Seven years after Turkmenistan stopped recognising academic qualifications gained abroad, the policy has been reversed, potentially opening the way to educated professionals taking up posts from which they were previously barred.
President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov ordered this major policy change in late March, saying people educated at foreign universities needed to be able to contribute their skills to what he called the “large-scale reforms” taking place in Turkmenistan.
In June 2004, Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor as president, the late Saparmurat Niazov, ordered state institutions to dismiss all staff who had been educated abroad, claiming that they were less well-qualified than graduates from Turkmen higher education. In cases where specialists had to be retained, they were paid less than if they had obtained Turkmen qualifications.
In fact, by the time Niazov made his announcement, the purge of foreign-educated personnel had been going on for two years. By that point, 11,000 teachers and 15,000 healthcare staff had already been dismissed, human rights groups reported.
The policy forced large numbers of professionals to leave the country, while those that remained took jobs unrelated to their specialism.
When Berdymuhammedov came to power in 2007, he promised to reform the Niazov-era system, and succeeded in rolling back some of his predecessor’s more damaging policies. To plug skill gaps in the economy, more university places were made available, new departments were opened and students were allowed to go abroad. In 2010, nearly 2,500 of them attended universities in the United States, Russia and other European countries, Turkey and China.
The shortage of trained professionals remains a major problem. A 2009 study carried out by the mayor’s office in the capital Ashgabat found that 80 per cent of managerial staff lacked the right qualifications for their jobs. All were educated within Turkmenistan.
"The prevailing situation in all universities, where students were taught simply to memorise the regime’s ideology, to the detriment of their professional education, has resulted in a situation where the universities turn out not experts, but robots who can automatically regurgitate the president’s works but can’t understand a set of instructions,” a university lecturer who did not want to be identified said.
The changes Berdymuhammedov has made so far have been slow to take root, and returning students find it hard to get jobs.
"So far, the authorities haven’t wanted to let a breath of fresh air into the workplace,” a departmental head in the education ministry said. "Against all logic, we haven’t been allowed to recognise foreign diplomas."
Tajigul Begmedova, leader of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund based in Bulgaria, believes international pressure has played a part in forcing the government to start accepting foreign qualifications.
But the decision may also have been helped along by a rare show of strength from a group of teachers in the northern province of Dashoguz, who managed to persuade local prosecutors to support a claim to equal pay in February. According to Begmedova, because their qualifications were not recognised as valid, they were being paid less than their peers.
After prosecutors looked into the case, the teachers were awarded the additional pay they felt they were due, although their qualifications have yet to be officially recognised.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. www.iwpr.net