quality assurance in universities

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As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions.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Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.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 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.

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.

Higher education in Russia and beyond

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I welcome the launch of a new bulletin, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB). Published in English by Moscow-based Higher School of Economics as a supplement to International Higher Education [ru], the bulletin aims

to present current Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European educational trends to the international higher education research community.

Aside from boasting the best acronym I’ve come across for a long time, HERB represents an important new regional perspective on higher education, a field that has long been dominated by North American and European-centric views. Further, the Soviet period has left a strong imprint on higher education in the post-Soviet sphere that can sometimes make comparisons with other higher education systems challenging. I hope that this new bulletin will genuinely represent regional views (not just Russian analysis, although I accept that it’s a Russian-led publication and that in terms of quantity, most universities in the region are in Russia).

Of particular interest to my research in the first issue is a short article by Dmitry Semyonov of the Higher School of Economics, which looks at the Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context. The Russian excellence initiative, like similar programmes in Germany and China, represents significant government investment in enhancing quality in a selective number of universities by investing in their research, buying in international faculty and otherwise driving towards recognition in global university rankings.,

Semyonov places post-Soviet government policies on a scale that ranges from ‘environmental’ to ‘selective’. ‘Environmental’ policies broadly support and invest in higher education with a view to encouraging the university system to become more in line with the Bologna Process, i.e. more European in feel and outlook. At the other end are the ‘selective’ state policies that, like Russia, look to develop a small group of universities to compete internationally. Semyonov calls Kazakhstan the most distinctive case in this group with the government’s emphasis on developing a single institution (Nazarbayev University).

In concluding, however, Semyonov notes that a number of countries in the post-Soviet sphere – notably Central Asia and the Caucasus,

have very limited opportunities and are unlikely to launch a program similar to the Russian one. Quality of teaching, equal access to high-quality education, lack of competent staff, and [an] unstable economic basis of higher education are considered to be more pressing issues…

There’s a whiff of the Russian post-colonialist in this concluding statement, but also more than a grain of truth. However, Semyonov might look to a higher education system like Singapore’s or Malaysia’s where the government has (mostly successfully) tackled a number of serious problems in higher education simultaneously, such is their impatience to improve the country’s standing. That said, where those countries prosper, many of the Central Asian and Caucasian states do not, and the ‘unstable economic basis’ seems to me the most compelling barrier to progress in those countries.



Semyonov, D. Russian excellence initiative in the post-Soviet context, Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, 1, spring 2014,  http://herb.hse.ru/data/2014/05/30/1325398755/1HERB_01_Spring.pdf (accessed 08.07.14)

Times are changing for university governance in Kazakhstan

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Hopefully the Kazakh reforms to university governance will not lead to maverick leaders and boring Council meetings!
Every governing body member’s worst nightmare: the maverick leader and the dull as dishwater meeting… hopefully the Kazakh reforms will not lead to this!

The Kazakh government has decided to take a big step towards greater independence for Kazakh universities by reforming the top layer of institutional governance. ‘Oversight councils’, also commonly known as Councils or Senates, will be responsible for hiring and firing Rectors (Vice Chancellors/CEOs) and have monitoring oversight for university finance  and strategy. (How those councils are selected is not yet clear but could have important implications for the success of this plan)

The government is quick to point out that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a mass privatisation movement. I don’t have details but it appears that the state will still continue providing a significant proportion of funding for the country’s universities (unless they are already operating as private institutions). What also won’t change is that the national government will still issue degrees: universities do not (yet?) have autonomy to accredit their own degrees and there is no parallel accreditation and quality assurance process.

However, the government hopes that this will encourage greater competitiveness between institutions and make them more responsible for their own organisation. I believe that the move to place university governance more directly into the hands of universities is a positive step towards allowing and even encouraging diversity in higher education. This diversity may become evident through, for example, differential strategic plans or choosing to raise income from non-state sources. There is a definite drive towards improving the quality and reputation of Kazakh higher education, but it will only be successful if the government really commits to allowing universities to take control of their own management and strategy, and underpins this with a robust and fair system of quality assurance for all institutional types.

This article was inspired by a piece in Central Asia Online called Collegiate management coming to Kazakhstani universities, source http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2013/12/09/feature-01.

More independence for Kazakh universities?

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A detailed and interesting story from Kazakh news agency Tengri News today, reporting on a recent conference for higher education leaders in the country. There is reportedly a strong move towards offering greater independence to universities in the country on everything from curriculum to revenue streams.

I couldn’t quite work out from the story why the Education Ministry is promoting this push. In the UK it’s labelled as ‘autonomy’ for universities but generally what that means is that the government can no longer afford (or no longer wishes) to provide as much public funding.

My immediate reactions on reading the story were two-fold:

1: Quality, quality, quality. Who is going to make sure that the programmes being offered by universities are good enough to be worthy of Kazakhstan’s young people? Who is going to make sure that universities are all delivering at the right level? Who is going to make sure that funding freedoms don’t allow dodgy deals to take place at the front door (and not the back door)? And so on…

2. This will undoubtedly work in the favour of the more elite institutions in the country but may not be as advantageous for lower ranked state universities and polytechnics.

Here is the original story, (c) Tengri News and also available at http://en.tengrinews.kz/opinion/382/.

