According to Soviet government statistics, literacy in Turkmenistan was nearly universal in 1991. Experts considered the overall level of education to be comparable to the average for the Soviet republics. According to the 1989 census, 65.1 percent of the population aged fifteen and older had completed secondary school, compared with 45.6 percent in 1979. In the same period, the percentage of citizens who had completed a higher education rose from 6.4 percent to 8.3 percent.
Education is free of charge, although introduction of fees is being considered by selected institutions. Formal schooling begins with kindergarten (bagcha ) and primary school (mekdep ). School attendance is compulsory through the eighth grade. At this point, students are tested and directed into technical, continuing, and discontinuing tracks. Some students graduate to the workforce after completing the tenth grade, while others leave in the ninth grade to enter a trade or technical school.
Although the education system in Turkmenistan retains the centralized structural framework of the Soviet system, significant modifications are underway, partly as a response to national redefinition, but mainly as a result of the government's attempts to produce a highly skilled work force to promote Turkmenistan's participation in international commercial activities. Reforms also include cultural goals such as the writing of a new history of Turkmenistan, the training of multilingual cadres able to function in Turkmen, English, and Russian, and the implementation of alphabet reform in schools.
Turkmenistan's educational establishment is funded and administered by the state. The Ministry of Education is responsible for secondary education and oversees about 1,800 schools offering some or all of the secondary grades. Of that number, 43.5 percent are operated on one shift and 56.5 percent on two shifts (primarily in cities). Secondary schools have 66,192 teachers who serve 831,000 students. Thirty-six secondary schools specialize in topics relevant to their ministerial affiliation. The primary and secondary systems are being restructured according to Western models, including shorter curricula, more vocational training, and human resource development.
The curriculum followed by schools is standardized, allowing little variation among the country's school districts. The prescribed humanities curriculum for the ninth and tenth grades places the heaviest emphasis on native language and literature, history, physics, mathematics, Turkmen or Russian language, chemistry, foreign language, world cultures, and physical education. A few elective subjects are available.
Although teaching continues to enjoy respect as a vocation, Turkmenistan's school system suffers from a shortage of qualified teachers. Many obstacles confront a teacher: heavy teaching loads and long hours, including Saturdays and double shifts; wholly inadequate textbooks and instructional materials; serious shortages of paper, supplies, and equipment; low salaries; and, at times, even failure to be paid. An estimated 13 percent of schools have such serious structural defects in their physical plants that they are too dangerous to use for classes.
Instruction in 77 percent of primary and general schools is in Turkmen, although the 16 percent of schools that use Russian as their primary language generally are regarded as providing a better education. Some schools also instruct in the languages of the nation's Uzbek and Kazak minorities. Especially since the adoption of Turkmen as the "state language" and English as the "second state language," the study of these two languages has gained importance in the curriculum, and adults feel pressure to learn Turkmen in special courses offered at schools or at their workplaces.
After completing secondary school, students may continue their education at one of the dozens of specialized institutes or at Turkmenistan State University in Ashgabat. Admittance into higher education institutions often is extremely competitive, and personal connections and bribes may play a role in gaining entry and later advancement. Prospective students must pass a lengthy, pressure-packed entrance examination. Like all the other tests and evaluations in the educational system, this examination consists of both written and oral parts.
Completion of a course of study in higher institutions may take up to five years. Attempts are being made to decrease the number of years one must study so that young women may finish their higher education by their twentieth or twenty-first birthday, by which time they are expected to be married. Graduate study is an option for outstanding students at the university or in one of the Academy of Science's many research institutes.
The recently formed Council of Higher Education supervises Turkmenistan State University, the republic's eight institutes, and its two pedagogical institutes; these institutes are located in Ashgabat, with the exception of a pedagogical institute in Chärjew. These higher education institutions served 41,700 students in 1991, of which 8,000 were enrolled in the state university. Some institutes that train professionals for specific sectors of the national economy fall under the aegis of the relevant ministries. An education committee also functions under the president of the republic.
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