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Tajikistan's Lone Private University Defies Order, Opens For New School Year

  • Farangis Najibullah

Many young Tajiks have embraced the "American" university's approach to merit-based admittance.

Many young Tajiks have embraced the "American" university's approach to merit-based admittance.

Tajikistan's education authorities, citing unspecified "technical reasons," have ordered the closure of the country's only private university.

The Institute of Technical Innovations and Communications, known as the ITIC, employs many prominent opposition politicians and outspoken government critics among its professors.

It was set up by a Tajik-born U.S. citizen and receives funding from various U.S. and Western grants.

Among locals it is known simply as the "American" university.

Defying the Education Ministry's order to keep its doors shut for at least three months, the ITIC has decided not to halt its operations for the time being. And it appears to be "business as usual" for its professors and students, who began their lessons on September 1.

Behind the scenes, the founder of the school, Sadriddin Akramov, is engaged in a court battle with the Education Ministry.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Akramov explained his decision to keep the ITIC's doors open, saying, "We have applied to the court over the ministry's decision, and unless the court decides in favor of the ministry, we are not legally obliged to obey its order."

With scant explanation, the Education Ministry has insisted it needs at least three months to check the ITIC's documents and activities and demanded that the university remain closed until that process is complete.

Questioning Motives

Saivali Kodirov, a lawyer representing the ministry, accuses the ITIC of violating an earlier decree that ordered the university to stop accepting new students "until further notice."

"The university has been closed down because it did not comply with the Education Minister's order," Kodirov said. "The school has to stop its operation for three months to address its shortcomings...and the university will be reopened only after it fixes those problems."

Kodirov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the ministry has not violated any Tajik laws by ordering the temporary closure of the ITIC.

But many university employees question the ministry's motives.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a law professor in the ITIC, suggested that Tajik authorities are concerned about the university's staff, which counts a number of high-profile government critics among its lecturers.

Rahmatullo Zoirov, the leader of the opposition Social Democrat Party, has been hired as a law professor; the leader of opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, Muhiddin Kabiri, teaches politics.

Hakimov himself is a deputy leader of the Social Democrats and one of the most outspoken critics of President Emomali Rahmon's government.

"We are all qualified specialists and the authorities haven't been able to find any problem with our credentials," Hakimov told RFE/RL. "And they are looking for other pretexts to hamper the university's activities," he added.

Break With The Norm

Hakimov said he believes the authorities see the ITIC as a "serious threat" because it is a school that teaches students "about freedom and other democratic values."

Many ITIC students, however, said they were attracted by the university's reputation as an uncorrupt educational institution as well as by what they call higher standards of education.

While the majority of universities in Tajikistan are notorious for rampant bribery, the ITIC has made a name as a university where entrance-exam results are based on students' knowledge.

Jumanazar, a fourth-year student, told RFE/RL that while "students in other Tajik universities have to pay bribes for every exam," he can focus on his studies instead.

"There is no corruption in our university and this exactly was the first reason I chose this university, and our professors are quite different to other schools I know," Jumanazar said. "This university and its professors take education standards very seriously."

Hakimov said Education Ministry officials see the ITIC as a challenge to "corruption-infested state schools." He said the ministry was unlawfully exploiting its powers against the private university to eliminate competition.

Broader Access

Moreover, the ITIC has considerably lowered fees to make enrollment affordable for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The university has become popular among middle-class families who want their children to obtain quality educations but cannot afford to send them abroad.

It is not the first time the ITIC has come under pressure by the ministry.

Officials have repeatedly forced the university to change its name.

Initially, it was registered in 2003 as the University of International Relations.

Four years later, it was ordered to change its name and became the Humanitarian University.

Last year, it got yet another new name: the University of Technical Innovations and Communications.

A court hearing over the fate the ITIC is due any day.

But Akramov predicted it would be a long battle between the Education Ministry and Tajikistan's only private university.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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