Around half of Central Asia's population is under 30 years old.  This means the demand for education is high.  Having a university diploma is associated with a chance for a better-paying, white-collar job.

An article by Bermet Talant, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan who is currently based in Sydney, notes that the region inherited its public higher education system from the Soviet era.  A diverse range of privately owned universities emerged during the independence years.  Some of them reportedly offer quality Western-style education, although their tuition fees can be too expensive for most ordinary Central Asians. Some have been nothing more than "diploma factories" used to obtain degrees rather than knowledge.

Across the region, universities are struggling with funding and shortages of academic staff.  This, along with high unemployment and low wages, forces young people to go abroad for education and work.

Moreover, professions that are popular with students do not necessarily match the needs of the labor market.

On August 4, Bermet Talant spoke with Nafisabonu Urinkhojayeva, a university student in Tajikistan, and Niginakhon Saida, a private university instructor from Uzbekistan, about the quality of higher education in their countries, competition for places at universities, and brain drain.

Nafisabonu noted that before she enrolled into her university, she was offered a presidential quota to study for free.

“But I would have to work for three years in Tajikistan after graduation.  I didn't know what kind of job [the government] would provide me with in the future. Would I like it or not?  They find a job for you, and you have to work there. That is why I chose to pay for my studies.  As soon as I finish, I will go to study abroad,” said Nafisabonu.  “I wish we could choose our classes ourselves, maybe, to choose our professors.  Also, I wish we had a better student life in our university.”

As far as the private university instructor from Uzbekistan is concerned, she said she was still struggling to find her own style of teaching.

“I try to have more student-oriented classes where I would like them to engage more in discussion and learn from each other.  But it's hard to dismantle this class hierarchy where they see a teacher as someone with power,” said Ms. Saida.  “They expect you to tell them what to do. This is one thing I struggle with.”

According to her, she also tries to get rid of all tests and other [assignments] where it would require memorizing skills and focus on writing papers instead, which would involve critical thinking and analysis.

“But what I observe is that schools don't prepare students for these kinds of tasks.  Every semester, I dedicate one class to teach students how to cite, paraphrase, avoid plagiarism, etc. Because in their mind, if they dug it out on the Internet and found some materials, it's their work,” she said.

She believes that in Uzbekistan the hardest part of getting a higher education is the entrance exam.

“As long as you keep going to university, you keep paying fees, you will graduate. It doesn't matter whether you are studying well,” said the instructor.  “When I was graduating, I taught at my public university as part of an internship.  I had to teach 30 students who were majoring in English.  I saw that half of the class could not speak any English.  So I believe that entrance exams should be not that difficult, but studying should be harder and more demanding."

It is to be noted that education in Tajikistan is not so good.   While the official literacy rate in Tajikistan is 98%, the poor quality of education since 1991 has reduced the skill level of younger people.  Although education is compulsory, many children fail to attend because of economic needs and security concerns in some regions.

The situation of higher education in Tajikistan has changed radically since independence.  The total number of institutions of higher education throughout the country has grown from 13 in 1991 to 30 in 2012.

Higher education in Tajikistan faces numerous problems.  One of the main problems is related to the training of teaching/academic staff.  Currently, there is a lack of qualified professionals and a very low turnover of staff.  This could be explained first of all by the poor social conditions offered in general by higher education employers.  Graduates/alumni of the international scholarships programs or universities and the most talented students, prefer to work for international organizations or in the private sector; therefore academic work is neither attractive nor prestigious.