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.
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As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions.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Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.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 Total.kz 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.
The blog is back for another year! 2020 represents my ninth year of blogging on education, society and politics in Central Asia. Over the lifetime of the blog, I’ve posted almost 300 stories that have been viewed over 50,000 times and earned nearly 1,500 subscribers. Thanks to everyone who reads the blog, whether occasionally or often. If you don’t yet subscribe to receive an email when new posts are published, it’s never too late to sign up! Simply enter your email address under ‘Follow blog’ on the homepage.
Kicking off a new year of blogging, let’s take a look at youth unemployment in Kazakhstan. The info below is drawn from a recent post [ru] by Central Asia Monitor.
First, who’s in work?
Despite leading with the alarming headline ‘Youth unemployment on the increase’, the article first doles out the good news that 2.1 million young people (aged 15-28) were in work at the end of 2019. This is 3.8% higher than at the end of 2018.
The top 5 professions for the age group based on the number of people in work in each field are:
- Wholesale and retail trade; car and motorcycle repair – 388,700 people / 18.3% of all 15-28 in employment
- Agriculture, forestry and fisheries – 257,200 people / 12.1%
- Education [hurray! – adds this educator author] – 236,300 people / 11.1%
- Public administration (civil service) and defence, compulsory social security – 152,000 people / 7.2%
- Manufacturing – 149,600 people / 7.1
(Some of the categories – there are 20 in total – seem rather arbitrary, such as the addition of those in receipt of social security alongside civil servants. The statistics presented by Central Asia Monitor are drawn from Ranking.kz, which in turn has used data from the Statistics Committee of the Ministry of National Economy. Thus, the numbers should be bona fide and we should assume that the categorizations are the government’s choice.)
…And who’s not in work?
Cheery news for young car mechanics and farmers aside, the article then gets to the heart of the matter: that the number of young people who are out of work also rose at the end of 2019 to 84,700 – up 3.4% from the previous year. The increase has been seen more in urban areas, whereas in rural areas the rate of unemployment actually dropped by 0.2%.
By level of education, nearly 40% of unemployed young people have completed ‘secondary vocational education’ (среднее профессиональное образование) and 37% have a higher education degree. It’s not clear to me whether these stats include students or only those who are known in some parts as ‘NEET’: not in education, employment or training.
Both of these groups saw around 2% increases in year-on-year unemployment rates – which doesn’t send a great message about the virtues of continuing in education to increase your job prospects. Indeed, unemployment rates among those with an unfinished degree, initial vocational education, (non-specialized) secondary education and basic education all decreased…
What is to be done?
In response, the government has introduced a number of policy measures design to reduce levels of youth unemployment. Last year, these were wrapped under a broader initiative that designated 2019 as the Year of Youth and which reached, according to government sources, 2 million young people.
The symbolic designation of the year is obviously in itself not going to make any difference, but underpinning the Year of Youth was a roadmap for supporting young people through information/advice (e.g. about housing, finding work) on the one hand and financial assistance (e.g. providing rental housing, start-up grants/micro-credits for new businesses) on the other.
Overall, however, the situation is not too bad, all things considered. Since 2014, youth unemployment in Kazakhstan has dropped from 4.3% of the age group to 3.8% in 2019. Both figures are significantly lower than the youth unemployment rate in other countries. In Romania, where the total population and urban population rates are similar to Kazakhstan (19.2 million and 55% in Romania, 18.8 million and 58% in Kazakhstan), youth unemployment stood at around 16% in 2019. In Ecuador (population 17.6 million, 63% urban) the rate was nearer 9%. You get the idea.
In 2019, over 25,000 international students chose to study abroad in Kazakhstan. This figure is up from 16,000 last year, an impressive year-on-year increase of 64%.
According to the Ministry of Education and Science, most international students come from India, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
The Ministry believes that one reason for the growth is that universities in Kazakhstan have been given greater academic freedom including the ability to offer double degrees i.e. degrees jointly offered by a university in Kazakhstan and one abroad. The implication of this shift is that international students may be more attracted to study in Kazakhstan on the basis that they’ll end up not only with a degree from the Kazakh side, but from its foreign partner too.
Impressive as these figures are, they pale in comparison to the 70,000 Kazakh students who are currently studying outside the country. Most of them – as is the case with many other former Soviet countries – head to Russia.
Thus, for the time being, Kazakhstan remains a net exporter of international students, despite aspirations to become a regional education hub.
Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
On the back of recent news that a number of universities in Kazakhstan are to be reorganized and some merged, rumours are now spreading that at least one of the proposed mergers will not in fact go ahead.
According to Dilara Aronova, a journalist for northern Kazakhstan’s regional news outlet Kostanay News, social media has been abuzz (well, perhaps not exactly ‘buzzing’, unless you share my all-encompassing love for higher education gossip) with rumours that a politician has opposed the move for the State Universities of Kostanay in the north and Taraz in the south to join with their local State Pedagogical University counterparts.
