Education and Development: A Comparison Between South and Central Asia

The slow spread of school education for all has affected the economic development in South Asian countries. This seems to be the case if we compare the situation of India with that of China. The latter could ensure the provision of basic education to the majority of children, which helped the growth of manufacturing industries.

Central Asia


Santhakumar has published a series of articles here at Azim Premji University’s University-Practice Connect on the challenges in school education in different South Asian countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.1 There are serious problems in ensuring that even primary school education is used by all children in the relevant age group in most countries of South Asia (barring Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives). This situation is due to both demand- and supply issues. Governments have not been successful in ensuring that an adequately equipped school (with teachers, infrastructure and other supporting services) is accessible to all children from all settlements, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal; in India too, the progress in this regard is quite recent. Consequently, the number of out-of-school children is much higher in these countries, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are demand-side constraints which discourage sections of parents from using education for their children. A sizeable section of parents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in India to some extent, are reluctant to educate their daughters (especially in higher grades in co-ed schools). Discriminatory gender norms and intensely patriarchal notions of marriage work against the education of girls. Religious practices have aggravated these gender norms in Pakistan and Afghanistan whereas the impact of these practices does not seem to be that intense in Bangladesh or Maldives, despite the fact that the same religion is followed by the majority population in all these countries.

The governments in these former set of countries have failed to either provide separate schools for boys and girls or to educate and motivate parents and communities to accept co-education. In fact, the present régime in Afghanistan has banned girls from going to schools and universities. In India and Nepal, it is the persistence of the caste system that discourages sections of parents belonging to the so-called lower caste from educating their children. The historical deprivation of these groups has dampened their aspirations and confidence that their children too can benefit from education. This is working against the education of their children even though governments have taken efforts to address the access to (and the lack of inclusion in) government schools for them. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the governments’ failure to provide equal access to education to both girls and boys, the private sector education providers and NGOs are both trying their best to bridge this gap. In Pakistan, over 45 percent of students, the majority of who are girls, attend private schools. The female literacy rates have drastically increased in those areas of northern Pakistan where the Aga Khan Education Service runs schools and hostels, mainly for girls (Tajik, 2017[1]).

However, the trajectory of Central Asian countries (mainly those which were part of the former Soviet Union) was different in terms of education. These countries (while these were part of the Soviet Union) had a history of providing school education to all.[2] This was possible by addressing issues related to the supply of, and demand for, education. Education for all was seen as an important priority by the government of the Soviet Union and it made adequate investments for this purpose. Though poverty was discouraging sections of parents from using education of their children, the social policies of the Soviet Union were aimed at addressing poverty, illiteracy, and under-achievements in education. Though religious and social norms worked against the education of girls in the past, especially in parts of Central Asia, the Communist Party and the successive governments in the Soviet Union worked against these to ensure their education.[3] The full employment’ policies of the Soviet Union also may have ensured (certain) employment for most of its adult citizens,[4] and this may have also enhanced the demand for education in Central Asia.

Though the Socialist economy and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s (which led to parts of Central Asia becoming independent countries) brought certain changes in the domain of education, the government’s ability to provide quality school education has declined in some countries, for example, the poorer ones like Tajikistan.2 Moreover, when poverty increased, it had a debilitating impact on the ability of parents to use education for their children. These factors should have had a negative impact on the enrolment of children starting from pre-school education.3 However, evidence indicates that there was no substantial decline in the demand for school education even during the period of transition and severe crisis. For example, there was an increase in enrolment of 0.2 million children in Tajikistan during 1986 – 1992, the crucial period of transition and crisis in the country.4 There was a higher demand for educating both boys and girls even among poorer and underprivileged groups. Currently, there is a flow of children towards private schools due to governments’ inability to provide an education that is demanded by parents, and it may have accentuated certain inequality in terms of access to quality education. The market economies in most of these countries lack the capacity to create enough jobs for educated people, and that has led to the migration of youngsters to other countries (mainly Russia). These opportunities for migration may have helped the demand for education.

A comparison between Central and South Asia in this regard5 would be interesting for a couple of reasons: Firstly, this may help to know the impact of those policies which have addressed social barriers that prevent sections of children from getting an education. Secondly, such a comparison may be useful to understand the developments in a situation where almost all children get a school education, but the economy is not vibrant enough to create an adequate number of jobs.

