education quality

Going, going, gone: Kazakhstan’s Innovation University is shut down

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A swathe of regulations, rankings, mergers, acquistions, and threats of closure for poor quality universities typify the Kazakh government’s drive in recent years to increase and assure quality in its higher education system.

The latest target of the quality movement is Innovation University, which had its operating licence removed in late January 2020 after two inspections in 2019 found that the university was in breach of a number of rules.

The university, known in Kazakh and Russian by its less snappy full name, Regional Social Innovation University, is in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, 600km from former capital Almaty and a mere 130km from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent.

Time to move on from Kazakhstan’s Innovation University, which lost its operating licence in early 2020

The Ministry of Education and Science announced that not only had the university broken various rules, but it had not put any measures in place to improve the situation after the first inspection in 2019. The Ministry further pointed out ‘gross violations‘ in admissions – accepting students that hadn’t taken the correct exams, hadn’t provided originals of the ENT (nationwide university admission exam) certificate, and so on – as well as in teaching, where it was found that published timetables for classes were not being adhered to.

As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions. A final decision was due from the Ministry in early February, but I have been unable to source this. The university’s website is still functioning and makes no mention of any interruption to its activities.

Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.

Innovation University was not particularly well known in Kazakhstan until June 2019, when local police discovered a drugs den in the university’s sports hall, finding that drugs were being consumed on university premises. Furthermore, one person was arrested in the said sports hall-cum-narco-haven for dealing drugs.

This led to the Ministry of Education carrying out an unplanned inspection of the university, finding no fewer than 63 violations of its rules and regulations for higher education institutions.

If drugs and rule-breaking was not enough, Olga Zhukova, an intrepid correspondent for news agency, reported in August 2019 that the university was flouting the regular rules for admissions and also effectively operating a ‘cash for degree’ scheme.

On making enquiries, Zhukova was told that she could enrol in the distance education course and would be able to earn her degree in just two years. Zhukova also spoke with students at the university who reinforced what she had been told: as long as you pay your fees, you can get your degree in two years. No need to come to class or take exams. As one student told her, “It’s great! I’ve told all my friends at work to enrol!”

Zhukova notes that Innovation University was formed from the merger of three universities in Shymkent and offers a wide range of courses, but it suprisingly only has two medium sized buildings on its campus, one for the administration and one for teaching. Little wonder there are timetabling issues…

Closing down Innovation University certainly seems like a good idea in the light of the administration’s flagrant disregard for the rules and students’ eagerness to buy their way to a degree certificate.

The problem is that there are places like Innovation University all over Kazakhstan – and around the world. This one will be shut down, but there will always be someone else willing to sell you a degree. Though whether or not they also have someone on site willing to sell you drugs is another matter.

Kazakh universities to go it alone: the end of the state-issued diploma in Kazakhstan

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The last of the красный диплом (“red diploma”, awarded to top-performing graduates)? Example of a state-issued degree certificate from Kazakhstan, which from 2021 will no longer be issued.

In yet another move to distance itself from its communist past, the Kazakh Minister for Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev recently announced [ru] that the era of state-issued diplomas (degree certificates) would soon be coming to an end. Announced in parliament when everyone else was distracted (bored to tears?) by the recent Kazakhstani national elections, the announcement means that from 2021, graduates will receive a diploma accredited by their institution and not centrally by the state. This practice was established during the Soviet Union and is a typical example of the extensive state control over higher education that ranged from deciding how many students could go to each institution to determining the curriculum for every subject.

According to Minister Sagadiyev, this reform is not just about creating greater parallels between Kazakhstan and the “developed” world economies it aspires to join, where it is commonplace for individual universities to issue their own degree certificates. The underlying issue he seeks to address is educational quality and market choice, both of which are hot topics in Kazakhstan.

The rationale goes like this: with universities issuing their own degrees, institutions will take on greater responsibility for managing standards and resources  (for example, this could include: level of qualifications held by faculty, equipment in labs and libraries) to assure the quality of their provision and improve students’ experiences. It is likely they will also start paying more attention to their marketing efforts. In turn, prospective students and their families will invest more time and effort in selecting a university, and their choice will start to hinge more on the institution’s reputation. And so the circle of continual improvement goes on: university reputations should be determined by the caliber of their graduates, their post-study employment destinations and so on, and the better the reputation, the more likely that students will want to go there. This should also, hopes Sagadiyev, help to eliminate some of the diploma mills that have emerged in the country since the 1990s and which he believes continue to thrive whilst they hide behind the mask of the state-issued diploma.

