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12th Dec 2016

Outbound mobility from Kazakhstan up 140% over past decade

At 2.7 million square kilometers, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world and roughly the size of Western Europe. The name Kazakhstan derives from an ancient Turkic word meaning “independent,” or “free spirit,” and the origin is fitting, because today’s Kazakhstani students have begun to emulate the region’s ancient nomadic traditions by studying abroad in increasing numbers

Education at home

Forecasts have it that up to a quarter of a million students will graduate from Kazakhstani high schools every year over the next five years. Those who successfully pass the exit examination known as the Unified National Test or UNT (sometimes alternately referred to as the United National Test) may then apply to local universities and other higher educational institutions for a chance to join the 620,000 students already enrolled in higher education. The test is not mandatory for students who apply to foreign universities on a self-funded basis, but those seeking state-funded scholarships do need to pass it. In 2013, close to 100,000 students, or just over 70% of all graduates in that year, registered for the UNT. Kazakhstani higher education includes universities, academies, and technical/vocational institutions. The technical/vocational sector is underfunded and the demand for places is low compared to that for academic studies. As a result, the country's large oil, gas, and mineral-related sectors suffer from skill shortages. However, outside observers have lauded Kazakhstan's efforts to improve all areas of higher education, including technical training. The country recently launched the World Bank-supported Skills and Jobs Project, which is aimed at raising the quality and relevance of technical/vocational education by better aligning curriculum with labour market needs. Up until 2011 there were about 150 higher education institutions, 53 of which were public. The number of private universities decreased after 2011 following government reforms. Other measures tightened licensing regulations and qualification requirements, all toward the goal of raising the quality of local programmes to international standards. These changes, according to the Ministry of Education and Science, will eventually cap the number of higher education facilities at 100. The higher education sector is evolving in its approach to instruction, but at the moment relies heavily on testing and memorisation. Kazakhstan became the 47th signatory of the Bologna Process in 2010, which has led to greater prioritisation on skills development and learning outcomes, but progress still needs to be made. Academic fraud has been a serious issue in Kazakhstani higher education, but is believed to have drastically decreased in the last few years after the introduction of various countermeasures, including mandatory anti-cheating classes for all incoming university freshmen. In an effort to break with the previous system new laws are in place that will shift degree control from the Ministry of Education and Science to individual campuses. In early 2016, Kazakhstan's Minister for Education and Science, Yerlan Sagadiyev, announced that state-issued diplomas, a legacy of the country's Soviet past, would end in 2020 and universities would issue their own degree certificates. ICEF Monitor has examined the Kazakhstan education market before, and details of the many ongoing educational reforms appear in our earlier coverage.

Outbound mobility

Soon after Kazakhstan achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, President Nursultan Nazarbayev established programmes awarding thousands of study abroad scholarships. These helped popularise the idea of overseas learning, and today attending foreign universities is a cultural norm. The Russian Federation is overwhelmingly the most popular destination, owing to a combination of proximity, cultural and language ties, pricing and quality of institutions, and ease of admission into the educational system. The latest UNESCO figures indicate that 66,623 Kazakhstani students were enrolled in higher education abroad in 2015, an increase of nearly 140% over the 28,249 who went abroad in 2006. Of that 2015 total, nearly three in four (74%) chose to study in Russia. Another significant percentage (7%, or 4,535 students) were enrolled in (also) neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. As this breakdown suggests, relatively small numbers of students currently move outside the region. Around 2,000 Kazakhstani students enrolled in US institutions in 2015, and about 1,600 chose the UK. Some students are attracted to low cost private higher education providers in the UK, particularly for MBA degrees, but on the whole price sensitivity is not as high in the Kazakhstani market as it might be. A separate report from the Institute of International Education indicates that China is also a major destination, having hosted 13,198 Kazakhstani students in 2015. China does not figure in the UNESCO data at all, suggesting that the total number of outbound students for 2015 may be closer to 80,000 and with the vast majority of those (84%) enrolled in three directly neighbouring countries: Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Historically, most Kazakhstani students abroad have been self-funded and have been largely drawn from the capital city of Astana as well as Almaty, the country’s largest city. In general, students seek education information from assorted sources. University websites and international rankings carry the most weight, with officials and agents, education exhibitions such as Internationional Education Fair Kazakhstan, and national websites having somewhat less influence. Parents strongly influence the choices of their children, and tend to seek the advice of agents and other experts. Most Kazakhstani students, especially those from rural areas, require a preparatory English programme before entering a full undergraduate course in a foreign university. English language learning has been a priority for the government since 2007, when President Nazarbayev outlined a trilingual initiative. In his words, “Kazakhstan must be perceived in the world as a highly educated country whose population can use three languages: Kazakh as the national language, Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication, and English as the language of successful integration in the global economy.” However, Kazakhstan’s EF English Proficiency Index ranking has never climbed above the “very poor” tier in the years since.

