Thousands of Uzbek students studying in neighboring Central Asian countries are rushing to transfer to universities in Uzbekistan after Tashkent eased restrictions for such transfers.
The Uzbek Education Ministry on February 7 offered an opportunity for the students -- mostly in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- to submit applications to transfer to an Uzbek university with minimal paperwork and no exams, as was previously required.
Uzbeks studying abroad at other Central Asian universities must only submit proof of their studies and a copy of their passport with the transfer application by March 15.
The ministry said returning students will be provided a place in schools in their home cities or the nearest cities that offer the degree the applicants were studying for at their foreign universities.
However, it recommended that students enroll in evening classes or distant learning courses, due to a shortage of places at universities, where faculty and classrooms are often already full or even overcrowded.
Some Uzbek education officials said they were scurrying to find additional resources and facilities to accommodate the new transfer students.
The Uzbek government has not stated why it surprisingly decided to set conditions that would cause thousands of students studying abroad to want to immediately return to their home country to attend university.
The ministry extended the initial February 15 deadline until March 15 after the announcement led to long lines and chaos at several host universities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
RFE/RL correspondents in the Kazakh city of Shymkent reported on February 12 that thousands of Uzbek students gathered at administrative offices at South Kazakhstan University to get proof of their study.
Some said they had been lining up for several days despite rain and cold weather.
The university administration told RFE/RL that they were writing up to 1,000 letters a day for Uzbek students wanting to transfer to a university in Uzbekistan.
"I just received my document," Tabassum Jumanazarova, a student at South Kazakhstan University, told RFE/RL. "I'm planning to transfer to Urgench State University. It's a great opportunity for me. It's much better to study in your own country."
The students say the rent and other living costs as well as well transport costs to go home during the holidays put a financial strain on their often limited budgets.
Another Uzbek student said she had come to study in Shymkent after she wasn't able to get a place at universities in Uzbekistan. "I'm 52 years old. I decided to study after many organizations in Uzbekistan started firing employees who didn't have a university degree," Mutabar Usmonova said. "Now, I'm here to get my papers so I could submit for a transfer."
There are some 15,000 Uzbek students studying in the southern Kazakh city, which is near the Uzbek border. Nearly half of them study at South Kazakhstan University, according to Sadykbek Beisenbaev, the deputy head of the school. "There are many students willing to leave. We didn't expect this," he told RFE/RL on February 12.
But the university is leaving the door open for Uzbek students who might change their mind upon returning to Kazakhstan. "They can come back to Shymkent and continue their studies if Uzbek universities can't accept them for some reason or another," Beisenbaev said.
Similar crowds and chaos were seen at universities in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and Osh, Kyrgyzstan, with Uzbek students asking for official documents so they can transfer.
At the Dushanbe Teacher Training University, some Uzbek students could be seen accompanied by their parents. Some came with their bags already packed, eager to get their documents and head home.
The teacher-training school has some 2,500 students from Uzbekistan, but not all of them are willing to transfer to Uzbekistan. "I want to stay here and complete my five-year study in Tajikistan. It's my second year here," said Shoahmad Taghoev, a student from Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry downplayed any potential impact of Uzbek students' so-called exodus from the country. "It won't have any impact on our universities, which have more than half a million students. The number of Uzbek students in Kazakhstan is over 10,000," the ministry said.
The total number of Uzbek students in Central Asian states is estimated at around 25,000, though an exact total is difficult to confirm.
'It's Against The Rules'
Meanwhile, university officials in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan say the Uzbek Education Ministry's announcement to facilitate the transfers in the middle of the academic year violates some of the host countries' rules.
"Transfer to another school is allowed only after completing the full first year," said Saadi Kosimov, the deputy head of the Dushanbe teacher-training school.
A similar rule has created a financial problem for first-year students at Osh State University in southern Kyrgyzstan. "The university administration says it wouldn't give us the necessary document we need unless we pay for the rest of the academic year," a parent from Uzbekistan's Namangan Province was quoted by local media as saying.
The woman, whose name wasn't published, said she had come to Osh to take her son -- a first-year student -- back home to continue his study in Namangan. "The annual fee is $1,300 and we paid half of it at the beginning of the year. Now, we need to pay the second half, too," the woman said.
Officials at the Uzbek Education Ministry told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the ministry will also consider extending exam-free transfers for students beyond the current March 15 deadline to enable Uzbek students to complete the full year and avoid making a double payment before transferring for the next academic year.