Rolling back privatization in Kazakhstan’s higher education?

Cat on the road (to privatization?)

Kazakhstan has energetically pursued privatization ever since emerging from the Soviet era some three decades ago. In higher education, this trend towards privatization has long been evident. Marketization has long been a feature of higher education in Kazakhstan.

For example, the adoption of the 1995 law ‘On Privatization’, which came into effect two years later, led to the denationalization of three HEIs. Under the law, HEIs (and other state-owned institutions) could be turned into joint stock companies, a form of public-private partnership that has since proliferated in the country. I have written about this unusual legal status and its impact on Kazakhstani higher education; check out that post for a longer definition.

By 2005, fully 60% of all universities/colleges/institutes in the county were private. In comparison, around a third of all higher education institutions (HEIs) in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan were private at that time, and just 15% in Tajikistan. A decade later, the 60% figure was constant but in addition, a further 15% of all universities were registered as joint stock companies.

Despite the seemingly straight path for privatization, recent moves by the government appear to be potentially rolling back the direction of travel. In late 2019, I reported on a policy decision to reorganize the legal status of 25 universities into non-profit joint stock companies. This was an act that was simultaneously typical of privatizing policies (by reducing the amount of state funding for the universities) while demonstrating continuity in the perceived need for top-down state control over higher education.

Now, in January 2021, it’s reported that the government has decided to outright ban the privatization of 37 top universities in the country, including the flagship Al Farabi Kazakh National University. This appears to be a directive that comes directly from President Tokayev, who is quoted from October 2020 as saying that “the majority of HEIs have already become non-profit joint stock companies. This gives rise to all sorts of speculation and concerns that the strongest state universities could be sold into private hands. In conjunction with these societal fears, I can confirm that national and state universities will not be sold.”

Although almost all commentators have pointed to the similarities between Tokayev and his predecessor Nazarbayev’s administration, it seems from these moves that there are in fact some differences when it comes to their views on higher education. Where Nazarbayev encouraged the growth of privately owned HEIs, those following external (American, Singaporean etc) models, and normalized fee paying higher education, these early directives from Tokayev hint at a fork in the road, a possible pause in the ongoing consolidation of privatization in Kazakhstani higher education.

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