The government’s role

In addition to its trilingual policy, the government has intervened in other areas in an attempt to boost students’ international competitiveness. Its main programme is the Bolashak national government scholarship, which was established in 1993 to assist students in obtaining quality education abroad. The scholarship, named after a Kazakh word that means “future,” was the first of its kind in Central Asia and covers all higher education costs, including tuition, travel, living expenses, and preparatory English studies, if needed. The programme requires all recipients to return to Kazakhstan upon completing their education and to work for five years at home. Historically at least, there has not been much in the way of demand for post-graduation employment in the country of study. The government also funds a Bolashak Fellowship designed to give applicants the opportunity to improve their English and to conduct a portion of their academic research in a university overseas. Foreign placements last anywhere from one month to a year, and as with the broader scholarship programme, the fellowship covers the costs of preliminary English language training, if needed, in the form of a six-month English language course prior to departure. The capacity of the entire Bolashak programme is now 3,000 recipients per year. Since 2011, it has provided scholarships for master's and PhD programs only. In 2012, the programme expanded to cover arts, mass media, public servants, academic and medical staff, engineers, and technical workers, all toward the goal of producing the highly skilled workers needed by the local economy. The programme currently maintains agreements with 200 educational institutions worldwide, including 49 in the United States. By the year 2020, the Kazakhstani government hopes that at least 20% of learners, either via scholarship or self funding, will spend at least one academic semester abroad.

The Chinese connection

Traditionally, Kazakhstani students have looked West for schooling, including to Russia. However, and as the earlier figures for 2015 will illustrate, an increasing number are eyeing China as well. The Chinese government has promoted the country as a study destination strongly in recent years, including through the opening of Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture in Central Asia. The more-than-13,000 Kazakhstani students in China in 2015 represent a five-fold increase over the last decade. Earlier this year Dariga Nazarbayeva, deputy prime minister and daughter of the president, publicly endorsed teaching Chinese to Kazakhstani children in addition to Kazakh, Russian, and English. “In the near future,” she said, “we all need to know Chinese.” With China's share of investment in the Kazakhstani economy growing and its education push ongoing, signs point to China garnering an even larger share of Kazakhstani migration in upcoming years. The Kazakhstan government has welcomed China's efforts, and indeed has encouraged greater overall foreign involvement in the higher education sector. All universities are now required to maintain and increase international partnerships as part of the national strategy for quality improvement. A number of English-medium universities, including Kazakh-British Technical University established in 2000, are now on the scene, and prestigious brands such as Geneva Business School have also set up shop in Kazakhstan.

Future outlook

As with other countries whose economies are reliant upon oil extraction, Kazakhstan's national coffers have taken a hit during the last two years. The oil and gas sector accounts for about 60% of the country’s export revenues and 10% of overall GDP. After almost two decades of growth, the economy is experiencing tougher times due to low commodity prices, the depletion of reserves, and economic contraction or slowdown in two major trading partners in Russia and China. Though there are many higher education institutions in Kazakhstan, most are in Almaty, the largest city, located in the far east of the country, making geographic access an issue. The capital, Astana, is a planned city that is more centrally situated, but concerns about disparities in education equity and quality have been raised by some observers. Socio-economic disparities between urban and rural areas may persist as long as education providers concentrate in the population centres. In the years ahead, Kazakhstani authorities wish to turn the country into one of the most developed in the world. The potential human capital will be there: the country's population will grow by 20% in the coming twenty-five years, and at the end of that time 70% of the population could be living in urban areas, where higher education is centred. Long term success will depend on several factors – not least a political situation in the non-democratic nation that looks considerably more liquid than it did a few years ago – however, diversification of the economy will be the main factor, and for that the higher education sector will prove key. As the population grows, and the economy expands, we can expect continued growth in outbound mobility as well. The number of college-aged students will expand considerably over the rest of this decade. The question that hangs over that growth is will the bulk of those outbound students continue to study in the region, or will growing numbers also begin to look at destinations further afield?

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