This essay is based on a review of literature that is available in both regions. Moreover, the personal experiences of authors in their respective regions also inform the analysis here. Thus, this essay provides a comparative analysis of the state of education in South and Central Asia, whereby drawing certain conclusions that have implications for policymakers.

The spread of school education in Central Asia

The defining feature of school education in Central Asia was the efforts of the government of the Soviet Union towards spreading literacy to the population, providing primary and then, secondary education to all children, and encouraging all to use such an education. Before that, the education that was available in the region was (a) religious; (b) controlled by Tsarist Russia; and © and that provided by reformist groups such as Jadid educators.[5] The education efforts of the Soviet Union started with the eradication of illiteracy among the population by starting a large number of literacy schools all over the country.[6] Youth and women organisations affiliated with the Communist Party were key drivers of these literacy schools. This led to an increase in reported literacy rates to above 80 percent in the late 1930s.[7] Though there were efforts to promote the Russian language, indigenous languages also received certain recognition in these education programmes.

A network of government schools was established in the 1930s covering almost all parts of the country. The initial attempt was to increase enrolment in primary education, and this was achieved by the 1940s, even though the transition to secondary school was a problem then. The enrolment to higher grades increased rapidly afterwards. Seven years of schooling was made mandatory in the 1950s and this was increased to ten years in the 1970s.[8] In Central Asia, gender norms before the Soviet period were not favourable to the education of girls. For example, only 2 percent of students in 1927 in Tajikistan were girls.[9] Wherever social factors (like gender discrimination) worked against the use of school education, the political mobilisation and the government attempted to mitigate the impact of these factors through steps such as mandatory schooling. The outcome was that by the 1980s, nearly half of not only school students but also those in technical schools and higher learning in the region were girls.

The investments in education have yielded benefits in terms of human development. The human development indicators (HDI) of major South and Central Asian countries are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Human Development Indicators of South and Central Asian Countries

South Asian CountriesHDI 2021Central Asian CountriesHDI 2021
Sri Lanka73

Barring Sri Lanka and Maldives, the HDIs of South Asian countries are lower than those in Central Asia. Even poorer countries in the latter region namely, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have HDIs higher than South Asian countries, like India which have a higher per-capita income.

Current status of school education in Central Asian countries

The impact of the spread of school education from the Soviet Union times continues[10]— almost all parents want school education for their children. There is no major discrimination between boys and girls in terms of parental willingness to provide school education. The decline in employment opportunities within these countries (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) has not dampened this demand since people view education as a requirement for migration and other purposes.

Some countries in Central Asia have a clear vision for education. For example, Kazakhstan has established the Bolashak Scholarship’ which enables over 3000 Kazakhstani youth every year to study at some of the world’s best universities. Similarly, the government has established over 20 model schools called Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) to not only provide the best quality education possible but to also translate their best practices to other mainstream schools across the country. These model schools have state-of-the-art facilities, the latest technologies, and are staffed by well-qualified and experienced teachers from both local and international contexts. These schools have already made a positive impact on enhancing the quality of school education in the country. The government has also established an international university, Nazarbayev University, providing the same quality of education as available at the world’s best universities in the West.

To further enhance access and quality of higher education, the governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have invited top Western universities to open their campuses in their countries.

However, there are governmental failures in the provision of education. Due to the problems in the economy (especially in a few countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and limited public resources available to the governments, the provisioning of education has worsened in terms of quality and has not met the aspirations of the population.6 This may be reflecting in a shortage of schools (all grades) accessible to all settlements. The quality of infrastructure and instruction in these government schools has also not improved adequately. This compels a sizeable section of the population to use different kinds of private schools.

The dependence on private schools may have increased inequality in terms of access to or use of quality schooling.[11] Those who can afford, use better quality private schools and others use less equipped and less expensive private or government schools.7 This impacts the educational status of people belonging to lower income groups.

Though there may not be serious issues of inequality between social groups, there is a greater gap between urban and rural populations.[12] Those who live in remote/​rural parts and are involved in traditional occupations (like pastoralism) may be encountering greater difficulties in accessing good-quality education.

