No stranger to creating new universities, Kazakhstan’s longstanding (and thus far only) president Nursultan Nazarbayev has already set up or led initiatives since founding KIMEP University in 1992.
Now, building on the investment and early successes of the eponymous Nazarbayev University – which the president apparently did not ask to be named after himself – Nazarbayev proclaimed recently that it is time for another institute. In a recent public statement, the president is quoted as saying
Based on the educational resource infrastructure we already have in place, I believe we need another regional university like Nazarbayev University. It will probably be a polytechnic university.
In his statement, the president also underlined the importance of what he called ‘high quality education’. Only higher education institutions that can deliver on quality should be allowed, he noted. Nazarbayev also talked about the need to partner with global universities – as Nazarbayev University has done so successfully both at institutional level and in attracting foreign faculty and senior administrators.
All that sounds like fighting talk – and in Kazakhstan, this kind of statement is usually an indication that action will follow, and will follow soon.
So, watch this space. Nazarbayev Polytechnic University, coming to a Kazakh city near you, soon.
In an interview with Gazeta.uz [ru] published on 18 September, Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Aziz Abdukhakimov offers some insights into higher education reforms in the country. The list is impressively long, indicative of broader reform trends taking place across government and in society as a whole.
In higher education, I’ve already flagged Uzbekistan’s growing interest in cooperation with neighbour and former arch-enemy Tajikistan, the release of the first national university ranking and the role of higher education in the country’s international relations.
Now let’s add to those efforts the reforms described by Abdukhakimov earlier this week:
- Autonomy – there’s a proposal for Rectors (Vice-Chancellors) to be elected by faculty under an open vote. This makes the state one step further away, and the open voting is intended to avoid the possiblity of what Abdukhakimov calls ‘clan politics’ entering the higher education system. However, Abdukhakimov notes that the state will retain the right to veto the choice of Rector in state universities, so let’s not get carried away with too many ideas about academic freedom and the like;
- Decentralization – universities are to bring in their own managers to deal with finance and local administration, and should establish governing bodies (usually called boards of trustees in former Soviet systems) to oversee their affairs;
- Expansion – universities will be allowed to recruit more students (within the limit of the number of faculty they have and capacity of their facilities – classrooms, dormitories etc) and offer a wider range of course ‘in order to respond to the demands of the market more flexibly’;
- Income – connected to the point on expansion above, universities will be able to admit students who did not achieve the required admissions test score by charging them tuition at between 1,5 and 3 times the amount of the regular fee. Whilst Abdukhakimov does not encourage universities to admit students who did not meet the requirements [ru], it’s hard to see how the prospect of extra income that these ‘super-contract’ [ru] students will bring with them will deter HEIs;
- Privatization – the legal system will recognize private higher education institutes (HEIs) and the government is planning tax breaks and other incentives to encourage more such HEIs to open. The government also wants to encourage more public-private partnership HEIs e.g. by offering state-owned buildings for privately run use;
- Internationalization – the country wants more international students and has ambitions – rather like Kazakhstan – to become a regional education hub. Abdukhakimov asserts that these international students will then return home to be brand ambassadors for Uzbekistan, ‘which is very advantageous for the country’s image’;
- Choice – new admissions processes will be introduced allowing prospective students to apply earlier and to more HEIs than the current system permits;
- Access – the state will fund a small number of students from disdvantaged or rural backgrounds to attend privately run universities (a grant system already exists in publicly funded HEIs). Former military personnel will be able to get funding from a specific grant scheme rather than applying to the main grant pot;
- Commercialization – the state is going to invest in 80 HEIs and provide free places so that they can turn into what Abdukhakimov calls ‘Universities 3.0’. Beyond teaching and research (as making up 1.0 and 2.0 if you want to think about it like that), these HEIs will emphasize the commercialization of knowledge – so I’m imagining the government is thinking of US models like Stanford or MIT that has many highly successful spin-off companies and opportunities for students to be involved in social and business entrepreneurship.