It’s yet another ambitious reform to higher education in Kazakhstan, an area that is gaining increasing attention from the government after extensive input into school-level education in recent years. This policy absolutely ticks the boxes that Kazakhstan has set itself in striving to become a top 30 global economy: it is designed to enhance competition, drive up standards and create more of a market amongst higher education institutions.

This proposal has not gone entirely unnoticed in Kazakhstan. Economist Yevgeny Kochetov, writing for Inform Bureau [ru] is unconvinced that this reform will address the  crisis he sees in Kazakh higher education. According to Kochetov, the real issue is the very narrow and economically driven mission he sees in universities. As a result, they are producing economists and lawyers as if there’s no tomorrow (and in so doing, skewing supply onto the labour market), with university becoming a breeding ground for a middle class that is fixated on making money. Drawing on early 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, Kochetov argues the case for a new university mission in Kazakhstan. In this mission, the university supports “students to confront the great ideas and the great issues of their age for the sake of leadership in society and for the management of their own lives” (Kerr, 1991). Universities also remain places where the professions and other subject specializations are taught, but the notion that they disseminate a “general culture” prevails.

Worthy as Kochetov’s call to reform the university mission is, it raises more questions than he hopes to answer. How applicable would Ortega y Gasset’s ideas be, transplanted from Spain nearly a hundred years after they were written? What about the many other ideas of the university that have been developed since, and are still developing? Who would decide what the “right” mission is for Kazakh universities? Would they have to be restricted to one vision for their future? There are lots of other questions too, but I just wanted to give an indication of a few of the points that Kochetov’s article raised.

What this shows us is that there are many ways to interpret the issue of “quality” in university settings. Where Sagadiyev and Kochetov agree is in acknowledging that there are problems in the Kazakhstani higher education system (and I think it’s fair to say that ALL higher education systems have many issues) – not least corruption and lack of institutional autonomy. Perhaps having universities issue their own diplomas is a step towards supporting improvements in the higher education system. I am not convinced that the evidence from other countries that issue their own degrees would compellingly demonstrate this, but of course, that’s not to say that things won’t play out quite differently in Kazakhstan.

However, in a world where you can buy the very degree certificate I’ve used an image of [ru] for just US$1,000 online, it is clear that there are some major impediments to change and that the journey towards the system Sagadiyev envisages will be a long and probably bumpy one.



Kerr, Clark (1991) Ortega y Gasset for the 21st Century: Mission of the University Reexamined. Society, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 79-83.

The Kazakh National Plan: 100 steps to success

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The Kazakh Minister of Education and Science Dr Aslan Sarinzhipov has this week laid out the steps identified by the national government to improving human capital and therefore economic prosperity in 21st century Kazakhstan.

In May 2015, the government identified five areas of institutional reform, which collectively have 100 steps that must be achieved before completion of the National Plan. The five areas are:

  1. forming a professional state apparatus;
  2. strengthening the rule of law;
  3. supporting industrialisation and economic growth;
  4. bolstering identity and unity; and
  5. building an accountable government

(source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The language of reform is typical of the neoliberalism that has been sweeping the world since the latter years of the 20th century: words such as ‘modernisation’, ‘economic prosperity’, ‘highly qualified’ offer clear markers as to the aims of the government. Dr Sarinzhipov’s statement abounds with ideas drawn from and enabled by processes of globalisation – Kazakhstan seeks to draw on expertise from Japan, Korea and Finland where global measures have demonstrated success in areas such as school achievement, and a review of major national government scholarship schemes has been drawn on to drive forward changes in Kazakhstan’s own national scheme, the Bolashak Scholarship Programme.

