In yet another move to distance itself from its communist past, the Kazakh Minister for Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev recently announced [ru] that the era of state-issued diplomas (degree certificates) would soon be coming to an end. Announced in parliament when everyone else was distracted (bored to tears?) by the recent Kazakhstani national elections, the announcement means that from 2021, graduates will receive a diploma accredited by their institution and not centrally by the state. This practice was established during the Soviet Union and is a typical example of the extensive state control over higher education that ranged from deciding how many students could go to each institution to determining the curriculum for every subject.
According to Minister Sagadiyev, this reform is not just about creating greater parallels between Kazakhstan and the “developed” world economies it aspires to join, where it is commonplace for individual universities to issue their own degree certificates. The underlying issue he seeks to address is educational quality and market choice, both of which are hot topics in Kazakhstan.
The rationale goes like this: with universities issuing their own degrees, institutions will take on greater responsibility for managing standards and resources (for example, this could include: level of qualifications held by faculty, equipment in labs and libraries) to assure the quality of their provision and improve students’ experiences. It is likely they will also start paying more attention to their marketing efforts. In turn, prospective students and their families will invest more time and effort in selecting a university, and their choice will start to hinge more on the institution’s reputation. And so the circle of continual improvement goes on: university reputations should be determined by the caliber of their graduates, their post-study employment destinations and so on, and the better the reputation, the more likely that students will want to go there. This should also, hopes Sagadiyev, help to eliminate some of the diploma mills that have emerged in the country since the 1990s and which he believes continue to thrive whilst they hide behind the mask of the state-issued diploma.
It’s yet another ambitious reform to higher education in Kazakhstan, an area that is gaining increasing attention from the government after extensive input into school-level education in recent years. This policy absolutely ticks the boxes that Kazakhstan has set itself in striving to become a top 30 global economy: it is designed to enhance competition, drive up standards and create more of a market amongst higher education institutions.
This proposal has not gone entirely unnoticed in Kazakhstan. Economist Yevgeny Kochetov, writing for Inform Bureau [ru] is unconvinced that this reform will address the crisis he sees in Kazakh higher education. According to Kochetov, the real issue is the very narrow and economically driven mission he sees in universities. As a result, they are producing economists and lawyers as if there’s no tomorrow (and in so doing, skewing supply onto the labour market), with university becoming a breeding ground for a middle class that is fixated on making money. Drawing on early 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, Kochetov argues the case for a new university mission in Kazakhstan. In this mission, the university supports “students to confront the great ideas and the great issues of their age for the sake of leadership in society and for the management of their own lives” (Kerr, 1991). Universities also remain places where the professions and other subject specializations are taught, but the notion that they disseminate a “general culture” prevails.
Worthy as Kochetov’s call to reform the university mission is, it raises more questions than he hopes to answer. How applicable would Ortega y Gasset’s ideas be, transplanted from Spain nearly a hundred years after they were written? What about the many other ideas of the university that have been developed since, and are still developing? Who would decide what the “right” mission is for Kazakh universities? Would they have to be restricted to one vision for their future? There are lots of other questions too, but I just wanted to give an indication of a few of the points that Kochetov’s article raised.
What this shows us is that there are many ways to interpret the issue of “quality” in university settings. Where Sagadiyev and Kochetov agree is in acknowledging that there are problems in the Kazakhstani higher education system (and I think it’s fair to say that ALL higher education systems have many issues) – not least corruption and lack of institutional autonomy. Perhaps having universities issue their own diplomas is a step towards supporting improvements in the higher education system. I am not convinced that the evidence from other countries that issue their own degrees would compellingly demonstrate this, but of course, that’s not to say that things won’t play out quite differently in Kazakhstan.
However, in a world where you can buy the very degree certificate I’ve used an image of [ru] for just US$1,000 online, it is clear that there are some major impediments to change and that the journey towards the system Sagadiyev envisages will be a long and probably bumpy one.
Kerr, Clark (1991) Ortega y Gasset for the 21st Century: Mission of the University Reexamined. Society, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 79-83.