A degree more autonomy for Kazakhstan’s universities?

Give me a degree please!

You’ve studied hard, taken exams, written essays, done experiments, completed practicums – basically, ticked all the boxes your course requires. All that’s left is to get your well earned diploma (degree certificate).

For students in Kazakhstan graduating from 2021, these diplomas will no longer be state issued but rather the responsibility of each university or higher education institution (HEI). The only exception will be for medics, as the state Health Code specifies that degree certificates have to be standardized.

This may not sound like a big change – and indeed, it’s possible that HEIs will choose to continue to design them similarly to the rather elegant booklet style certificate that was brought forward from the Soviet era (see here for a pre-2021 Kazakh diplomas and here for the inside of a Soviet-era degree certificate).

However, while the look and feel of the certificate might remain similar, minus the stamp of the Ministry of Education, the significance of this reform lies in the transfer of responsibility from the state to individual HEIs. This means that HEIs take on more responsibility for guaranteeing the quality of the educational achievement signified by a diploma, which in turn the government hopes will drive up competition among HEIs.

I wrote more about the significance of this reform for quality and institutional autonomy back in 2016 when the reform was announced at Kazakh universities to go it alone: the end of the state-issued diploma in Kazakhstan.

One higher education expert has pointed out that the competition aspect of the reform should have a positive impact on the labour market. Because the degree certificate is the HEI’s warranty that a graduate is suitably qualified for work, employers will soon be able to distinguish between institutions that genuinely do equip their students well, and those that leave more to be desired.

The fears expressed when the change was first announced that this will lead to increase in fake degree certificates have not been fully allayed, but the government will combat this to some extent by maintaining a registry of all degree certificates. This will record their codes and other identifiers and is part of a wider digitization/e-government drive in the country.

This reform has been five years in the making, and I suspect it will take (at least) another five years before it’s possible to make a full assessment of whether the shift from state-issued to university-issued diplomas have achieved their desired effects. For now, Kazakhstan marks yet another notch on its higher education reform belt.

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