Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, strategically located between Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and a strip of the Caspian Sea. With a population of just over 17 million (2013 figures), Kazakhstan’s economy has seen robust growth since its transition from the post-Soviet era, driven in large part by its wealth of natural resources, and oil and gas in particular.
Strong economic growth and market liberalisation have placed Kazakhstan on the radar of international educators for some time now, and mobility is further fueled by the government scholarship support for outbound students as well as the country’s more recent commitment to the Bologna Process. Recent reforms in the tertiary sector, including the consolidation or closing of under-performing higher education institutions and reforms to university governance, point to an even greater shake-up currently underway in Kazakhstan’s higher education landscape.
Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence in 1991. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power ever since. The country pursues a moderate “multivector” foreign policy, maintaining strong relations with neighbouring Russia and China, as well as with the United States and the Western world. It has worked hard to develop its economy, primarily through its rich oil and gas reserves.
The country is home to a diverse population. Around 63% of the population is ethnic Kazakh, with large numbers of Russian, Ukrainian, German and other ethnicities. Islam is the religion of around 70% of the population. The country’s largest city and its economic centre is Almaty; its capital city, as of 1997, is Astana.
Kazakhstan has one of the strongest economies in Central Asia. Supported by rising oil prices, the economy grew by an average of 8% over the past decade. The country is home to 3% of global oil reserves and aims to be among the world’s top 10 oil producers by 2020. Other major exports include wheat, textiles, livestock, and uranium.
Kazakhstan was also the first of the former Soviet republics to fully pay off its debt to the International Monetary Fund (a full seven years ahead of schedule). On the strength of a robust economic outlook and improved fiscal outlook, the country rose from 72nd to 50th in the Global Competitiveness Report between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
The education system
After 1991, Kazakhstan’s transition from a Soviet to a free market economy sent shockwaves through the higher education system. Post-independence, the number of higher education institutions ballooned, from 55 state institutions in 1990 to 182 public and private institutions by 2001.
Concerns with quality, competitiveness, and mobility have prompted a number of key reforms in the past two decades, including:
- the re-structuring of the tertiary system;
- the reduction of the number of higher education institutions;
- a focus on improving quality and governance;
- a commitment to deepening internationalisation.
Secondary education is free and in principle compulsory for Kazakh students, and the transition to a 12-year education system at the primary and secondary levels is expected to be complete by 2015. The Kazakh system employs standardised exams both for assessing secondary school leavers as well as for university admissions. UNESCO summarises the current exam system as follows:
“A National Centre for State Standards in Education and Testing (NCSSET), established in 1993, was initially aimed at external assessment of academic achievements of students at entrance exams to higher institutions. Since 2004, external assessment upon graduation from school has been combined with entrance exams to higher institutions, which has been recognised as positive to get a more objective picture of the level of academic proficiency of students. When entering higher institutions on a competitive basis, students are assessed based on their Unifies National Testing (UNT) and Entrants Complex Testing (ECT) results. UNT ensures a combination of final state certification of school-leavers and entrance exams to secondary and higher vocational learning institutions. ECT is conducted for graduates of secondary schools, who graduated prior to UNT adoption, for secondary school graduates who studied abroad in the framework of international student exchange, secondary school graduates with Uzbek, Uighur and Tajik languages of training, graduates of music boarding schools as well as those who graduates from foreign institutions.”
The Law on Education (1999) provides a general framework for higher education development in Kazakhstan. In 2004, a new law was passed to strengthen the integrity of the system. It also increased technical requirements at universities, paved the way for the introduction of PhDs, and introduced new university management practices. A subsequent amendment in 2007 was adopted to further reform the tertiary system and bring the Kazakh higher education system into the Bologna Process, most notably aligning Kazakh qualifications with European bachelors, masters, and doctoral standards.
Largely due to these reforms, and the more stringent quality controls they introduced, the number of higher education institutions has shrunk to 131 state, private, and special status universities by 2014 – with more consolidations and closings planned for the years ahead.
In the 2012/13 academic year, there were 571,691 students in bachelors programmes at universities in Kazakhstan, a decrease from the 633,814 reported for 2008/09. The number of masters students, meanwhile, more than doubled (to 25,299 from 11,395) during this period, while the number of PhD students nearly quadrupled (to 1,517 in 2012/13).
A growing emphasis on internationalisation
Internationalisation and international cooperation have become key priorities for the Ministry of Education and Science (MES), with 124 international agreements signed between the MES and foreign countries and over 8,000 agreements signed by the HEIs themselves as of 2011. The decision to implement reforms in line with Bologna has been a major plank in the country’s internationalisation process and anchors a number of key goals outlined in Kazakhstan’s international mobility strategy.
The Academic Mobility Strategy in Kazakhstan 2012-2020 outlines several calls to action for Kazakhstan:
- 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.
Currently, Central Asia plays a small role in global student flows, with students from the region representing only around 2% of outbound mobile students globally. Most international students studying in Kazakhstan are from within the region itself. According to recent figures provided by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, 43,039 Kazakh students studied abroad in 2012, while the country hosted 8,982 students in return, mainly from neighbouring countries. Perhaps not surprisingly, a notable majority of outbound Kazakh students study in nearby Russia, with an estimated 30,000+ Kazakh students in Russia in 2013.
