More independence for Kazakh universities?

A detailed and interesting story from Kazakh news agency Tengri News today, reporting on a recent conference for higher education leaders in the country. There is reportedly a strong move towards offering greater independence to universities in the country on everything from curriculum to revenue streams.

I couldn’t quite work out from the story why the Education Ministry is promoting this push. In the UK it’s labelled as ‘autonomy’ for universities but generally what that means is that the government can no longer afford (or no longer wishes) to provide as much public funding.

My immediate reactions on reading the story were two-fold:

1: Quality, quality, quality. Who is going to make sure that the programmes being offered by universities are good enough to be worthy of Kazakhstan’s young people? Who is going to make sure that universities are all delivering at the right level? Who is going to make sure that funding freedoms don’t allow dodgy deals to take place at the front door (and not the back door)? And so on…

2. This will undoubtedly work in the favour of the more elite institutions in the country but may not be as advantageous for lower ranked state universities and polytechnics.

Here is the original story, (c) Tengri News and also available at

Kazakhstan universities to have policy-setting freedom by 2016, conference participants told

Hal Foster ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, journalism professor

Within three years Kazakhstan’s universities will have the authority to decide what academic programs and courses they’ll offer, speakers at a recent educational leaders conference said.

This autonomy will help the universities respond better to changing student, employer and society demands for skills, according to speakers at the Second Annual Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum at Nazarbayev University.

But autonomy will not be restricted to academic-program and course selection. Universities will also have the freedom to choose their vice presidents and provosts, to allocate funds the way they want and to own their land, which will help them raise funds.

This decentralization of university decision-making will mark a major shift away from the Soviet-rooted system of the Ministry of Education and Science dictating much of what universities do.

Since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the ministry has decided what programs and courses a university can offer, who its vice presidents and provosts are and how its funds are spent. And the government, not the universities, owned the land on which the universities sat.

It’s almost ironic, then, that the driving force behind university autonomy is Minister of Education Bakytzhan Zhumagulov, who gave the keynote speech at the June 12 and 13 conference.

But university autonomy is just part of the sweeping changes that Zhumagulov’s team has been making at all levels of education – from preschool to graduate school.

Because the pace of the change has been so frenetic, Nazarbayev University leaders started the forum in 2012 to help university presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans and other educational leaders cope. Participants learn from both the speakers – many of whom are from the West – and also by exchanging ideas at forum panel sessions.

Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu moderated the conference’s general sessions, with experts on various topics leading the more specific panel sessions.

In addition to autonomy, the conference dealt with the need for universities to have an independent board of trustees to oversee the management team, to develop programs to assure quality of teaching, research and other services, and to develop non-government sources of funding.

Other issues raised at the forum included the need for an independent, non-government body to accredit universities, and for the government to award more research money to universities rather than to independent research institutes – the current system. Kazakhstan is making progress on both issues, moving toward an independent accrediting body and awarding more research money to universities.

The two most discussed issues at the conference were university autonomy and quality control.

At the moment, three-year-old Nazarbayev University is the only Kazakhstan higher educational institution with autonomy. That’s because its founders thought one of its key roles should be spurring higher-educational innovation in Kazakhstan. To ensure that it could carry out that role, the founders believed, the university needed to be independent of the Ministry of Education or other government authority.

Parliament listened to that argument by granting Nazarbayev University autonomy. It came in the form of a law giving the university “special status” to set its own course.

Deputy Prime Minister Yerbol Orynbayev underscored Nazarbayev University’s role in educational innovation by saying in his welcoming address that it was “the experimental platform that is allowing the state to reform existing universities” and create new ones.

Key elements of the autonomy that Nazarbayev University enjoys are already being phased in at other universities, said Fatima Zhakypova, head of the Education Ministry’s Higher-Education Department. For example, universities are deciding what courses to offer and choosing their vice presidents and provosts.

The bottom line is that universities with autonomy do a better job than those under the government’s thumb, asserted Mary Canning, a member of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority.

“I believe that when our universities are fully financially autonomous,” they will have a shot at becoming world-class, Zhakypova enthused.

Kazakhstan hopes to have two universities among the world’s top 100 in coming years.

Vanderbilt University Professor Stephen Heyneman said a common denominator among world-class universities is diversified sources of revenue. In fact, top universities get more of their funding from non-government sources than from government, he said.

Kazakhstan universities need to obtain more of their revenue from sources other than the Education Ministry, which provides the bulk of funding at the moment, Heyneman maintained.

Aslan Sarinzhipov, who led the team that founded Nazarbayev University and is now one of its trustees, said that for diversified funding to occur, Kazakhstan needs to develop an educational-philanthropy culture, which will take time.

Nazarbayev University is leading the way by starting the kind of endowment that many Western universities have long used to make their programs world-class.

Full financial autonomy includes a university – and not the government — owning the land on which a university sits, according to Heyneman, who specializes in university management.

Owning land is an important fund-raising tool for a university, he said. That’s because the institution can use the land as collateral to borrow money to improve programs and facilities.

Part of a university setting its own course is being able to establish its own quality control system, rather than having the government impose a system on it, according to Tom Boland, head of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority.

The primary responsibility for quality control should lie with universities, while the government’s role should be to ensure that universities take the responsibility seriously, he said.

Boland said students should be part of the quality-control-setting process, since they are the major consumers of a university’s services.

He also said that the main thrust of a quality control system should be improving quality, not finding fault. The process “needs to avoid the trap of bureaucracy” – that is, forcing a university to comply with reams of rules and regulations, he said.

Richard Miller, president of Olin College near Boston, said the best universities these days have shared governance – an independent board of trustees that oversees the university management team. One advantage of shared governance is helping ensure that management has the right priorities. Another is helping preventing management conflict of interest – for example, a university president awarding a contract to a company he owns, or to a family member or friend.

Quality control is particularly important in today’s higher-education landscape because competition for faculty and students is now international rather than confined to within a country’s borders, said Michael Worton a vice provost of University College London. His point was that these days Kazakhstan’s universities must compete not only with each other, but with universities in Europe, the United States, China and elsewhere, for professors and students.

Boland said a country should not focus too hard on getting universities on the lists of the world’s top educational institutions, however.

When a country pours a lot of resources into a few universities that it hopes to make world-class, it may be “impoverishing other universities,” he said.

“Countries should focus their institutions on what the country needs and not on international rankings,” he said.

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