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. However, professions that are popular with students do not necessarily match the needs of the labor market.
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 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.
In a live discussion on August 4, I spoke with Nafisabonu Urinkhojaeva, 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 Urinkhojaeva (Tajikistan): "Before I enrolled into my university, I 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's why I chose to pay for my studies. As soon as I finish, I will go to study abroad.
"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."
Niginakhon Saida (Uzbekistan): "I'm still struggling to find my 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. They expect you to tell them what to do. This is one thing I struggle with.
"I also try 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.
"I believe that in Uzbekistan the hardest part of getting a higher education is the entrance exam. That's it. It doesn't matter what you do afterward. As long as you keep going to university, you keep paying fees, you will graduate. It doesn't matter whether you are studying well. 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."
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Central Asia Live! is taking a break for the rest of the month, but we'll be back in September with a new season of lively conversations and debates. Thanks for listening! In the meantime, follow @RFERL on Twitter so you don't miss the latest news and features on Central Asia. Send any feedback or discussion ideas to email@example.com.