Systemic Crises and the Prospects for Reform in Central Asian Education
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Mark Johnson, a Professor of History at Colorado College, discussed many of the current obstacles to Central Asian education reform. According to Johnson, many of the legacies of the Soviet educational system continue to limit education reform in Central Asia. Johnson explained the different patterns of reform that have occurred in Central Asia, and stressed the importance of international assistance programs. He concluded by addressing several of the key issues for successful reform.
Johnson noted that globalization has had a significant impact in the global educational development. He stated that while there are greater benefits to new information technologies and better access to "globalized knowledge", many in Central Asia are facing conditions of "digital divide" and a growing "knowledge gap" due to limited resources. He stressed the need for an "autonomous, vital professional capacity to articulate coherent national educational policies and to effectively implement complex reforms."
According to Johnson, a key problem for education in Central Asia is the "weak and disarticulated professional networks in education." He explained that this weakness is compounded by many of the legacies of the Soviet educational system. He contended that although the Soviet regime established a solid infrastructure for systemic reform, the development of Central Asian educational institutions lagged behind other regions. Johnson explained that the highly bureaucratized system was heavily dependent on federal subsidies, and relied on exchanges with universities in Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv and other regional centers for advanced research and post-graduate training. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the contacts and exchanges stopped, weakening the network of professional educators.
Johnson discussed some of the factors that limit education reform in Central Asia. He argued that there is a crisis at all levels of education, especially in preschool and early childhood education; vocational and professional education and gender equality. He noted that a "brain drain" of the most talented students is occurring because many have left the region for positions abroad. Johnson contended that the "unregulated privatization" of educational facilities and property, and administrative corruption also hinder systemic reform. He also noted that while international assistance programs are vitally important to sustaining the current educational systems in the region, international exchange programs have inadvertently contributed to the brain drain of qualified scholars.
Johnson explained that there is a varied pattern of reform across the countries of Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, there is great potential given the country's vast energy resources, but corruption and nepotism have taken resources away from educational reform. Johnson stated that educators in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan originally attempted to maintain the Soviet-style system, but after such attempts failed, leaders decided to reduce the system back to nine years of basic education. He noted that education proponents in these countries also face political and ideological pressures as well as corruption and lack of funding. In the Kyrgyz Republic, however, a supportive and relatively innovative policy environment has developed which has generated successful reform. According to Johnson, the emergence of universities such as the American University of Central Asia, and the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University, illustrate that there is potential for the development of higher education in Bishkek.
Johnson offered several suggestions that might better integrate systemic reform. He argued that the "integrity of national educational systems and mobility within those systems can only be sustained with improved domestic policy capacity." He stressed the need to tie the issues of gender and social inequality to poverty alleviation as well as address ethnic discrimination. According to Johnson, educational leaders need to foster better cooperation and must encourage viable indigenous traditions of reform and modernization. He concluded that there must be better coordination and continued funding of international assistance programs and leaders from the United States, Europe, Turkey, Russia, Iran and China should recognize their common interest in the "regional stability and development of Central Asia."