Kazakhstan economy driving both reforms and demand for higher education

Following several years of strong economic growth and educational reforms, Kazakhstan is a country with burgeoning demand for study abroad and for programmes geared to its labour market dynamics. Kazakhstan has all the hallmarks of an important, emerging education market thanks to its goal of placing among the world’s Top 30 most competitive economies by 2050, a great need to provide workers for its oil and gas industries, and a population enjoying rising levels of disposable income.

The last time we checked in on Kazakhstan, the country was driving ahead with plans to increase student mobility, enabled in part by its signing on to the Bologna Process and the evolution of its Bolashak Scholarship programme. Since then, the Kazakh government has fine-tuned its goals for mobility and education, increasingly aware that vocational training can fuel the sort of growth it wants to see for the country.

According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, 43,039 Kazakh students studied abroad in 2012. By far the top destination was Russia (29,518), followed by Kyrgyzstan (4,357), the UK (2,014), and the US (1,877).

The Bolashak evolves and improves

Over the course of more than a decade, the Bolashak programme has sent over 11,000 Kazakhs abroad to study and has become increasingly well regarded; in 2014, it was named as the best scholarship programme in the world at the Going Global International Conference in Miami.

The programme is notable for many reasons, including close alignment with the evolving needs of the Kazakh economy and close collaboration with industry. Students’ tuition, insurance, and accommodation costs – as well as living expenses and travel costs – are all covered under the programme; in return, students pledge to return to Kazakhstan for at least five years of continuous employment following their studies.

The programme has changed substantially in recent years. In 2011 it began focusing intensively on those pursuing masters and PhDs in priority specialisations, dropping the more general bachelor’s degree from its consideration. In 2012 it expanded its specialist categories: today, arts and mass media industry professionals, public servants, academic and medical staff, engineers, and technical workers are eligible for the scholarship. PhD scholarship holders are now able to spend 12 months prior to starting their programme studying a foreign language. As of 2015, Kazakhstani masters or doctoral degree-holders can also access the programme for advanced studies abroad.

Along with a new focus on developing specialists required for the Kazakh economy, quality controls have become more stringent in the last couple of years. Candidates now require an IELTS score of 4.0 (up from 3.0) and a Kazakh language score of 85 points (from 75). Successful candidates can now only choose from an exclusive set of foreign institutions: those placing in the Top 200 in QS, Times Higher Education, and Shanghai international rankings, in the Top 30 for national rankings, as well as in the QS 50 under 50 and the Times Higher Education 100 under 50 rankings.

Goals for internationalisation, and areas of growing demand

Internationalisation and international cooperation have become key priorities for Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science (MES). As of 2011, it had signed at least 124 international agreements with foreign countries and over 8,000 agreements with higher education institutions.

All Kazakh universities are now required to build international partnerships to show they are committed to quality improvement, international benchmarking and research cooperation.

A few years ago, the government released its Academic Mobility Strategy in Kazakhstan 2012-2020. The strategy includes these goals:

  • To greatly increase its capacity both to host students from abroad and to send more of its own students, staff, and faculty overseas on mobility programmes;
  • To increase the number of Kazakh students with foreign language ability;
  • To grow the number of international cooperation agreements between Kazakh and foreign institutions;
  • To increase the number of international students studying in Kazakh universities by 20% annually through 2020.

The Bolashak Scholarship programme alone will help with such goals, but it is important to note that Bolashak scholars are far outnumbered by those who are privately funded. In our last article on Kazakhstan, Zulfiya Assilbekova, the deputy director of Globus Education, an education agency based in Almaty with three branch offices elsewhere in Kazakhstan, estimated that 30% of Kazakh students abroad are on scholarships, and about 70% are self-funded.

The self-funded group is important to higher education institutions that do not meet the Bolashak programme’s criteria (i.e., do not place highly enough in the rankings mentioned earlier in this article and/or offer mostly bachelor’s degrees). Those institutions that offer needed and high-quality programmes might well find a ready audience among Kazakh students looking for jobs in their specialised economy.

Here, data from the Bolashak programme is useful. The Astana Times notes:

“According to statistics, the most popular specialities among applicants for the Bolashak Scholarship are state policy, political science, public administration, pedagogy and psychology [and] accounting and auditing. Finance and economics are among the technical specialties applicants actively submit for the oil and gas business. The list also includes petrochemicals and petrochemical synthesis, the development of oil and gas, computer science, information technology and systems, information security, computing equipment and software. A public health major is prevalent among medical staff.”

In addition, it looks like vocational education will play a growing role in fuelling the country’s specific labour requirements – as is the case in ambitious economies across the globe. A report published by the government of New Zealand, Kazakhstan: A Market Research Study, notes:

“The technical and vocational education system remains underfunded and the demand for places is low compared with that for more academic studies leading to university education. The oil, gas and mineral related sectors have skill shortages and invest to meet their specialist training requirements.”

The MES has a 10-Year State Programme for Educational Development (2010-2020) that includes these priority areas “to ensure access to quality education for sustainable economic growth”:

  • Educational provision in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and higher education (HE);
  • Educational consulting;
  • Educational technology, resources and equipment;
  • English language training;
  • Qualifications and curriculum planning;
  • Teacher education and “train-the-trainer” programmes.

This list again underlines the significant opportunities to recruit Kazakh students for study abroad and/or to establish partnerships with Kazakh institutions to help meet demand for such areas.
English language training is also an area with rich potential. Kazakhstan: A Market Research Study notes that:

“Most Kazakhstani students require some form of preparatory programme before entering a full undergraduate course in a foreign university; typically the need is for English language study combined with discipline-specific courses. At a master’s level most foreign universities accept students with first degrees from Kazakhstan direct to their programmes, although the large majority will require pre-programme English language study.”

How to reach Kazakh students

Kazakh students research study abroad options in much the same ways as students in other countries (that is, via websites, university rankings, social networking sites, education exhibitions and fairs). They are also heavily reliant on trusted teachers, agents, and particularly parents. Kazakhstan: A Market Research Study, notes:

“Parents have a strong influence on privately funded students and typically will seek the advice of agents and others they consider to have expert knowledge of the intended destination country and institution.”

The Kazakh agent we spoke with for our previous report also stressed the importance of parents. “Parents are the decision makers,” she noted, and she recommended that educators visit Kazakhstan in person for school appearances and to connect directly with students, parents, and agents.

The New Zealand market report recommends that any campaign hoping to reach Kazakh students “should reinforce the high international standing of its universities; demonstrate employability of qualifications; profile individual successes, including for Kazakhstan students; and promote an attractive, secure and exciting life style.” It also recommended visits to Kazakhstan by senior officials/academics, new scholarships for Kazakh students, and the identification of trusted Kazakh agents.



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