Kazakhstan universities to have policy-setting freedom by 2016, conference participants told

Hal Foster ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, journalism professor

Within three years Kazakhstan’s universities will have the authority to decide what academic programs and courses they’ll offer, speakers at a recent educational leaders conference said.

This autonomy will help the universities respond better to changing student, employer and society demands for skills, according to speakers at the Second Annual Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum at Nazarbayev University.

But autonomy will not be restricted to academic-program and course selection. Universities will also have the freedom to choose their vice presidents and provosts, to allocate funds the way they want and to own their land, which will help them raise funds.

This decentralization of university decision-making will mark a major shift away from the Soviet-rooted system of the Ministry of Education and Science dictating much of what universities do.

Since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the ministry has decided what programs and courses a university can offer, who its vice presidents and provosts are and how its funds are spent. And the government, not the universities, owned the land on which the universities sat.

It’s almost ironic, then, that the driving force behind university autonomy is Minister of Education Bakytzhan Zhumagulov, who gave the keynote speech at the June 12 and 13 conference.

But university autonomy is just part of the sweeping changes that Zhumagulov’s team has been making at all levels of education – from preschool to graduate school.

Because the pace of the change has been so frenetic, Nazarbayev University leaders started the forum in 2012 to help university presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans and other educational leaders cope. Participants learn from both the speakers – many of whom are from the West – and also by exchanging ideas at forum panel sessions.

Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu moderated the conference’s general sessions, with experts on various topics leading the more specific panel sessions.

In addition to autonomy, the conference dealt with the need for universities to have an independent board of trustees to oversee the management team, to develop programs to assure quality of teaching, research and other services, and to develop non-government sources of funding.

Other issues raised at the forum included the need for an independent, non-government body to accredit universities, and for the government to award more research money to universities rather than to independent research institutes – the current system. Kazakhstan is making progress on both issues, moving toward an independent accrediting body and awarding more research money to universities.

The two most discussed issues at the conference were university autonomy and quality control.

At the moment, three-year-old Nazarbayev University is the only Kazakhstan higher educational institution with autonomy. That’s because its founders thought one of its key roles should be spurring higher-educational innovation in Kazakhstan. To ensure that it could carry out that role, the founders believed, the university needed to be independent of the Ministry of Education or other government authority.

Parliament listened to that argument by granting Nazarbayev University autonomy. It came in the form of a law giving the university “special status” to set its own course.

Deputy Prime Minister Yerbol Orynbayev underscored Nazarbayev University’s role in educational innovation by saying in his welcoming address that it was “the experimental platform that is allowing the state to reform existing universities” and create new ones.

Key elements of the autonomy that Nazarbayev University enjoys are already being phased in at other universities, said Fatima Zhakypova, head of the Education Ministry’s Higher-Education Department. For example, universities are deciding what courses to offer and choosing their vice presidents and provosts.

The bottom line is that universities with autonomy do a better job than those under the government’s thumb, asserted Mary Canning, a member of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority.

“I believe that when our universities are fully financially autonomous,” they will have a shot at becoming world-class, Zhakypova enthused.

Kazakhstan hopes to have two universities among the world’s top 100 in coming years.

Vanderbilt University Professor Stephen Heyneman said a common denominator among world-class universities is diversified sources of revenue. In fact, top universities get more of their funding from non-government sources than from government, he said.

Kazakhstan universities need to obtain more of their revenue from sources other than the Education Ministry, which provides the bulk of funding at the moment, Heyneman maintained.

Aslan Sarinzhipov, who led the team that founded Nazarbayev University and is now one of its trustees, said that for diversified funding to occur, Kazakhstan needs to develop an educational-philanthropy culture, which will take time.

Nazarbayev University is leading the way by starting the kind of endowment that many Western universities have long used to make their programs world-class.

Full financial autonomy includes a university – and not the government — owning the land on which a university sits, according to Heyneman, who specializes in university management.

Owning land is an important fund-raising tool for a university, he said. That’s because the institution can use the land as collateral to borrow money to improve programs and facilities.

Part of a university setting its own course is being able to establish its own quality control system, rather than having the government impose a system on it, according to Tom Boland, head of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority.

The primary responsibility for quality control should lie with universities, while the government’s role should be to ensure that universities take the responsibility seriously, he said.

Boland said students should be part of the quality-control-setting process, since they are the major consumers of a university’s services.

He also said that the main thrust of a quality control system should be improving quality, not finding fault. The process “needs to avoid the trap of bureaucracy” – that is, forcing a university to comply with reams of rules and regulations, he said.

Richard Miller, president of Olin College near Boston, said the best universities these days have shared governance – an independent board of trustees that oversees the university management team. One advantage of shared governance is helping ensure that management has the right priorities. Another is helping preventing management conflict of interest – for example, a university president awarding a contract to a company he owns, or to a family member or friend.

Quality control is particularly important in today’s higher-education landscape because competition for faculty and students is now international rather than confined to within a country’s borders, said Michael Worton a vice provost of University College London. His point was that these days Kazakhstan’s universities must compete not only with each other, but with universities in Europe, the United States, China and elsewhere, for professors and students.

Boland said a country should not focus too hard on getting universities on the lists of the world’s top educational institutions, however.

When a country pours a lot of resources into a few universities that it hopes to make world-class, it may be “impoverishing other universities,” he said.

“Countries should focus their institutions on what the country needs and not on international rankings,” he said.