The interview is followed by a fairly lively discussion which mainly focusses on the financial aspects. The idea of ‘super-contracts’ [ru] is new and is quite clever if you think about it from the government’s point of view. By legitimizing practices they know are already happening (I too have heard about this in other universities in neighbouring countries – e.g. you pay a ‘double contract’ – two years’ fees – for the first year of study if you didn’t quite make the grade), the state gets to take the credit for giving HEIs more flexibility and income, all the while arguing that this low stakes because if the students aren’t smart enough to make the admissions cut-off, they’ll probably drop out – but not before paying at least a year’s worth of fees. But on the other hand, as one commentator suggests: “The name ‘super-contract’ makes it sound like an achievement, but really it’s just a straight path into university for rich idiots’.
There’s an awful lot to digest in this short summary of the Uzbekistan government’s plans, and it’s an exciting time for those of us (OK, for me!) interested in how higher education is changing in the Central Asia region. Almost all of what Abdukhakimov is proposing puts Uzbekistan squarely in the growing group of nations seeking to conform to what they see as ‘global best practices’ in higher education, which basically means attempting to emulate the US research university system and neoliberal funding models where higher education is seen as primarily a private good.
Many of the ideas for reform are also underway in neighbouring countries, although as far as I know, the ‘super-contract’ is unique to Uzbekistan. I’m planning to discuss the prospects for regional integration in the Central Asian higher education systems in a future blog post, and something I will consider there is the extent to which the convergence on the type of reforms being pursued helps or hinders those prospects.
There’s much more to say about the direction Uzbekistan is choosing to travel in when it comes to higher education, but that’s enough for today.
Kazakhstan has embraced private ownership of higher education and many other sectors since it became an independent state following the fall of the Soviet Union. This initially stemmed from the economic turmoil of the early and mid-1990s that led to a need to diversify what had once been a totally state owned and funded higher education system.
Privatization has led to the creation of new organizational statuses in higher education.
Kazakhstan may be the only country in the former Soviet space to have created the category of ‘joint stock company‘ covering higher education institutions (at least, it’s the only instance I’m aware of – please correct me if you know differently). This is, according to Ahn et al (2018):
a scheme where the Kazakhstani government shares ownership with other shareholders, which could be a private individual(s) or corporation. (p.208)
Joint stock companies have ‘the same legal status as privately owned businesses’, according to Hartley et al (2016, p.280). Just a handful of universities were created as joint stock companies to begin with, although an identifiable wave of privatization in the 2000s led to the conversion of some existing state universities into joint stock companies.
One of the country’s first joint stock company-universities was the Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU), founded in 2000. KBTU makes a fascinating case study in and of itself, not least because of its initial links with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the recent debacle about its on-again off-again merger with Satbayev University (about which very little is publicly available so I am waiting to learn more from an inside source. See my April 2017 post for the “on-again” story).
So KBTU is a joint stock company-university, and here’s where it gets even more interesting. KazMunayGaz, an oil and gas company, currently owns 100% of the shares in the highly rated Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU).
Yes, that’s right, petrol is fuelling degrees (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).
But the story doesn’t quite end there.
KazMunayGaz is not quite the sole proprietor of KBTU. It may own all the shares [ru], but KazMunayGaz itself is fully owned by the Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund, which in turn has just the one shareholder: the government.
So does that make KBTU a private or a public university? The answer is somewhere in between.
NB: Higher ed researchers take note: a new category is needed here!
Having not quite established what sort of higher education institution KBTU is – or is not – the next part of the story only complicates matters.
Earlier in August 2018, it was announced that KazMunayGaz will be selling all of its shares in KBTU.
This time, it seems, KBTU really is going private.
This is not a shock, as it formed part of the second wave of a government-led plan for privatization announced in 2015.
Nevertheless, the various news articles announcing the details of the share sale raise more than an eyebrow about the very fact that a cold hard value has been placed on education.
