Kazakhstan: Higher education on hold at home, students stranded abroad

Protests in Kazakhstan have put higher education in the country on hold and the start of term postponed, while many students remain stranded abroad. My Kazakhstan-based colleague Dana Abdrasheva and I wrote about the latest situation and the implications for higher education for University World News. Here’s a reprint of the article that was published on 14 January 2022:


Higher education on hold at home, students stranded abroad

Dana Abdrasheva and Emma Sabzalieva  14 January

Kazakhstan has been in the world’s headlines after a series of protests over energy price hikes that began at the start of January rapidly escalated. Within the space of a few days, the protests had turned into nationwide unrest, affecting the largest city Almaty in particular.

Experts on Kazakhstan have pointed to longstanding discontent stemming from growing social inequality and rampant corruption that has been simmering almost uninterrupted under the surface of Kazakh society since the country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Over the course of an unprecedented few days, peaceful demonstrations and social unrest soon turned into rioting, violence and political machinations, with scores of people killed, injured or arrested. An effective information blackout with the shutting down of the internet only added to the sense of panic and uncertainty that swiftly pervaded the country.

Higher education on hold

When the protests began, students in Kazakhstan were coming to the end of their winter break. The government announced an emergency situation and has extended the holiday until 24 January for students in higher education.

Those living in large urban areas have been subject to city-wide curfews, effectively restricting them to staying at home.

The government estimates that around 6,000 students have remained in university accommodation during the crisis. Almost all are international students or live too far from home to return; they have been reliant on institutional support for food and other necessities.

The undergraduate university admissions process, determined by a standardised examination system called the Unified National Test, has also been deferred. Applications to take the exam have been extended and the dates of the exam itself pushed back by several weeks. The application period for masters and PhD programmes has similarly been extended.

Thus far, it appears that, unlike in other settings, students have not taken a prominent role in shaping events in Kazakhstan. However, it is suggested that marginalised young people – especially unemployed youth from rural and suburban areas who have travelled to bigger towns and cities – have become key players in the protests.

Implications for students abroad

In 2019 UNESCO estimated that around 90,000 Kazakh students were internationally mobile. Around 60,000 of them head to Russia, making Kazakhstan the number one source of international students in Russia. The next most popular destination is China, which attracts around 15,000 Kazakh students.

Students currently abroad have turned to social media, sharing videos and messages of support through WhatsApp and Telegram. One video, verified by the authors, features a group of Kazakh students in Hong Kong calling for peace and discouraging violence. Other Kazakh international students studying in universities around the world have confirmed to us that they have received emails of support from their host universities, offering help if needed.

Despite the offers of assistance and demonstrations of solidarity, the impact on students abroad has been immense. As one Kazakh international student told us: “This has influenced me psychologically. It was hard to get back into the semester and concentrate on my studies knowing that these events were happening at home and there was an almost total blackout on information from my family.

“Along with many of my friends in Hong Kong, we barely slept at night for several days, reading updates on Telegram and trying to get through to our families and friends in Kazakhstan by phone, especially to those in Almaty. My studies were put aside because the only time I could write to my family when they had a few hours of internet was during my morning lectures.”

Rapid response by universities

Some international students, however, were stuck at home. With flights cancelled and Almaty airport closed after it was stormed by protesters, students who had returned home to Kazakhstan for the New Year’s holiday have been unable to return to their host countries or even be online during the days of the internet shutdown.

Many of their host universities have posted special notifications on their websites and sent emails to reach students once connectivity was available. Without exception, these messages have been supportive and were sent out almost immediately after the protests began.

This might be expected from universities in Russia, given the number of Kazakh students on their books, but the authors have also seen similar offers of support shared by students studying in a range of countries. The typical response by universities has been to enable distance learning for students unable to return to campus and to offer flexibility in extending submission deadlines and even semester dates. This latter response recognises that online learning may not have been possible during internet outages.

The experiences of border closures due the pandemic over the last two years has clearly helped universities to be able to quickly respond to support pedagogical continuity for international students. This might, however, be among the first times that this pandemic-inspired reaction has been applied to a different type of crisis.

‘Our children’s future is at stake’

At the height of the protests, the Minister of Education and Science issued a statement announcing the postponement of the start of term, calling on citizens not to get involved while the government dealt with the situation and going as far as to say that “the future of our homeland and our children is at stake”.

Based on what we know so far, we see two main connections between the current events in Kazakhstan and the future impact on higher education.

The first intersection returns us to the involvement of young people in the protests – those who might be called ‘NEETs’ (not in education, employment or training) in other contexts – and links their disenfranchisement and discontent to the role of higher education in the domestic context.

Higher education in Kazakhstan is not immune from the corruption and nepotism that also affect many young people’s chances of getting decent employment. Despite extensive reforms, there continue to be concerns about the quality of higher education provision and this too impacts young people’s life prospects.

Higher education also needs better mechanisms to provide students with chances to connect with industry and improve their employment options.

The second link goes beyond the ‘homeland’ to consider the effects of this crisis from an international perspective. Looking through the lens of Kazakhstan’s international students, both those stranded at home as well as those abroad trying frantically to reach family and friends, shows the impact on higher education extending well beyond Kazakhstan’s national borders.

At a basic level, this means that universities welcoming international students should be cognisant of current world events and students’ social and support networks. At an institutional level, crisis recovery plans need to extend beyond events that could happen on campus to other kinds of crises that students might get caught up in.

As Kazakhstan begins to pick up the pieces of this period of social unrest, higher education too must come to a reckoning and take opportunities to enhance well-being via quality higher education at home while institutions ensure they create more comprehensive internationalisation policies for international students.

Parts of this article draw on a blog post originally published on Emma Sabzalieva’s website. Dana Abdrasheva and Emma Sabzalieva work at UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean in the research and analysis team.

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