Uzbekistan is considering reforms to higher education but is warning they won't be free.
Students hail a taxi near the Nizami-Tashkent State Pedagogical University in this 2011 photo. Uzbekistan is planning to improve its higher education. [Shakar Saadi file photo]
At a cabinet session in September, officials resumed their periodic discussion of initiatives to improve higher education. They resolved to work on upgrading teaching aids and laboratories and other educational facilities and also to keep offering courses for upgrading teachers' skills.
Former ministry of education employee Salim Ruzoli, who currently is retired but watches the system closely, says there are three categories of improvements: quality of facilities, quality of teaching and quality of textbooks and other teaching materials.
The upgrade of the facilities is an unavoidable measure, because many facilities lack basic needs – air conditioning, heating, windows, furniture, bathrooms, he said.
"This is a necessary change, because we can't expect a student to do a good job in a cold room with wracked furniture and broken glass in the windows," Ruzoli said. "The government, however, is taking this part of the expenses on its shoulders, as these are necessities."
To improve the quality of teaching, the universities are planning to send their personnel abroad to get more experience, spend more resources on evaluating the teachers, host teachers' conferences, etc.
Raising teachers' salaries would also be one of the points, Ruzoli said. "If we want teachers to do their best in class, we should make sure they are rewarded appropriately and have all the opportunities to improve their skills."
The third category will involve improving textbooks, creating online applications, etc. Many Uzbek textbooks have errors in them (e.g. historical textbooks have wrong facts, math exercise books have wrong exercises) that need to be fixed and also brought in line with the international levels, he said.
As an example, he cited outdated teaching materials in informatics. "The IT technology is going at a 100 kilometres per hour and we can't ignore that; it is time to adjust our textbooks," Ruzoli said. "Same goes for foreign languages, biotechnology and medical school. We need to make sure our graduates can compete with the rest of the world."
Reform comes with a price tag, though. Although costs are not yet defined, in most of the areas the price would be split between the universities and the government.
Students and their parents already are feeling the pinch. In September, tuition fees rose by 26% on average, and a year earlier they rose by 10%.
The Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education, in an early-October statement, justified the higher rates.
"The country's new conditions of development, transition to a market economy, and a demographic situation where 42% of the population is 17 or younger, made it necessary to find new ways to improve education," Minister of Higher and Secondary Special Education Bakhodir Khodiyev said.
Still, the increase upset some parents. "It's impossible to understand why the state ... would make ordinary citizens bear the cost of raising the quality of education," said Nafisa Khasanova of Tashkent, whose daughter attends the Uzbekistan State University of World Languages. "Why should parents ... have to pay more and more every year?"
But other parents are willing to pay higher prices, provided the quality improvements are there.
"My son hopes to enter a master's degree programme in Europe, so he is 'cramming' English. We've hired a private tutor because the university's training is inadequate," said Ikrom Bakhodyrov, a Tashkent resident whose son is majoring in international law, one of the costliest departments at Tashkent State University.
"I would like to see quality in practice. Let us hope we do; then I won't mind paying," Bakhodyrov said. "After all, although 26% looks like a frightening increase, it really amounts only to a few hundred dollars a year."
Inflation compounds cost
Inflation is also driving up the cost of maintaining buildings and of supplying water, heat and electricity, university administrators said.
"These are all expenses that mere words ... won't pay for," Khusan Kamparov, vice-rector of the Tashkent Pharmaceutical Institute, said. "You need money."
Various educational reforms and evolution of Uzbek life have changed the conditions under which higher education functions, political scientist and economist Alisher Narziyev said.
"Uzbekistan, after being pre-occupied with the creation of high-quality universities, is gradually realising that what matters in higher education is quality, not the number of schools," he said. "It's noticeably shifting its [academic] emphasis to university education."
Educational reform in Uzbekistan will continue, Khodiyev said. While the government plans to allocate more funds, parents will have to share some of the burden.