And, it seems, the cost of education is high: starting offers of US$31 million are expected to buy KBTU. Expressions of interest may be made until early November, at which point a bidding process will take place (these details included in case any of my blog readers ever felt like owning their own university and have some spare cash…).
The new owner is required to retain KBTU’s current profile i.e. range of academic specializations for at least 10 years, ensure that at least 50% of staff are Kazakh, promise to maintain student living conditions for the next five years, and retain use of the current buildings (including the iconic former Kazakh SSR Supreme Council in Almaty) for at least two years.
Further, the new owner may not re-sell or pass on its shares for at least two years and for the three years that follow may only do so with KazMunayGaz’s permission.
So KBTU is going private and it’s going to cost a helluva lot to buy it. And even once you’ve bought it, it’s not quite yours for a good decade, given the buying conditions.
I can’t wait to see who raids their piggy bank for this investment.
Ahn, Elise, John Dixon, and Larissa Chekmareva. 2018. “Looking at Kazakhstan’s Higher Education Landscape: From Transition to Transformation between 1920-2015.” In 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity, edited by Jeroen Huisman, Anna Smolentseva, and Isak D. Froumin, 199–227. Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan. www.palgrave.com/de/book/9783319529790.
Hartley, Matthew, Bryan Gopaul, Aida Sagintayeva, and Renata Apergenova. 2016. “Learning Autonomy: Higher Education Reform in Kazakhstan.” Higher Education 72 (3): 277–89. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-015-9953-z.
A recurring theme for higher education in Central Asia is corruption. A quick search of my blog turns up story after story that I’ve written on this topic and that would only be scratching the surface.
I know this is not only a problem for Central Asia, or even the broader former Soviet space. Just this week I was talking to a friend who’s doing amazing fieldwork in Iraq on the possible future for higher education there, but she too has found that corruption is a significant hindrance to positive change.
It’s not a new problem for Central Asia/former Soviet space either. Despite the ostensible equality of the Soviet period, the hierarchy of universities was well known (Moscow State at the narrow top of a pyramid) and well-connected / politically regime-friendly parents had a much greater chance of getting their child into a ‘top’ university than your everyday farmer or labourer.
This deeply embedded legacy hasn’t stopped Kazakhstan from attempting to claw away at some of the corrupt practices still found in its higher education system. Presumably the policy rationale here is part of the government’s push to ‘modernize’ the country to the point that it becomes a top 30 world economy.
Earlier this year, the State Service and Anti-Corruption Agency in Kazakhstan opened an office embedded in the country’s leading university, Al Farabi Kazakh National University. The office is leading a project called Sanaly Urpaq, which amongst other things is developing a corruption index [ru] for the country’s higher education institutions.
A trial at the National University surveyed students and academics on topics like the extent to which profs embody professional values and the transparency of the educational process.
After analysing all the data, Sanaly Urpaq produced an anti-corruption rating of the departments at the National University which was ‘widely discussed’ at the university’s Academic Board, according to Liter News Agency [ru].
This format of surveys followed by a departmental ranking (the Kazakhs do love their rankings) will now be rolled out across the country. The idea is that this ‘name and shame’ exercise will nudge the country’s higher education institutions into taking concrete measures to combat corruption.
I think this latest ranking exercise is significant because it’s a sign that not only does the government recognize that corruption exists, but that it understands that this is a persistent problem in higher education. The idea of embedding the project office in the country’s leading university is also novel and hopefully will encourage a shared sense of ownership of the need to combat corruption.
I would love to hear from colleagues working in Kazakh universities and institutes to know whether this project is being taken seriously by professors and university management. Both groups absolutely have to be on board for any real change to take place.
I’ve been blogging about higher education in Central Asia for nearly seven years, and it would be great not to have to write about corruption so much! So on this flimsy basis alone, I hope that this project paves the way for reform in Kazakhstan.
Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.
On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.
All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.
Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.
Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.
There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.
For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.
The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.
The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.
One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.
The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.