Turkmenistan: Strict high security universities
Photo by Reuters
Turkmen students have everything that adults have, i.e. they unquestioningly obey their leadership, they cannot express their opinion if they differ from those of their leaders, be it a teacher, dean, vice chancellor or the chancellor himself. In a word, if they are told “it must be” then it must be. The chancellor himself (just like the president) admonishes them for smallest wrongdoings and marks the wrongdoing in the individual’s case file. Two such digressions lead to expulsion from university. The faults vary: using a mobile phone during a lecture, being late for class or returning to residence halls after 8 PM. Curfews are imposed in all the universities, with no exception, and on 5 December, when the meeting of the CIS heads of state was taking place in Ashkhabad, the halls’ doors were shut at 6 PM. Just in case something happened to the important guests… students who were late, as you might guess, got a strict telling off.
Turkmen students remind one of some sort of contagious patients; why else should they be isolated from society?
The regulations in the new agricultural institute in Dashoguz are very reminiscent of the conditions in which especially dangerous criminals are held in, i.e. high security penal colonies. This university probably has the largest number of prohibitions imposed on students. Just before the country’s independence celebrations on 27-28 October, on the last day of mass rehearsals for the upcoming celebrations, students came back to their residence halls soon after the rehearsals ended. Despite the fact the canteen was already closed, the hungry students, tired from endless student rehearsals, were not even permitted to go out to buy food. They spent all night hungry and they were sent to the filming of celebrations in the morning…
Once a month the students are taken by bus to a local central market, called Bai Bazaar. They are given exactly an hour to make their purchases and those late are strictly admonished. If you buy something you are not supposed to, like a bottle of alcohol or a pack of cigarettes – you receive another admonition. Students are let out of the halls only into the courtyard, and only until 8 PM. Only simple voice-and-text phones are permitted – no smart phones are allowed, especially those with a camera.
Makhtumkuli State University and other universities in Askhabad impose less strict regulations. Nonetheless, they still resemble standard regime penal colonies. This is also applicable to middle schools, which are rarely inspected by the education ministry, while the district schools are inspected several times a month. In the state university, for example, the first year students are free from compulsory marches and participation in mass cultural events. The students have three 80-minute sessions per day all week, except on Sundays. According to a university teacher, if performance level is unsatisfactory, participation in marches does not qualify as a respectable reason for lagging behind in academic matters.
In their first year, students get used to the pace and to studying, and to “participating in the social life of the country.” During the following years, their tasks become more challenging – they have to be active participants in various mass events. According to the students’ estimations, they spend around two thirds of the time meant for studies on preparing and rehearsing for mass events, which include national holidays, opening of new buildings, meeting foreign delegations, as well as uncountable international conferences and sports competitions where students play the part of participants or passionate fans.
Students at the stadium. Photo by the author
The capital-based universities differ from those in the countryside by having technologies, which are considered modern in Turkmenistan. In the TSU and the international Turkmen-Turkish university, for example, they have access to online libraries of many foreign universities (although students complain about the low connection speed), and in some auditoriums, they even have wireless Internet, but it is blocked by a password – only teachers can use it.
The similarities between Turkmen universities and the country’s penitentiaries can also be seen in the regularly held “shmonas” in student resident halls – when representatives of the administration and community organisations from the pan-national movement “Galkynysh” (Renaissance) arrive unannounced for an inspection.
“Five to six people suddenly burst into your room and start to unceremoniously go through your personal belongings in your bedside table, they look through the clothes in your wardrobe and in your make up case. A female student will be in trouble if they discover she uses bright make-up or wears what young women in Turkmenistan do not typically wear: skirts, jeans or low cut tops. Having a women’s fashion magazine can also result in a telling off. Boys can get into big trouble if an empty alcohol bottle is discovered, or if they are hiding cigarettes, or naswar (a light narcotic, legal in Central Asia). So everybody prefers to live by the established rules and regulations and those who allow themselves some light deviations, do so taking great risk and being very careful,” said Aibanat, a student at the Turkmen Institute of National Economy, describing the inspection procedure.
According to Aibanat, unannounced inspections and checks in residence halls became more frequent after students of the now dissolved Turkmen polytechnic institute were condemned for raping young women and became the central figures in a large traffic accident.
It is now customary to have line-ups and registrations in evenings at some universities. Missing them without a good reason leads to punishment. This strict regime supports the flourishing of rent seeking in everyday life; tariffs for insignificant violations of rules are $5 to $20. The inspector or halls’ caretaker could close their eyes to your deviation and save you from a more serious punishment. Transgressors happily pay that money, since it is far better than being expelled from the university, which they entered having paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.
With the exception of two or three universities, which have problems with halls of residence, the chancellors of all education establishments demand that out-of-town students live in the halls. No family flats are allowed, since this leaves the student beyond administrative control after their studies, and creates difficulties when there is a sudden need to get a group of students to some sort of community political event. Only those registered in Ashkhabad are allowed to live at home. Out-of-town students can live with a close relative, if they present a certified reference of their relation.
The students can leave the territory of the university after 8 PM only with the written permission of the dean, even on Sundays. If an out-of-town student’s family visits him/her, there is a room for guests with beds just like in penal colonies – rooms for meetings with family.
TSU students. Photo by OSCE
Four students share a room wherein they sleep in bunk beds. There are bathrooms and toilets on each floor as well as kitchens where students cook their food. In general, students do not complain, but they would just like to have some freedom in the evenings, or at least the opportunity to do something in the halls, like play table tennis. But their only entertainment is watching a movie on somebody’s computer.
If students live frugally, their stipend is enough, which ranges between 440 and 480 manats ($154-$168). Of this amount, 40 manats are deducted every month for membership in the Youth Union and landscaping the area surrounding the university or for other needs. Besides, there are planned expenses, for example, each student has to buy a sports uniform of a particular colour out of their stipend, to participate in sports and ceremonies in the Ashkhabad Stadium. Students of the former police academy, which is now known as the Ministry of Interior Institute, are forced to buy police uniforms as well as sports uniforms with their own money. The students say the police uniforms should be given to them for free, but who is going to sort this situation out? It is better to do as they are told to, and do so quietly. The books in libraries are generally old and worn, but new books can only be purchased beyond the university walls.
Many people wonder why Turkmen students are held with an iron fist. Firstly, Vice-Premier and university chancellors are interested in such an approach. In recent years, there were many well-known cases where students were involved in various unpleasant situations; many chancellors lost their jobs in their aftermath, and Vice-Premier got strong rebukes. Secondly, the chancellors are trying to minimise the number of negative events, and if they do take place, they are easier to cover up and prevent information from getting “to the very top.” However, they are rarely covered up – every university has somebody who will certainly tell the authorities, since the chancellor’s position is quite profitable and covetable.
There are twenty state-funded universities in Turkmenistan with 23,000 students. However, a private institution might appear soon. What its regime will be like remains to be seen.
Toily Ashirmuradov. The author thanks the “Alternative news of Turkmenistan” project for their help in preparing the article
Fergana international information agency. Translated by Sophia Matveeva