The number of higher education institutions in Kazakhstan – a country with a population of 17 million – rocketed up from 55 in 1991 to a peak of 182 just a decade later. Many of these were very small institutes, privately run and focussed on teaching. A number of these naturally fell away in the subsequent years, but there were still a whopping 126 higher education institutions in operation in 2015 – one for every 135,000 people! Since 2012, the government has been taking measures to optimize both the quantity and quality of higher education [ru] in Kazakhstan as I showed in a blog post from 2013, The state of higher education in Kazakhstan:
EurasiaNet.org: Kazakhstan has almost 150 higher education institutions for a population of about 17 million… How is Kazakhstan trying to change this perception that there are too many degrees being awarded, but not the labor market to support the thousands of yearly graduates?
Dr. Mukash Burkitbayev, Vice Rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University [my emphasis]: You’re right, there are so many universities for a [population] of 15 million. It is too much. Our minister of education understands this situation and now they are making a special policy. They make more requirements for the universities for the scientific material base, for quality of the staff. If the universities do not meet with such requirements such kind of a university will be closed or it will [be joined with another]. This is the main activity of ministry of education. And life demonstrates it, which university should be top; which university should be closed…
The quality of higher education remains a hot topic in Kazakhstan, so it was little wonder that the Kazakh Ambassador to Canada, Konstantin Zhigalov, expressed his views on this issue at a public roundtable on Kazakhstan’s achievements, missed opportunities, and future prospects over the last 25 years hosted at the University of Toronto this month.
Higher education has been a priority of the Kazakh state since becoming independent in 1991. A flagship programme, the Bolashak Scholarships [ru], have sent 12,000 Kazakhs to study abroad since its inception in 1993. The word Bolashak means Future in English – an apt reminder of the power of education to drive a country forward. As the situation within Kazakhstan has stabilized and with the emergence of a distinct middle class, another flagship programme, Nazarbayev University, is on the rise. Both initiatives are designed to nurture the academic elite and offer generous financial support to the brightest students to pursue cost-free higher education in a top quality setting.
These two grand projects seem to get much of the (still sadly limited) international attention paid to Kazakhstan’s higher education system, which drove me to ask the Ambassador about the challenges for the rest of the system. What are the opportunities for the majority of students who won’t get a Bolashak scholarship or entry to Nazarbayev University?
And that’s where Ambassador Zhigalov talked about the importance of raising quality across the board. This means continuing to close down institutions that are not meeting the government’s requirements and creating mergers between institutions. Beyond this, measures are being taken to reform the system in line with international norms such as the Bologna Process, engender competition through developing a national rankings system, endeavouring to place two universities amongst the world’s best, enhancing accreditation systems, and continuing the drive towards “modernization” which has been a watch word in national strategies for many years.
These are challenging targets, but the consistent efforts towards achieving these reforms are clear and commendable. Whether or not you agree with the direction of travel, it is hard to disagree that the higher education system in Kazakhstan is on the journey of its life.