Students who study in Russia are usually attracted to universities in Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Omsk. These later three cities are well known for science studies and research.
Zulfiya Assilbekova is the deputy director of Globus Education, an education agency based in Almaty with three branch offices elsewhere in Kazakhstan. She adds that more and more, there is a growing middle class who really looks at the value of the education overseas, and the quality of the programmes offered. In her observation, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand are among the most popular destinations outside the region, and Mrs Assilbekova notes that Globus also sends students to EU countries as well as Malaysia.
Other experts in the field, such as Professor Geoffrey David Wilmoth, director of the consulting firm Learning Cities International, feel Kazakhstan is poised to position itself as an international education hub in the region. In his 2011 paper Central Asia’s future role in international higher education, Mr Wilmoth says strong government investment in the sector, a raft of recent reforms, Kazakhstan’s strategic location, and the development of new international-standard HEIs, such as Nazarbayev University, all bode well for Kazakhstan’s ambitions to play an increased role in education in the region.
Expansion of scholarship programmes
One of the country’s signature developments in the education sphere in recent decades has been the ambitious Bolashak scholarship programme. Bolashak (or “Future”) has provided awards to over 10,000 students since its inception in 1991. The programme’s aim is to train specialists in critical subject areas (primarily science, technology, and engineering fields) in order to help the country build international relations and to address Kazakhstan’s pressing needs for training and education.
The Bolashak programme has witnessed a number of evolutions over the years, including the introduction of awards for undergraduate degrees in 2005, and a subsequent phasing out of these undergraduate awards in 2011 in order to focus on graduate programmes and professional training. Funding for professional non-degree training was recently introduced as well. Currently, scholarships are awarded for graduate programmes for study at one of top 200 universities around the world. In return, Bolashak alumni pledge to return to Kazakhstan for at least five years of continuous employment following their studies.
In 2005, the Centre for International Programmes (CIP) took over administration of the Bolashak awards. CIP works in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Science and the Republican Commission. The Commission’s role is to decide priority majors, finalise programme regulations, and make final award decisions. Recently, quotas for applicants from rural areas of the country have been introduced, with special outreach to students in rural and remote parts of the country.
Mrs Assilbekova estimates that about 30% of students abroad are on scholarships, and about 70% are self funded. She emphasises the key role that parents play – “Parents are the decision makers,” she notes – and recommends that educators visit Kazakhstan in person for school appearances and to connect directly with students, parents, and agents.
Short-term mobility also on the rise
Another key plank in Kazakhstan’s internationalisation strategy has been the deepening of academic mobility schemes, primarily within Europe. Kazakhstan became a signatory to the Bologna Process in 2010 and has since ramped up efforts to encourage outbound mobility within the tertiary sector.
One core strategy has been the introduction of the Academic Mobility Scholarship programme in 2011. The programme aims to support 300 students in state or national universities to complete part of their masters degrees abroad at an institutional partner university. So far, most have chosen to study in the former Soviet Union, but a broadening of the programme, and transfer of responsibility to the CIP in 2015, aims to direct students further afield.
By 2020, the government hopes that at least 20% of learners will spend at least one academic study period abroad.
Focus on quality, governance reform
In order to improve quality within the tertiary sector, Kazakhstan’s parliament last year announced plans to further reduce the number of universities. The five-year plan would see the number of universities cut from about 150 to close to 100 through mergers, downgrading, and closures. The number of HEIs in the country has been an ongoing concern, with earlier rounds of cuts in 2008 and 2012 reducing the figures from a high of nearly 300 institutions. The current plan calls for Kazakhstan to have 40 state, 45 private, and 13 military universities. A National Public Reform Council has been struck by the government to oversee this streamlining process.
According to Rahman Alshanov, president of the Association of Universities of Kazakhstan, and a member of the National Public Reform Council, consolidating tertiary institutions will help improve competition and specialisation.
“The first factor is competition, and ‘dumping’ [of university graduates] on the educational market,” he said. “The second factor is personnel. Employers want skilled specialists, which is why we have so many universities.”
In another series of reforms, Kazakh universities will be granted more policy-setting freedom by 2016. These changes will allow universities to respond to market demand by implementing programmes and courses of their own choosing. Institutions will also be permitted to select vice-presidents and provosts.
Rapid changes create new opportunities
The rapid pace of change in Kazakhstan’s tertiary sector and the country’s focus on international cooperation has provided new opportunities for cross-border cooperation. In one recent example, education market development company “TVET UK”, working with Ravensbourne, an industry-focused university sector college, was selected to deliver the design element of the Kazakhstan government’s high profile “World Class College” initiative. The initiative will provide high quality specialist technical training and education through two new state-of-the-art colleges in Almaty and Astana. Launching in October 2015, the colleges will offer curricula and qualifications based on UK models.
With Kazakhstan’s focus on growing capacity at home, attracting larger numbers of international students, and sending more of its own students abroad, examples of this type of collaboration should only increase in the years ahead.
In the meantime, Kazakhstan provides an interesting case study as a country transitioning from centralised, Soviet rule to a relatively open, market-based economy where tertiary education plays a strategic role in increasing national development and enhancing the nation’s profile abroad.