A degree from where? The trouble with foreign university diplomas in Turkmenistan

In 2004 during Saparmurat Niyazov’s presidency Turkmenistan stopped recognizing foreign diplomas. During the two years leading up to it, 11,000 teachers and 15,000 healthcare staff had already been dismissed from their jobs. In 2011 president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov reversed the policy saying, “people educated at foreign universities needed to be able to contribute their skills to large-scale reforms taking place in Turkmenistan”. In spite of this intention the government did not make it easier for foreign educated Turkmens to get jobs and reintegrate in Turkmenistan. The guidelines for recognizing diplomas issued abroad are not clear and as of May 2023 the application requires more than sixteen pieces of documentation.

The Ministry of Education of Turkmenistan does not explain to the public the logic and reasoning behind the policy of foreign diploma recognition. It neither provides a single platform where prospective students could get all the necessary information to make informed decisions about studying abroad. The absence of clear guidelines and public communication creates misunderstanding among the public. Below we describe the process for recognizing foreign diplomas in Turkmenistan and the major changes that have happened since 2019.

What is the process for recognizing foreign university degrees in Turkmenistan?

The order issued by the Ministry of Education in 2019 on the Procedure for Recognition of Documents of Higher and Secondary Vocational Education issued in foreign countries in Turkmenistan is the key document defining the recognition process.

However, information on the process of studying abroad and recognizing foreign university degrees in Turkmenistan is quite dispersed across several web pages. For instance, this page on the Ministry’s website only contains a pdf file with the list of required documents and it does not explain the process. There is another page titled ‘documents’ which has several attachments some of which are also relevant to the diploma recognition process. It reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle where the person has to collect and put together the necessary information by bits and pieces to see the bigger picture.

Instead, it would have been helpful if the Ministry of Education created a single designated page summarising the whole process from start to finish, and listing all the relevant documents so young people are clear of all the steps they need to take before, during and after their studies abroad. Moreover, all the necessary information should be available in the local language. For example, the link for Diploma Recognition Procedure in Turkmenistan works in the English language but it does not work in Turkmen and Russian languages.

The diploma recognition process only affects foreign diplomas issued after January 1, 1993. Educational documents, that can be recognized in Turkmenistan, should be issued by these educational institutions:

  • State vocational or higher education institutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member countries and foreign universities with official authority to implement educational programmes in the CIS countries.
  • Diplomas in social and humanitarian sciences specified in the State classifications of specialisations of secondary and higher vocational education of Turkmenistan from the leading higher education institutions of the world.
  • Only full-time and daytime forms of education can be recognized.
  • The length of the professional education program obtained in CIS member states should not be less than the terms established in Turkmenistan. For other foreign countries, the length of the education program should be in accordance with the period specified in the International Standard for the Classification of Education approved by UNESCO.

The procedure further clarifies that the list of leading foreign educational institutions and the information on the fields of social and humanitarian sciences specified in the State classifications are to be prepared by the Ministry of Education at the beginning of each year and to be made publicly available. However, introducing changes to these lists every year makes it difficult for young people to plan their academic career ahead of time and may require them to make last minute changes to their choice of university or field of study.

The document also emphasises that only ‘full-time’ and ‘daytime’ forms of education can be recognized. Until 2014 part-time form of education, which was very common among Turkmen youth, could be recognized in Turkmenistan. It was popular among Turkmen students studying in Russia, Belarus or Ukraine to enrol in universities ‘in absentia’ or ‘zaochno’ because it was much cheaper, more convenient and students could work alongside their studies. This restricts students’ choice and forces them to enrol in full-time study while their circumstances might require them to combine study with work or other commitments.

What are the changes introduced to the process of recognizing foreign diplomas as of 2023?

Since 2019 the Ministry of Education has introduced several changes to the process of recognizing foreign diplomas in Turkmenistan including:

  • creating a list of 146 ‘unwanted professions’ in the social and humanitarian sciences and discouraging young people from pursuing these specialisations. This list was previously shared on Turkmenportal Instagram account but the link no longer works;
  • requiring students, who wish to study social and humanitarian sciences and want to recognize their foreign diploma in Turkmenistan, to choose a university that is included in the global university rankings;
  • publishing the list of universities whose diplomas can be recognized in Turkmenistan as of January 17, 2023. This includes world-renowned universities ranked on global university rankings such as Academic Rankings of World Universities 2022; QS World University Rankings 2023; the Times Higher Education World Higher Rankings 2023;
  • introducing a new decision on January 25, 2023 to recognize foreign education obtained through online and distance learning due to the global pandemic;
  • updating the list of 16 documents on the Ministry of Education website required to recognize foreign diplomas in Turkmenistan. The list now includes a certificate confirming that the foreign university has continued its educational programs through online education during the global pandemic;
  • expanding the list of foreign universities whose diplomas can be recognized in Turkmenistan by adding the Three Missions of the University ranking on February 1, 2023. Now it includes four global university rankings which add up to 1800 universities from 103 countries. There are 253 universities from the USA, 173 from China, and 146 from Russia.

As it seems, the process of diploma recognition only applies to young people who want to receive an international education in social and humanitarian sciences and want their foreign diplomas to be recognized in Turkmenistan. To control the oversupply of specialists in certain fields the Ministry of Education has developed a list of ‘unwanted professions’. We have previously highlighted the shortcomings of this policy and concerns raised by young people in Turkmenistan. However, it is unclear if students who pursue natural sciences such as medicine, mathematics or engineering also have to recognize their foreign degrees in Turkmenistan or not.

