Three dilemmas for students in Kazakhstan

Today’s post draws on the findings of an April 2016 research report by the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Kazakh research institute Public Opinion, Youth of Central Asia: Kazakhstan [ru only]. Researchers interviewed 1,000 young people aged 14-28 in different regions of Kazakhstan to obtain their views on politics, values, education, family, sex, religion and leisure using a sociological methodology comprised of a questionnaire and focus groups. A summary of the report can be found on the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung website [ru/de] and the Astana Times [en].

From the section on education, I identified three dilemmas facing young people in Kazakhstan today:

1. Is it worth going to university?

Motivation to continue to higher education is high: 85% of urban and 81% of rural respondents still in high school expressed their desire to go to university. Informants were positive about the quality of education at all levels, with fewer than 15% offering a negative assessment (this links to the title of the Astana Times article, “Survey shows Kazakh youth are pleased with their country and future“). From these findings it seems that the answer to the question would be yes, it’s worth going.

However, the report’s authors express concern at the reasons why respondents want to pursue higher education. Fully 72% said they wanted a degree to further their job prospects, suggesting that higher education has come to carry instrumental meaning as a symbol of higher earnings rather than as a site of knowledge creation and intellectual growth.

2. Can I afford to go to university?

A lack of financial means would put 42% of respondents off continuing to university, the single biggest deterrent to further study. The authors also argue that rising tuition fees help to explain why nearly half (44%) of respondents would study abroad if they had been presented with the opportunity to study anywhere.

It’s not just tuition fees that make going to university a major financial investment. Although nearly a third (31%) of current university students said there is no corruption in higher education,  42% agreed that paying bribes in order to receive grades/pass exams happened nearly always or some of the time. I find the major split in viewpoints paradoxical and at the same time am shocked by the sheer volume of those supporting the notion that corruption does exist.

3. Will I get a job afterwards?

Given that the majority of respondents appear to view their degree certificate as a golden ticket to a good job and high earnings, you’d think that this would follow through to their answers on getting a job after university. However, here again we have a paradox: whilst 36% thought it would be easy to find a job, 31% said the opposite – that it would be difficult to obtain employment. In addition, 15% said they thought they would need more than just an undergraduate degree in order to get work. And an unquantified number noted the importance of informal practices in obtaining employment, that is, getting a job by asking friends or family to connect you (and thus undermining the value of a university degree further).


What should we make of these findings? In some respects the data seems very telling – just look at that corruption stat again – but in other areas, the high numbers arguing both ends of a question’s spectrum (e.g. on the ease with which respondents thought they’d get a job) almost cancel out the effect of creating any opinion at all. So I’m not quite sure how much we can draw on the details of the findings.

At a high level, it’s clear that education is still valued by young people in Kazakhstan, even if the authors allow themselves an opinion on the subject by expressing regret at the reasons behind that high motivation.

I think we can also conclude at a high level that the way higher education is funded needs further investigation in order to find ways to alleviate financial burdens on students and professors.

Finally, I would suggest a need to better connect practices in higher education with the workforce: there’s no point training people for four years or more to be great in a particular career field if the job they’re most suited for is handed out to someone’s else niece or nephew

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