Developments in higher education in Central Asia series

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 3: Kazakhstan

Posted on

Today, a brief overview of the current situation for higher education in Kazakhstan, as part of my monthly series reviewing the Central Asian countries. Click on the links to read earlier posts on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Of the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan in particular has embraced the concept of a market-driven higher education system and national policy is aimed at ‘reforming the higher education system to meet the needs of a modern competitive economy based on international experience’ (National Tempus Office Kazakhstan, October 2010: 6). Both in number and proportion, there are more private providers of higher education in Kazakhstan than other Central Asian countries, which partly reflects low government investment in education.

That said, there has been investment in in the high quality end of the market to support President Nazarbayev’s aim of creating a knowledge economy in the country. The best example of this is the 2006 creation of a brand new university in the capital Astana. Originally called simply the New University, it has now been renamed Nazarbayev University after the President. Despite neither name being interesting or original (although New College Oxford has been around since 1379 so perhaps they should have stuck with the original name!), significant state funds have been pumped into prestigious international partnerships with universities of the likes of Harvard, University College London and the National University of Singapore with the aim of creating – at high-speed – an international standard research university with a focus on science and social sciences.

Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University
Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University

In terms of subject areas, the British Council’s review of the Kazakhstan market confirms that science, engineering and technology are priorities for the country (May 2011). These subjects have been a focus for the state-funded Bolashak Scholarship Programme (which between 1995 and 2010 sent over 7,300 Kazakh students abroad to study), demonstrating a desire to improve capacity in these areas. However, with the rise of Nazarbayev University, it is likely that the Bolashak Programme will be remodelled as a smaller programme focussing exclusively on subjects not available in Kazakhstan.

The Ministry of Education and Science in Kazakhstan has ten stated priorities for the development of higher education that aim to improve quality and enable the achievement of international standards (Omirbaev, December 2009). The priorities are geared around making Kazakhstan’s education system compatible with the Bologna process, for example moving to the three-cycle Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate system and introducing a credit transfer system like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Vocational training is also important, with the government recently announcing that its education development programme will bring standards up to an international level.

In summary, Kazakhstan’s ‘higher education system has come a very long way from its Soviet roots since independence’ (OECD/World Bank, 2007: 24) but it is held back on a global scene because of the slower rates of development (e.g. in institution building and basic infrastructure) in the Central Asian region as a whole. It has not been immune to the global financial crisis, as Lillis noted in 2009, with subsequent effects on the student experience that are demonstrated through student quotes used in the article.


  • British Council. (May 2011). Kazakhstan Market Briefing
  • CaspioNet. (07.01.2012). Kazakhstan transmits to international standards of vocational training. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from
  • Lillis, Joanna. (07.06.2009) Kazakhstan: Economic Crisis Crimps Astana’s Grand Plans for Higher Education. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from
  • National Tempus Office Kazakhstan. (October 2010). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: European Commission
  • OECD/World Bank. (2007). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: Reviews of National Policies for Education
  • Omirbaev, S. M. (December 2009). Национальные приоритеты развития высшего и послевузовского образования Республики Казахстан на 2010-2012 г.г (National Priorities for the Development of Higher and Post-Higher Education in the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010-2012)

See also blogger Kazakh Nomad’s December 2011 posts answering some important questions about Kazakhstan, including on the education system, in a series of farewell posts as she prepares to leave the country.

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 2: Kyrgyzstan

Posted on

Today, Kyrgyzstan swore in Almazbek Atambayev as its new President, the first peaceful transition of power in the country. Молодцы! This was an historic moment and widely reported: I liked stories on MSNBC and the ever-reliable BBC, as well as reporting by 24, a Kyrgyz news agency (in Russian). The UAE-based newspaper The Nation rightly praises the achievements of outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva.

Thus today seems a good time to continue my mini series on developments in Central Asian higher education by reflecting on the Kyrgyz higher education sector. This quote from the Asian Development Bank (2011) is a useful summary of the context:

“The country faces huge challenges in economic recovery, reconstruction, and social reconciliation. Success will not be easy given the considerable pressure on public financial resources in a weakened economy. Achieving sustainable robust economic growth remains the major challenge facing the country.”

I would identify two main trends in Kyrgyz higher education since 1991:

1. The growth of private providers offering university-level courses

This trend is not unique to Kyrgyzstan – Russia in particular has seen a massive upswing in the number of private providers since the end of everything-run-by-the-state communism. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) estimates that Kyrgyzstan has one of the largest private funding sources in higher education in the world. This has led many commentators to claim that higher education has become a market – Slabodyanyuk even says “Временами оно даже напоминает базар. Главная цель – продать товар.” (“Sometimes they even remind of you of a bazaar. The main aim is to sell goods.”)

Often, private providers replace a gap in state funding, but in Kyrgyzstan the higher education sector has not suffered from the same cuts as in other countries: in fact, more than 20% of public expenditure goes on education (at all levels). It appears the challenges noted by the Asian Development Bank are holding the government back from achieving its goals.

This leads on to the second trend, which puts Kyrgyzstan apart from many other post-Soviet countries:

2. An emphasis on quality and participation

The country has high expectations for education and rising participation rates and overall higher education policy is oriented towards improving quality. It is the only Central Asian country to have participated in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards. The government has also begun the process – like in Kazakhstan – of making the higher education system more compatible with the Bologna Process. However, in the 2006 PISA assessment, the country was ranked last out of 57 participating countries.