Moreover, since 2019 the Ministry of Education expanded the list of required documents by adding the following items:

  1. Those who changed their university during their study period should bring a separate archive certificate from the previous place of study, 2 copies with translation (original copy and 1 copy);
  2. Those who changed their university during their study period must bring an academic certificate from the first place of study, 2 copies with translation (if the original copy of the academic certificate is not available, a copy certified by the school must be provided);
  3. Description (based on a template) of entry to and exit from Turkmenistan and the country of study;
  4. Citizens who have completed their studies before 2000 must bring 2 copies of their employment history or trudovaya knizhka (if they do not have it, they must bring a certified confirmation from the human resources department of their organisation);
  5. Certificate confirming continuation of education programs through online and distance learning due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the control of the document holder (e.g. natural disaster, epidemic, pandemic) 2 copies with translation (original copy and 1 copy).

There are some exceptions to the requirements to recognize foreign diplomas and they do not apply to:

  • educational documents obtained prior to the implementation of this regulation, which is before March 16, 2019;
  • students who do not need recognition of their foreign university diplomas;
  • students who want to pursue areas of study that are not related to social and humanitarian sciences;
  • documents issued to people sent to study abroad based on intergovernmental and interagency international agreements of Turkmenistan;
  • documents obtained in CIS member states prior to January 9, 2014 from state professional educational institutions or non-state educational institutions which have state or international accreditation as well as educational institutions of other foreign countries that have official authority to work in CIS countries, including for studies pursued in full-time or part-time type form;
  • documents recognized on the basis of the decision of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan;
  • if requested by ministries and departmental administrations based on their need for specialists; if permitted by the respective departments of the Cabinet of the President of Turkmenistan and the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkmenistan; or based on the employer’s agreement to recognize the documents of those who have two or more years of work experience.

Among the above exceptions, the latter two instances are particularly concerning as they may give room for cronyism, nepotism and bribery. Students who have connections in higher government positions and/or the money to pay the bribe, might be able to circumvent these rules.

Another step in the recognition process includes taking additional paid classes up to one year and passing the state exam to receive a Certificate of Recognition. This step mainly affects self-financed individuals. Students sent by the state to study abroad on the basis of the Intergovernmental Agreements are exempt from the exams and they receive a Certificate of Recognition after getting a job in the public sector in Turkmenistan. In case of students who have degrees in areas that are not specified in the State classifications of specialisations for secondary and higher vocational education, their diploma can be recognized in accordance with the closest or corresponding specialty. However, to meet the requirements for the relevant professional education, the person might have to undertake additional paid courses up to one year.

Do I have to recognize my foreign diploma in Turkmenistan? And what benefits would it provide me?

The government decree from 2019 mentions that having your foreign diploma recognized in Turkmenistan allows you to:

  • continue your studies to the next level of education in Turkmenistan (e.g. Masters or PhD levels);
  • carry out professional work in the area of specialisation.

However, it does not specify what happens if students decide not to go through the diploma recognition process, their foreign diploma is not eligible to be recognized or their application to recognize their diploma is rejected. It is also unclear if it is necessary to recognize diplomas for private sector employment, for starting your own business or any other form of employment that excludes the public sector. Based on our observation, students could work in the private sector and international organisations without having their diplomas recognized at least until 2017. Under exceptions, the 2019 document mentions that employers can decide to recognize foreign diplomas without the recognition if applicants have two or more years of work experience.

What is the fate of foreign educated Turkmen nationals who return to Turkmenistan?

Previously we have summarised an article by Erin Trouth Hofmann on Labor market integration of returned educational migrants in Turkmenistan where she compares career perceptions and trajectories of people educated in Turkmenistan to those educated abroad. Some key findings that are worth mentioning here include:

  • for students with foreign university degrees, it is much harder to find employment in Turkmenistan. Employment rate upon graduation among students who studied at Turkmen universities is 95.8% compared to 83.8% among those educated abroad;
  • all graduates of Turkmen universities were employed in Turkmenistan in comparison to 40% of those educated abroad;
  • Women were less likely to be employed in Turkmenistan, partly because they were more likely to have been educated abroad.

Why study abroad if recognizing foreign diplomas is so complicated?

In spite of harsh and vaguely defined restrictions, Turkmen students continue to choose to study abroad in substantial numbers. In 2014 the number of Turkmen nationals studying abroad was estimated at 42,000 while in 2023 it reached 68,232 people. This is because the majority of youth are not able to access higher education in Turkmenistan due to limited quotas at universities. To illustrate, 82,000 students graduated from secondary and specialised schools in Turkmenistan in 2022 while there were only 15,326 spots at universities and 10,490 spots at vocational schools. This leaves around 68% of school graduates without the possibility to continue their education.

High competition for university admission may contribute to corruption and abuse of power in the education sector. There are hard to verify estimates that the lowest bribe for university admission is USD 7,000 for teacher training and medical school and the largest amount is USD 100,000 for law school admission. This makes studying abroad much cheaper than paying the bribe to get into the local university.

According to UNESCO there are 68,232 Turkmen nationals studying abroad, mainly in Russia, Turkey and Belarus. Some of these students are choosing not to return home after graduating because of:

  • widespread corruption in the country;
  • lack of job opportunities;
  • limited and censored Internet;
  • desire to avoid constant harassment by the authorities;
  • desire to avoid being refused to leave Turkmenistan and travel abroad freely.

What are your thoughts about the diploma recognition process in Turkmenistan? Is there a need for this process? Have you recently recognized your foreign university degree in Turkmenistan? If yes, what was your experience and what would you recommend to the government to do differently so the process is easier and more convenient for young people. Feel free to

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