material base and deficit of education materials (both in quality and quantity) lead to the decline of training standards in schools as well as in a higher education establishments.

The above mentioned problems relate to a complex of factors which could be grouped as follows:

  • Funding of education
    Lack of funding system is noted in all countries. It is the problem which relates to the weak material and technical base of education establishments, many schools requiring capital renovation; they have no heating system, electricity, water. In all places there is poor provision of education facilities, especially in the local languages considering the modern requirements for education. Low quality of training of specialists as a result of the unconformity of the Universities' technical facilities to the required standards. Low salary level of teachers.
  • Decline in living standards and greater social marginalization
    Unequal access to education for low-level families, who mainly live in rural areas, lack of funds for purchasing education articles, shoes, clothes; necessity to use children's labor in order to survive. Significant share of these families' budget in these countries (60% and more) is spent on food. Purchasing of the other required items is limited. Thus, many children from these families who do not attend school said that absence of clothes is the main reason - 23%-38,8% cases (Tajikistan).
  • Consequence of local and global armed action
    These problems exist in the countries which have survived a military contest. These are Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In these countries during the military actions there was a direct threat to the life of students, and later there were the refugee camps and internally displaced persons. The problems with registration, availability of the required documents and weak points of the education system itself do not provide this group of population with qualitative education. Thus in Tajikistan, in the capital the attendance at school is low in comparison with the other regions (77% against 85%). This is connected with the huge flow of internally displaced persons to the capital as a result of the civil contest and this cohort does not have opportunity to train their children at school due to their poverty.
  • The degree of corruption
    Almost all the countries point to illegal fees at the educational establishments, despite the guarantee of free basic education. Many poor families say that their children do not attend the school due to this reason. It is significant for the republics with the high level of fertility and high level of big families. The fees for each child for the budget of such families is a huge burden. The system of fees and illegal payments exists in all levels of education starting from the preschool up to higher level establishments.
  • Management of the education system
    Unconformity of the management system to the modern requirements and imperfect level of the management staff on the issue of modern management as well as the lack involvement of civil society resources in management are also an obstacle for providing qualitaty education to the population
  • traditions and life style
    The gender disbalance and low education level among women and girls in some degree depends on public opinion, traditions and life style. Currently, especially in rural areas, there is less education of girls. This depends on the life style, when a family itself connects welfare with the male. That is why when there is a choice of who will continue education the preference is given to boys. Girls in any case will get married and will live in another family and sons have to support parents in future. Besides, especially in rural areas the demand for educated women is declining. Currently in some countries of the region there is a tendency to form a stereotype among the young and relatively educated men, prohibiting wives to work, and there are more and more cases when husbands require their wives to wear hijab and seldom be out of the home.

The governments of the Central Asian countries are at present making an attempt to improve the situation in the sphere of education via the development of effective and financially viable education reforms. Almost all the states already have programs of education reforms oriented towards solving priority problems of literacy.

As was mentioned above, there are three main problems in the area of adults' education. Increasingly unequal access to education is being solved by the state through the following ways:

In Azerbaijan: increase the access to free textbooks; increase the number of free places for the poor (less burden on the family budget and more educational opportunity for the children from these families)

In Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, within the Strategy Document on poverty alleviation it is envisaged to establish a basis to involve children from the vulnerable families in school and vocational education.

In Uzbekistan they are working on full access to the system of 12 years of school education. Increasingly unequal access according to income level is considered while a strategy is being developed to increase the life standard of the population.

There are other attempts to improve this issue. Many non-governmental national and international organizations are having an influence on the improvement of access for separate levels of population. For example, ACTED in Tajikistan, Kyrgizstan and Uzbekistan implements the program of school feeding in the border districts of Fergana valley, which fosters the significant growth of school attendance in the program implementation areas. UNICEF and Save the Children Fund (UK) support the projects oriented on disabled children in such countries as Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. OSI activity in the Central Asian countries has a row of educational programs which include provision of schools, universities and libraries with the modern textbooks; support in preparation and publication of up-to-date books for the particular region, replenishment of library funds and training of library specialists and many other issues.

Many reforms imply the solution of the other important task - provision qualitaty education. Solving of this task depends on the condition of the education system itself, availability of the high level professionals, funding, improvement of the system etc. There are two approaches to improving the issue:

  • Performance of the adequate reforms according to national programs and strategies (both independent and supported by international institutes) to improve formal education considering priority problems with the quality of education
  • Implementation of projects by non-governmental and international organizations to provide non-formal education for the various groups of population

Data from studies shows that almost all the countries suggest making efforts for the improvement of the education system and settlement of the specific education problems. Reforms conducted by the state are mainly oriented towards the improvement of the formal education system. The main problems with implementing reform may include:

  • Lack of funds
  • Deficit of qualified specialists
  • Low quality of management of the education system
  • Low participation of citizens in the education reform

The modern concept of functional adult literacy is possession of the system of knowledge and skills which allow people to use them for maximum adaptation in a fast changing world and achievement of success in survival.

To improve the existing situation the most suitable and proved step is to introduce the understanding by responsible officials and the people themselves of the necessity of lifelong learning. In solving this issue a special role is given to formal and informal education.

As was mentioned earlier, while the majority of national reform in the education area is oriented towards the improvement of the formal education, in all countries of the Central Asia region the civil society is actively involved in the process of improvement of the non-formal education.