Though a set of youngsters use opportunities for migration to other countries (especially Russia), there may be others who stay back for one or another reason.[13] They may not have enough employment opportunities or the school education that they receive may not be connected to the employment opportunities which are available in the local economy.[14]

Why do South Asian countries fall behind in education?

We list down a few key constraints of education in South Asian countries based on the series of articles8 published by Santhakumar on University Practice-Connect.

Historically, adequate efforts were not undertaken to expand school education to all in major or populous South Asian countries, such as India and Pakistan. There were failures in both supply and demand. Regarding the former, the governments of these countries did not invest adequately in the creation of a sufficient number of schools accessible to all population settlements until recently. Schools did not have enough teachers and suitable infrastructure. The efforts to address these gaps started only during the last 2 – 3 decades. Still, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children and an estimated 22.8 million or 44 percent of children between 5 to 16 years of age are not attending school.

On the demand side, notable sections of parents were reluctant to send their children to schools in these countries (probably like the situation in parts of the Soviet Union in the initial years). There are economic and social reasons for this. Poverty discouraged a major section of people from using education for their children. Their children contributed to their livelihood activities. The caste system that prevailed in India and Nepal and the historical deprivation of lower caste people not only made them poor but also lowered their aspirations regarding the education of their children. Gender norms in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, etc., discouraged sizeable sections of parents from educating girls.

The governments in South Asian countries have not made adequate efforts to address the economic and social constraints which discouraged parents from educating their children. By and large, these countries followed a liberal education policy – of providing education to those who demand it. These governments did not consider the need for a mandatory schooling policy. The budding democracies in most of these countries may not have empowered their governments to pursue stronger social policies which include mandatory schooling. The need to have political and social stability in these democracies may have discouraged these governments from pursuing policies which are against traditional norms and practices.

The outcome of all these failures was that a sizeable section of the working population remained illiterate or had only a few years of education until recently. This had a negative impact on human development and possibly on economic growth also.

The slow spread of school education for all has affected the economic development in South Asian countries. This seems to be the case if we compare the situation of India with that of China. The latter could ensure the provision of basic education to the majority of children, which helped the growth of manufacturing industries (due to the supply of a large pool of workers with basic education). On the other hand, the absence of such a pool of educated workers worked against the growth of the manufacturing sector in India. Its economic growth was mostly in the service sector and that helped a small share of its population which acquired higher levels of education. The slower growth of manufacturing worked against the growth of employment in non-agricultural sectors of the economy. Hence, the education-development equilibrium in most South Asian countries is characterised by inadequate investment on the part of the state, and a lack of adequate interest on the part of a section of parents, and both these have a negative impact on the human and economic development of these countries. Given the inadequate efforts to create demand for education, the lack of employment opportunities seems to discourage a significant section of grown-up children from pursuing education and instead preferring to take up work (which may include child labour) instead.

Key lessons from a comparison between Central and South Asia

Some of the key differences between Central and South Asia in terms of education and development are as follows:

  1. A liberal approach to schooling is not adequate to spread education to the masses. If investments in school education are made just to meet the demand, it will not be enough to educate all, since the demand for education would be muted from sections of society due to economic and social factors. This may require addressing economic constraints, such as extreme poverty so that parents can send their children to schools, and social constraints, like gender norms. It also requires making school education mandatory, and for the government to make adequate investments to provide school education to all.
  2. However, the provision of school education to all may not facilitate economic and employment growth. Countries may face challenges in terms of economic growth due to policies, topographical features and political constraints which may reduce private investments. Hence, there could be a situation where citizens may get educated but may not get appropriate jobs in the domestic economy.
  3. This may lead to the migration of educated people to other countries. The possibility of migration (and possibly higher income for educated people) may sustain the interest of the population to acquire an education. Though everybody may not benefit from migration, the expected benefits from migration (even if the probability of migration or of getting a higher income through migration is not very high) may encourage parents to provide education to their children. Moreover, the non-employment benefits of migration (such as the ability and social esteem of living in a place with a better quality of life) can also be the motivation behind the demand for education. In general, it is seen that a society, once it achieves a higher level of education, may not recede in this regard. There can be certain non-reversible aspects of social achievement in terms of education.
  4. However, if the economy is not doing well, governments’ ability to invest in quality school education may reduce (especially in market economies). This can encourage the use of private schools. Since the quality of such schools depends on parents’ ability to pay, one may see different quality schools. This can lead to an increase in inequality in terms of the quality of education received by different sections of the population.
  5. The comparison between Central and South Asia may indicate that a sustainable improvement in human conditions may require the adoption and effective implementation of mandatory schooling, non-market provision of education facilities, and policies/​conditions which enable economic and employment growth. The poorer countries in South Asia need to improve on both counts whereas their counterparts in Central Asia have to take more steps in terms of the latter.
  6. The countries in South Asia may learn from their counterparts in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, about making education a top priority despite economic challenges. The initiatives taken by some of the Central Asian states to reform their education sectors are worth replicating.


