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RFE/RL Turkmen Service Steps In To Fill Education Gap

What was originally intended as a report on the system of higher education in one of the world's most closed societies, Education 2012/2013 by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, has become a multi-media community service project linking students with scarce resources in Turkmenistan.

"Our research found that more than 100,000 students graduated from secondary schools in the last week of May, and yet Turkmen universities have space for only around 6,000 new students," said Muhammad Tahir, Service Director, about the initiative that launched on June 18. "The government sends around 2,000 students to universities abroad annually, but that still leaves over 90 percent of graduates with no clear option for getting a university degree."

After initial reporting revealed the imbalance between admission seekers and available university slots, the Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlyk, contacted NGOs, foreign embassies, and university officials in several countries to determine what resources are available to help Turkmen students study abroad, what documentation is required, and which foreign degrees are recognized once graduates return home. The result is a dedicated page on the service's website and a 10-minute update that airs daily on Radio Azatlyk.

“We found students who are desperate to study, and yet some foreign organizations that sponsor scholarship programs told us they're unable to fill their quotas for Turkmen students. Therefore, one goal for this project is to help match these programs with people," said Tahir.

Students have taken advantage of two blogs set up as part of the project to exchange information and share their experiences. Several questions concerned the selective U.S.-sponsored Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program; other posts have described financial and visa requirements for university programs in Malaysia, and cultural issues for Turkmen students studying in India. The Service recruited an academician in Turkmenistan to help respond to questions and provide online guidance on university programs and admissions procedures.

"We are amazed at the audience response, since people must defy huge restrictions to reach us - they have to use proxies to access our website - but it shows that we have the tools and information to provide them with something they really need," said Tahir.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is available in Turkmenistan on shortwave and satellite radio, and online. Of 197 countries ranked in its 2012 Freedom of the Press index, Freedom House ranked Turkmenistan as 196th, ahead only of North Korea.