Sarinzhipov outlines a number of specific measures in education and science that will enable his domain to work towards the National Plan. These include:

  • Moving from an 11 to a 12 year education system
  • Greater use of other languages (including English) throughout the school and postcompulsory levels
  • Provision of new facilities and science clusters
  • Training for professional staff either abroad or provided by brought-in international experts
  • Streamlining of the Bolashak Scholarships: the range of universities where Kazakh students can study will be further restricted to institutions classified as world-class in global rankings systems

Whilst the language and the desire to emulate can be seen in national government reform packages around the world, and where many of the reforms are common across postsocialist systems (e.g. the increase in compulsory schooling to 12 years), I would argue that Kazakhstan’s plan for education and science has a number of factors that differentiate it.

The primary differential, in my view, is that the driving force for change appears to be the national government, where in many other nations reform is driven by international agencies, in particular those that offer financing such as the World Bank group. That is not to say that international organisations have not influenced the government’s strategy, either through their continuing involvement in the country or indirectly by senior level officials (Sarinzhipov is an example) having worked for these organisations and therefore having been exposed to their ways of working.

This view can be substantiated by the importance being placed on embedding the Mangilik El  [ru] (Eternal Nation) values system throughout the education system. Rather than simply taking on the (perceived) best features of other countries, Kazakhstan’s plan sets these into a firmly identified national context. Nation building for this and other postsocialist countries may seem overtly ideological to those from countries with a longer independent history, but in the context of contemporary Kazakhstan this strategy is seen as a way to unify the concept of a nation – one that generate economic prosperity and social and cultural capital through the implementation of the National Plan.

University closures in Russia – will Central Asia follow?

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Although this blog focusses on Central Asia, every now and then something happens in the broader sphere of influence on Central Asia that merits being featured. As part of its drive to enhancing the quality of university education in Russia, University World News this week reports on news that the federal government has recently decided that fully 40% of all universities in the Russian Federation should be closed. Under its 2016-2020 education development plan, the government has planned a series of closures and mergers – which will mainly affect the many private universities that have sprung up since 1991 – with the intention of wiping out some of the poorer quality education that is largely found in these newer institutions.

The Kyrgyz government in particular may well be taking notes on this strategy. As I have previously reported, the President himself has taken an interest in the burgeoning number of institutions in the country and the related reports of deteriorating quality of provision. There are no fewer than 52 universities in this small country – population just under 6 million – of which around a third are private institutions (source: Tempus Kyrgyzstan). Some of these private institutions like the American University of Central Asia are not only legitimate but offer exceptionally good education, but there are certainly many others that, like Russian Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov says, are merely “offices for the sale of certificates”.

School education in Central Asia – the four challenges for 2015

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In this round up of education news from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan at the start of 2015, a number of paradoxes emerge, none of which lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. Here are the four issues that I think will be on the agenda for education in the region this year:

1. Reform needed, but at whose cost?

There is a growing acknowledgment of the problems in the school sector and the need for reform that is particularly evident in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the two most politically open countries in Central Asia. Everyone from the President downwards is calling for improvement, but this is set against real economic difficulties that are both internal (slow economic growth, lack of investment in the sector) and external (price of oil, what’s happening in Russia. Reform inevitably comes at a price, but it’s not clear at this point how that will be funded.

2. Whose reform is it anyway?

Kazakhstan has had to put on ice plans to lengthen compulsory schooling from 11 to 12 years, the plan being to bring the country in line with ‘international standards’. The as yet unanswered question is the extent to which the government in Kazakhstan genuinely believes this to be beneficial for the national setting, and the extent to which these are part of ‘bottom-up’ plans for the future direction of education, or whether this is an example of change being externally imposed in the name of globalisation.

3. Is education a public or a private good?

Not a question unique to Central Asia, but interesting to observe a growing dialogue around the ‘value for money’ areas that have been creeping into British higher education and are perhaps longer established in countries like the US that have long charged high fees. The Central Asian take on this debate follows the notion that in a market economy, everything can be for sale, including education. But there are a number of commentators who argue that in fact the aim should be a knowledge economy and in this type of situation, education is fundamentally a public good.