A subsequent OECD/IBRD report concludes that “there is a pressing need to modernize higher education in the Kyrgyz Republic so it can respond to the needs of a small economy for educated human capital”. The poor result of the PISA assessment must be set against the context of recent political challenges, but nevertheless indicates that the sector needs to be managed more efficiently, primarily by the Ministry of Education and Science but also by universities themselves.

Amsler has suggested that education systems in Central Asia suffer from a status of ‘global inferiority’. However, this mini report on Kyrgyz higher education suggests to me that there are some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, which come from the government’s commitment to making improvements. This commitment may not yet have led to the efficiency and equality of opportunity that is being strived towards, but what has happened so far is at least some progress. That is more than can be said of other post-Soviet countries.



Amsler, S. (2008). Higher Education Reform in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. In J. E. Canaan & W. Shumar (Eds.), Structure and Agency in the Neoliberal University. Abingdon: Routledge.

Asian Development Bank. (2011). Economic Trends and Prospects in Developing Asia:Central Asia.

National Tempus Office Kyrgyzstan. (October 2010). Higher Education in Kyrgyzstan: European Commission.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development & The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2010). Kyrgyz Republic 2010: Lessons from PISA.Paris: OECD.

Slabodyanyuk, N. (no date) Как выбрать университет? (How to choose a university?)

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 1

Posted on Updated on

This is the first part of what I plan to be a monthly update on developments in higher education in Central Asia.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, there is very little research into higher education in Central Asia, and what exists is often commissioned by external donors such as international organisations. These reports can be very helpful but because they have been written to meet the donors’ needs, they tend to be subjective.

So to kick off the first part of this series, November’s country of the month is… Tajikistan.

By way of background, here is a very brief introduction that I wrote recently as part of a contextual report on higher education in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is the least developed of the three countries and around 2/3 of the population live in poverty. There are serious challenges to reducing poverty and stimulating sustainable economic growth, from the reliance on income from migrant workers abroad to extremely low investor confidence (Asian Development Bank, 2011). The country’s own Ministry of Education is keenly aware of the effects this has on education policy and development, and currently focuses its efforts on improving basic education. In its 2006-2015 Education Plan, the Ministry identifies three major issues hindering the management and planning of education at all levels: the absence of a rational and streamlined process of decision making; low capacity in the area of policy development and system management; and the lack of a system to assess learning results and the effectiveness of educational establishments.

Adapted from Sabzalieva, 2011

Tajik students, (c)
Tajik students, (c)

Focussing in on higher education, state policy highlights natural sciences, engineering and technology as priority subject areas for development, and the Law on Higher and Postgraduate Education points to the need for state support in training specialists in fundamental and applied research.

One of the best reports I’ve read about in this area was from the Ministry of Education itself. Co-written in 2005 with the Tajik branch of the Open Society Institute and the Education Reform Support Unit “Pulse”, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly open look at the state of Tajikistan and the challenges of its now post-Soviet higher education system. You can find an English version on the UK International Unit’s website, and although it notes that it is a draft, I’ve not found a more final version.

The report lists no less than twelve groups of problems facing the country’s need to train professionals (see pp8-9 for a summary), This is a sobering register, starting with the challenges of dealing with ‘severely decreased’ state funding – an issue facing quite a few countries these days, the UK included – down to the twelfth point, corruption in the system.

In fact, the Tajik National Anti-Corruption Agency suggested in 2010 that the Education Ministry is the most corrupt government body of all. That’s quite an achievement in a country where corruption has permeated all levels of society and daily life.

Low levels of state funding that are diminishing further mean that most of the innovations in the higher education system are stimulated in some way or another through third parties. These third parties tend to be international organisations with a remit covering education, and the stimulation is usually financial. I have seen two recent examples of this.

Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, Dushanbe
Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, rated the best university in Tajikistan

Firstly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently announced a new teaching course on Human Development. UNDP will provide support for the introduction of the course in the Civil Servants Training Institute and five of the country’s top universities. The objective of the course is a worthy one: to work out ways to utilise the fact that ‘the real wealth of the nation is the people’. These are also smart words, particularly for a country without the same level of financial wealth from natural resources that can fund higher education developments in places like Russia and Kazakhstan.

UNDP has also made a good move by identifying that universities are the right place to generate better understanding of human potential. But whilst this all sounds good in theory, it will be interesting to see what graduates of the course are actually able to achieve: how much will they become equipped to change the realities of life in Tajikistan, rather than just understand them better?

Moving on to the second example, the Tajik news website Avesta has reported on a World Bank  and Russian government initiative to introduce a unified university entrance exam in eight countries, including Tajikistan.

The programme is underlined by principles of fair access, transparency and objectiveness across a new national assessment system. It is intended that this move will help influence the modernisation of the school curriculum and increase the quality of education in the country.

Again, this is another very worthy development that is similar to programmes in other post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan (which has gone even further and submitted itself for assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development-run Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards).

I look forward to hearing more about how this programme turns out in Tajikistan. But, if a unified entrance exam is introduced, will it able to overcome the enormous problem of cash-for-entry into Tajik universities? My view is that unless this reform is coupled with improved conditions for academic staff at universities (mainly through better wages that actually reflect their qualifications and importance to society), a new entrance exam will simply be seen as one more trip to the cash machine.

In early December I’ll publish the second part of this series, which will be looking at Kyrgyzstan.