Senator Edil Mamytbekov, a native of Taraz, spoke out at the time of the October 2019 government announcement on the reorganizations and his words have been widely interpreted to understand that the underlying aim of the two mergers was to close the pedagogical universities.
The Ministry of Education was quick to respond that there were no plans to close either university and that the mergers are designed to pool financial resources and enlarge the two newly created regional universities.
Putting the matter firmly to rest, a working group at Kostanay State has already started planning the merger, and the university’s Rector issued a statement saying that any discussions about the cancellation of the merger were simply rumours.
So that’s that then. The government reforms steamroller on…
The Kazakh government has typically paid a very active role in the organization and governance of higher education in the country. Over time the particular policy instruments du jour have changed depending on the main aim being pursued by the state. Of late, there has been an uptick in the number of university mergers as well as the (pseudo-)privatization of the many state funded universities and specialized institutes.
In the most recent round of reorganization in October 2019, 25 universities have been affected. The top-down directive switches their status from ‘republican state enterprise*’ (i.e. state funded) to ‘non-profit joint stock company’. This isn’t quite an act of privatization as the new status transfers all shares in the new company to the Ministry of Education and Science!
This status of non-profit joint stock company (NPJSC) is unusual: joint stock companies tend to be profit-making, which make sense given their ability to make the company’s stocks available to buy and sell. According to the Kazakhstani Law on Non-Profit Organizations (2001), a non-profit organization may be created as a joint stock company or in several other formats (e.g. religious association, public association, foundation).
NPJSCs are described in article 16 of the law as ‘a legal entity that issues shares with the aim of attracting funds to conduct its activities whose income used exclusively for the development of this company’. It may not issue preference shares, derivative and converted securities and it cannot later become a profit-making organization.
The economic aim of the status change appears to be to move the burden of funding these universities away from the state, although if as suggested the only shareholder so far is the Ministry of Education, this must be a long-term goal. It appears there is a secondary (also longer term) mission to diversify ownership of these universities through the transition to a shareholding organization, but without the ability to make profit from the shares, it’s not clear to me which individuals or companies might like to part-own a university.
The October reorganization also envisages the merger of a number of universities – Taraz State Pedagogical University is to be brought together with Taraz State University to become Taraz Regional University; the same fate awaits the State and State Pedagogical universities of Kostanay. In addition, various so-called ‘daughter state enterprises’ – research institutes and laboratories – of the Al-Farabi National University are to be folded into the university.
As usual, it’s a blur of activity in Kazakhstan, with the latest changes reflecting the state’s continued interest in higher education and its creativity in applying new legal and organizational statuses to universities. For more background, check out other posts I’ve written on this topic at Universities for sale in Kazakhstan, Privatizing Kazakhstan’s universities, Mergers and acquisitions in Kazakhstan’s universities and I’d close some universities if I could – Kazakh Ambassador to Canada.
*In Russian, this is республиканское государственное предприятие на праве хозяйственного ведения, often shortened to РГП на ПХВ which translates more specifically as ‘republican state enterprise on the right of economic management’ – can any legal experts out there help explain this in lay terms?
Recommended article – “Educational research in Central Asia: methodological and ethical dilemmas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” by Dilrabo Jonbekova
Published in well rated peer-reviewed journal Compare, Dilrabo Jonbekova’s 2018 article examines the challenges and opportunities open to researchers of Central Asia, studying both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ researcher perspectives (and the blurring of the lines between these two groups).
Jonbekova, a faculty member at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, is well placed for a study like this, being able to draw on her own research expertise as well as professional background and contacts to recruit respondents for this paper.
She argues that researchers face various ‘methodological dilemmas’ when conducting research in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The dilemmas are multifarious, sometimes connected and sometimes not. They range from poor internet access in rural areas to self-censorship in more constrained political environments. As a result, some methods become problematic – surveys may get low response rates, focus groups could be ineffective and secondary data may be unreliable or inaccessible.
In addition to methodological dilemmas, Jonbekova also highlights ethical dilemmas facing researchers. These too have multiple roots and consequences, whether this is a fear of signing a written consent form or selective choice of research owing to safety concerns.
Whilst Jonbekova finds that these findings were fairly consistent across the three countries she compares, she also notes similiarities with dilemmas facing researchers in other contexts such as the Middle East. On balance, as might be expected, ‘outsider’ researchers face greater barriers than ‘insiders’ in conducting research in Central Asia, but no one was immune from challenges.
This article is well worth reading in its entirety (please contact me or the author if you are unable to access it directly) as it adds valuable perspectives to our understanding of the specifics of doing research in Central Asia as well as the suite of challenges and opportunities faced by researchers doing on the ground work across a range of contexts.