Before the dust had even settled on the Minister for Education’s recent announcement that Kazakhstani universities will issue their own degree certificates from 2021, the next reform agenda for higher education in the country has been laid out. Speaking at a 2 April meeting with university rectors and faculty members, Deputy Prime Minister Dariga Nazarbayeva raised the hot topics of university autonomy and academic freedom.
(Before I move on, let me remind you again that Nazarbayeva is the President’s daughter – her family name is a bit of a giveaway – just in case anyone else out there is wondering who might be in line to take Nazarbayev’s place when the eventual succession happens…)
Apparently achieving autonomy is not just the government’s task but its “dream”, according to Nazarbayeva, making what I can only see as an extremely tenuous connection between academic independence and the prospect of reduced funding from the state. Perhaps it was the eliding of autonomy with talk of greater commercialization that explains the link; but either way, it was an odd pairing.
Autonomy in a university setting would imply more robust internal governance mechanisms and greater authority to manage budgets and recruit people – including university leaders, who are currently appointed by the state. It tends not to be associated with financial cutbacks, although in the grander scheme of transforming universities into the mould of recent Western educational reforms, this drive for “Kazakhstani modernization” would not be out of step with the shifts seen in contexts such as the UK and USA.
These shifts can been neatly encapsulated by the phrase “academic capitalism” (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2009), implying knowledge becoming a commodity to be capitalized on rather than knowledge as a public good or even (heaven forbid) knowledge for its own sake.
The detail of how Kazakhstan’s universities are to be given greater autonomy and academic freedom have not yet been spelled out. To get some indication of how this might work, we need to look at what’s happening at Nazarbayev University, which I have written about several times over the last five years on this blog. One of the university’s missions is to be a model for higher education system reform in Kazakhstan, and to that end, the principles of autonomy and academic freedom are actually enshrined in legislation from 2011.
My assessment of the situation at Nazarbayev University (named after the President; his daughter’s not been around in a senior position long enough to have anything named after her yet) is that these principles are holding up, though it’s still very early days. You can find evidence of research on areas that in other Central Asian countries would most definitely not be permitted (e.g. on political opposition in post-Soviet countries) and people I’ve talked to with experience inside the university suggest that faculty recruitment is generally open and merit-based.
There are a lot of challenges for autonomous governance at Nazarbayev University though, not least stemming from Kazakhstan’s heritage of the top-heavy, bureaucratic and intrusive Soviet higher education system. And whilst the Kazakhstan government might be endeavouring to present itself both domestically and internationally as on a single-minded drive towards change, elements of that heritage still linger. Despite pronouncing the importance of autonomy and academic freedom, Nazarbayeva in her speech (read it in Russian here or in awkward and incomplete translation into English here) explicitly said that the government will “talk sternly” with those in the academy who resist changes. So much for plurality of voices and opinions!
The Kazakhstani government must be careful to bring universities on board with plans for reforms, and not get swept away in their fervour for fast results. Without genuine consensus at both policy development and implementation stages, the level of change is likely to be superficial at best.
Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.