Some non-governmental development organizations over the ten years, with the support of international donors (USAID, Counterpart Consortium, OSI - Soros Fund, International Labor Organization, Eurasia Fund, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, Asian Development Bank, WHO, UNFPA, IOM, INTRAC, World Bank, Mercy Corps, TASIS,OSCE, IIZ/DW, Friedrich Ebert Fund, ACCELS, Embassy of USA, Switzerland, Norway) have conducted huge educational activities oriented towards elimination of gaps in the Soviet education system, namely: independent problem-solving skills, human rights, entrepreneur skills and basic knowledge of how to survive in market conditions.

Apart from that, an important aspect of NGO activity is the issues of gender education, prevention of violence against women, vocational training and re-training of migrants and others. Activity of such organizations in cities and remote villages allows stereotypes to change and increased opportunities for better life in the communities.

Differences between the formal and non-formal forms of education of adults

formal sector of education
non-formal sector of education
  • Stable funding
  • Orientation to the request of big organizations and enterprises
  • Standard educational programs which change very rally
  • Fixed price for education, set centrally
  • Relatively good but ineffectively used material and technical basis
  • Absence of close relations with the clients of education of educational services
  • Constant staff of teachers
  • Motivation of audience is not considered enough
  • Marketing methods are not used
  • Privileges and state subsidies
  • Administratively limited access to international donors' grants
  • Quality of education does not influence the organization's activity
  • There is no need to worry about the number of learners
  • Relatively big potential for internal development
  • Deficient interest in cooperation
  • Instability and unreliable funding
  • Orientation to the request of small organizations and enterprises
  • Quick adaptation of the educational products to the users' needs
  • Flexible prices and opportunity to set them independently
  • Absence of separate educational base
  • Closer relations with the clients of educational services
  • Rotation opportunity to attract the best trainers and consultants
  • Training supposes the motivation of learners
  • Marketing is the main method to promote the educational services
  • No privileges and access to state grants and subsidies
  • Huge access to grants from international donors
  • Quality of education directly impacts on the future opportunities
  • Necessity to fight for and win clients
  • Internal development opportunities are restricted
  • High interest in cooperation

Source: Angragogical research in Central Asia countries, Center of sociological research TAHLI, ordered by the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education, page 27

An example of such activity is the cooperation of local non-governmental organizations, state structures of the Central Asia countries and the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association. The activity of this organization is concentrated on basic education and democratization. Special attention is paid to poverty alleviation, advocacy of the ideas «selfhelp» and increasing the women's role in the society. The main priorities in its activity in Central Asia are:

  • Assistance to unemployed and socially undefended levels of population in finding job opportunities and obtaining an occupation
  • Facilitation and practical support for establishment and intensification of institutional development in adult education
  • Lobbying and popularization of adult education ideas among the interested parties
  • Involvement of the Central Asian countries in international discussions on the issue of «lifelong learning»

This organization established in Kyrgizstan eight centers for adult education, combined in a unified net, which is unique itself.

In Tajikistan for the last two years of partnership there were 60 courses and above 800 persons were trained; mainly they are representatives of the vulnerable level of population.

In Uzbekistan this organization plans cooperation with the state organizations, such as the Ministry of Higher and Secondary/Vocational education, Ministry of Labor and Employment, and national NGOs.

Enlargement of cooperation with this Institute is mutually beneficial for all the Central Asian countries, as it is directly connected with the improvement of the situation of adult education in the region.

In settlement of the third problem - resolution of the gender disbalance - we may note the joint efforts of the state and non-governmental bodies. Thus, in Tajikistan there was adopted a special Presidential Decree on provision of quotas for higher education of girls from the remote areas. Such organizations as OSI Soros Fund, UNIFEM, UNFPA, GAA and others, which are operating in many Central Asian countries, have a gender component in their activity, which also helps to alleviate the gender problem in the region.

Thus, adult education in the Central Asian countries despite the population literacy figures has a number of problems, where the most vital are decline of the education quality and increasing of inequality of access to qualitaty education for some categories of population.

The main factors which foster the decline of education quality are: insufficient funding of the education system, reduction of the number of qualified specialists, decrease of the material and technical basis and deficit of modern textbooks, especially in the national languages. The accelerated transfer to education in the local languages without the corresponding basis leads to the decrease of education standards. One of the examples of poor quality education is the high level of functional illiteracy among the adult population.

Other factors are poverty, especially in rural areas, forming of groups of refugees and IDPs as a result of local conflicts, and lack of an adequate physical basis of education which creates the conditions for disabled people to attend schools, combined with increasing of the inequality in education access.

One important aspect is social stereotypes, when the joint education of healthy children and disabled children is considered unacceptable and a painful situation for the healthy children. Girls' education is decreasing in all the region (Armenia is an exception), the image of educated girls especially in rural areas is declining and the tendency of early marriage increasing.

The governments of the Central Asian countries are taking various measures to reform the education system in order to improve the situation in this sector. Many of them have adopted some important government documents, implying the gradual improvement of the education in their countries.

It should be noted that state measures in general are oriented towards improvement of formal education, and the efforts of many international and non-governmental local organizations are concentrated on non-formal education.

It should be mentioned that the success of the reform in each Central Asian country will depend on such factors as sources of funding, increasing the quality of the education management system and high interest from the party of government to achieve real transformations in education.


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