The compounded by a decline in real wages

The challenges
of education in Central Asia were many and had a political origin which
different countries had tackled variably with their own measures, policies and
international help. For decades before independence, the
Central Asian countries, as part of the former Soviet Union, enjoyed nearly
universal access to education with a relatively high standard at all levels;
teachers had appropriate qualifications and physical facilities were generally
maintained in good condition, with only a small disparity between rural and
urban schools. The severe economic crisis that followed the break-up of the
Soviet Union in 1991 forced the governments of the new Central Asian countries
to adopt austerity measures and to cut expenditures, particularly in education
and social services. Economic contraction was compounded by a decline in real
wages of teachers, and pressures to adapt to the changing social and economic
needs during the transition to a market-based economy were high. As a result,
education systems had dramatically deteriorated and the quality of education
had steeply declined.

 

In
the mid-90s, the governments undertook a number of reforms aimed at
decentralising the education management, diversifying its funding, developing
innovative institutions and curricula, as well as increasing teacher’s salaries
and social sector spending. The Central Asian representatives from the
Ministries of Education, from educational scientific research and from public
institutions and NGOs met in Bishkek with the aim of defining an effective
strategy that would generate dialogue between the education policy makers of Central
Asia and support the commitment to achieve the EFA standard (UNESCO-Education
for All) by 2015. Despite this, all the education systems in Central Asia faced
several challenges and, with slight differences from one country to another,
all were of serious concern. In particular, equal and universal access to
education was not fully ensured, school attendance, particularly by girls had
dropped, state budgets allocated to education were low, there was a lack of
qualified teachers, textbooks and school facilities, and corruption was
increasing at many levels in the system. The declining state of education in all
five CA countries was therefore a major concern, notleast because education
could play such a key role in a state’s stability. Education systems that
guarantee universal access to a high standard of education, and serve the needs
of changing economic, social and political conditions, provide states with the
talent and skills needed to raise their economic base. In so doing they ensure
a generally higher standard of living which in turn assists in preventing
social discontent and a rise in criminality. Education, found in the Central Asian
countries, also serves as a tool to transmit cultural values, to promote
tolerance, democracy, equality and respect for human rights, all of which are
also seen as a means to combat extremism. The Central Asian countries were
facing tremendous challenges. Poor performing economies, unrepresentative and
rigid political structures, failure to develop regional co-operation in a wide
range of key issues, high levels of unemployment, rapidly growing populations
with limited prospects for work and good healthcare. All these factors,
together with the dire situation found in the education system, threatened to
undermine stability in the region and directly affected the security and
prosperity of these Central Asian countries.

 

The
collapse of the Soviet economic block and the move to a market economy brought
two fundamental needs to the education systems of Central Asia. The first was to
create functioning Ministries of Education with the capacity to establish
education policy as well as to oversee the provision of education and to ensure
its quality. The second was to reorient education programs to the new needs
arising from the transition from a command economy to a market economy. The
content and delivery of education needed to be changed in order to make
education responsive to the needs of the global economy.

 

It was need
of the hour to make education programs more flexible with focus on problem
solving and concepts, rather than simple mastery of facts. Vocational education
at the secondary level needed to teach more generic skills for a few broad
families of occupational specializations rather than highly specific skills for
a large number of narrow occupations. It needed to emphasize on developing mathematical
skills and communications skills. Education needed to provide more
opportunities for students. And this wasn’t possible without an effort from the
teaching community, which also needed to be trained for the new education
parameters. IT education and awareness was a must to keep pace with the global
economy and market. Career counseling needed to be developed to provide
students, teachers, and parents with up-to date information on the implications
of education choices for employment opportunities and options for further
education. Higher education needed to be more flexible at entry and to offer
easier transfer opportunities across programs and faculties. The legal and fiscal
environment needed to be changed to encourage employers and local governments to
develop life-long learning programs to meet local (and global) skill needs. Also,
public resources for education called for a diversification of financing, more
efficient management, and better allocation of public resources as per the
demands of the students and the economy.