4. Education for all?

Under Soviet rule, literacy rates across Central Asia were almost universally 100%. Whilst the respect towards education has not significantly diminished, nor the literacy rate dipped more than a few percentage points, the reality of school education in Kyrgyzstan in particular is that standards are slipping. Fewer are training as teachers because the salary rate is low and professional development opportunities are limited, and there is a growing disparity in the availability of quality education in urban and rural areas. Thus, whilst education is still nominally available for everyone to participate in, the fact remains that the standard of that education is very varied and in many cases, it is easier/more convenient/cheaper not to partake at all.


Government has will to reform educational sector in Kyrgyzstan – Vice Prime Minister,

Kazakhstan: Education Reform Shelved Due to Economic Downturn paid service or public good?

Freedom in education?

Education deficit in Tajikistan, part 4

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I had no idea that this story would keep running and running… but now Eurasia Net have got in on the act and published their own story about the higher education system in Tajikistan.

Entitled ‘Tajikistan: Even the Government Won’t Hire College Graduates‘, Asel Kalybekova’s story focusses on two quality issues:

1. The perceived lack of quality in the Tajik higher education system, in this case reinforced by the Dushanbe local government’s announcement in summer that they’d prefer to hire people who graduated pre-1992 (i.e. Soviet-educated students) or those who studied abroad

2. The lack of data to measure the actual quality of higher education. This means that only inferences about quality can be made e.g. based on Tajikistan’s position in the UN Human Development Index. When I researched the impact of studying abroad on Tajik nationals, I too found it difficult to obtain directly relevant data to put the contextual picture together and had to resort to proxies such as participation rates.

I’m not sure what particularly has prompted Kalybekova’s article this week but there can be no harm in continuing to deliver the message about the problems facing the Tajik higher education sector… if this means that they are listened to and acted upon.

In a week when the Tajik press reports the Dushanbe authorities’ concerns over young people attending night clubs (because they lead to ‘the moral decay of Tajik youth’ – see [en]) and the national government appearing to clamp down on young people driving to university lectures (ostensibly because young people are the biggest single group involved in road accidents – see [en]), my fears are that there is no sign whatsoever that national or regional governments are truly addressing the root causes of the education deficit in Tajikistan.

Test time for Kyrgyz secondary school students

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Like a growing number of countries worldwide, Kyrgyzstan offers standardised testing to determine entry into higher education. The tests, commonly called by their abbreviation ОРТ (Общереспубликанское тестирование or ORT, Republic-wide Testing) were introduced in in 2002, a first for Central Asian countries. Another stand-out fact is that the ORT is run by a non-governmental organisation, the Centre for Educational Assessment and Teaching Methods. This is largely US-funded.

The tests are based on students’ abilities and not directed towards their knowledge of what they have learnt in secondary (high) school. From a comparative perspective, this is akin to the interviews undertaken by applicants to Oxford and Cambridge: the idea is to see how a student applies what they do know and their learning styles to new problems. You don’t necessarily have to get the problem right, but you do have to be able to show how you’ve worked it out.

De Young argues that the Minister of Education at the time the tests were introduced was passionate about the need to reform higher education, ‘never more than when she described what she understood as the ability of university rectors to pocked tuition fees paid by students and/or to sell supposedly free (scholarship) slots to the highest bidding students’ (De Young, 2005, p45). This explains the separation of the testing function from government structures. This independence has held and the tests have been lauded by e.g. the Vice President of the Russian Academy of Education: “The tests are high quality. You can trust them and they have stood the test of time.” (my translation from ru, source:

The number of students sitting the test has been in the 30,000s since year 2 of their existence – see table [ru] at the Ministry of Education’s site. The tests can be taken in Russian or Kyrgyz – but as of this year, not in Uzbek. Fergana News [ru] suggests that this is part of a trend to remove everything Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan e.g. with Uzbek media being closed and Uzbek language being removed from universities. So the government is not quite independent of the process.

To end this piece, take a look at New Eurasia’s lovely photo montage [text: ru] from 2011 showing a ‘day in the life’ at a test centre. It demystifies the process through a series of photographs that even show students doing the exams. The students’ relief at the end of the series is palpable!

Good luck to everyone taking the tests this May!



De Young, A., (2005) Ownership of Education Reforms in the Kyrgyz Republic: kto v dome hozyain? European Educational Research Journal, 4 (1).