[1] Ashraf, D. Tajik, M.A. & Niyozv, S. (2017). Educational Policies in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan: Contested Terrain in Twenty-First Century. Lexington Books, USA

[2] These developments are described in many books and articles such as Grant, Nigel (1979). Soviet Education. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 39 – 40

[3] Kamp, M. (2016) The Soviet Legacy and Women’s Rights in Central Asia, Current History

Vol. 115, No. 783, Russia and Eurasia (October 2016), pp. 270 – 276

[4] Ellman, M. (1979). Full employment — lessons from state socialism. De Economist, 127(4), 489 – 512

[5] Allworth, E. A. (1990) The Modern Uzbeks from the Fourteenth Century to the Present. A Cultural History, Stanford University Press: California.

[6] Holmes, L. E. (1979) Education in the Soviet Union,” in J. L. Wieczynski, ed., The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History X, Gulf Breeze, Fla., pp. 140 – 48

[7] Shorish, M. M. (1972) Education in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, 1917 – 1967,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago

[8] B. Rakhimov et al., Narodnoe obrazovanie v Tadzhikskoĭ SSR” (Public education in the Tajik S.S.R.) in M. Asimov, ed., Tadzhikskaya SSR (The Tajik S.S.R.), Dushanbe, 1984, pp. 259 – 65 as quoted in https://​www​.iran​i​caon​line​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​e​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​x​x​v​i​i​i​-​i​n​-​t​a​j​i​k​istan

[9] Shorish (1972); quoted in footnote No.11

[10] The persistence of large (unmet) demand for education immediately after the collapse of Soviet Union is noted in different studies on the education status of these countries like Tajikistan. For example, see.

[11] There can be a concentration of good quality private schools in cites. For example, more than half of private schools in Kyrgyzstan is in Bishkek. https://​www​.timesca​.com/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​n​e​w​s​/​21055​-​t​o​-​i​m​p​r​o​v​e​-​s​c​h​o​o​l​-​e​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​k​y​r​g​y​z​s​t​a​n​-​n​e​e​d​s​-​t​o​-​f​o​c​u​s​-​o​n​-​i​t​s​-​q​u​a​l​i​t​y​-​a​n​d​-​i​n​n​o​v​ation

[12] It is noted that in 2013, the estimated urban to rural GVA was 2.45, compared to an urban to rural population ratio of 0.36’ in Tajikistan. https://​doc​u​ments1​.world​bank​.org/​c​u​r​a​t​e​d​/​e​n​/​470931511944745629​/​p​d​f​/​121732​-​B​R​I​-​P​154478​-​P​U​B​L​I​C​-​T​a​j​i​k​i​s​t​a​n​-​S​n​a​p​s​h​o​t​-​P​r​i​n​t.pdf

[13] Migration from Central Asian countries also depends on social connections and networks. These may favour certain people and not others. https://​cad​mus​.eui​.eu/​b​i​t​s​t​r​e​a​m​/​h​a​n​d​l​e​/​1814​/​31245​/​R​u​s​s​i​a​A​n​d​C​e​n​t​r​a​l​A​s​i​a​_​M​P​C​_​C​a​r​i​m​E​a​s​t​R​e​p​o​r​t.pdf

[14] This is noted in the skill development programmes of the University of Central Asia.‑i/; https://practiceconnect.azimpr…

Featured photo by Mario Heller on Unsplash

Further Reading