The number of higher education institutions in Kazakhstan – a country with a population of 17 million – rocketed up from 55 in 1991 to a peak of 182 just a decade later. Many of these were very small institutes, privately run and focussed on teaching. A number of these naturally fell away in the subsequent years, but there were still a whopping 126 higher education institutions in operation in 2015 – one for every 135,000 people! Since 2012, the government has been taking measures to optimize both the quantity and quality of higher education [ru] in Kazakhstan as I showed in a blog post from 2013, The state of higher education in Kazakhstan:
EurasiaNet.org: Kazakhstan has almost 150 higher education institutions for a population of about 17 million… How is Kazakhstan trying to change this perception that there are too many degrees being awarded, but not the labor market to support the thousands of yearly graduates?
Dr. Mukash Burkitbayev, Vice Rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University [my emphasis]: You’re right, there are so many universities for a [population] of 15 million. It is too much. Our minister of education understands this situation and now they are making a special policy. They make more requirements for the universities for the scientific material base, for quality of the staff. If the universities do not meet with such requirements such kind of a university will be closed or it will [be joined with another]. This is the main activity of ministry of education. And life demonstrates it, which university should be top; which university should be closed…
The quality of higher education remains a hot topic in Kazakhstan, so it was little wonder that the Kazakh Ambassador to Canada, Konstantin Zhigalov, expressed his views on this issue at a public roundtable on Kazakhstan’s achievements, missed opportunities, and future prospects over the last 25 years hosted at the University of Toronto this month.
Higher education has been a priority of the Kazakh state since becoming independent in 1991. A flagship programme, the Bolashak Scholarships [ru], have sent 12,000 Kazakhs to study abroad since its inception in 1993. The word Bolashak means Future in English – an apt reminder of the power of education to drive a country forward. As the situation within Kazakhstan has stabilized and with the emergence of a distinct middle class, another flagship programme, Nazarbayev University, is on the rise. Both initiatives are designed to nurture the academic elite and offer generous financial support to the brightest students to pursue cost-free higher education in a top quality setting.
These two grand projects seem to get much of the (still sadly limited) international attention paid to Kazakhstan’s higher education system, which drove me to ask the Ambassador about the challenges for the rest of the system. What are the opportunities for the majority of students who won’t get a Bolashak scholarship or entry to Nazarbayev University?
And that’s where Ambassador Zhigalov talked about the importance of raising quality across the board. This means continuing to close down institutions that are not meeting the government’s requirements and creating mergers between institutions. Beyond this, measures are being taken to reform the system in line with international norms such as the Bologna Process, engender competition through developing a national rankings system, endeavouring to place two universities amongst the world’s best, enhancing accreditation systems, and continuing the drive towards “modernization” which has been a watch word in national strategies for many years.
These are challenging targets, but the consistent efforts towards achieving these reforms are clear and commendable. Whether or not you agree with the direction of travel, it is hard to disagree that the higher education system in Kazakhstan is on the journey of its life.
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.
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”.
Interesting post, but there’s always the possibility to interpret what I am sure is well-meaning advice with a post-imperial hat on and ask: why shouldn’t African universities aim for the best? Universities in some formerly developing South East Asian countries (I’m thinking of particularly South Korea and Singapore) didn’t sit down in the latter years of the last millennium and decide to take the “slowly-slowly” approach. No, they aimed straight for the top. Ambition and drive to be the best does not equate to league table ranking (and nor should it, which I do think is a good point made in the article Paul has quoted) but it shouldn’t be undermined or forgotten.
So as well as adding these considerations, I also think the article is interesting comparative reading for Central Asian HEIs. I’d argue that Kazakhstan has got the quality message right and has the money to pump into creating quality (see my various posts about Nazarbayev University). As for the other Central Asian nations, should they start with ensuring quality or driving for greater recognition? Thoughts welcome!
Should African universities be concerned with the global league tables?
Inside Higher Ed has a really good piece on African universities and the impact of the international rankings. Essentially the challenge for Africa is that the global league tables use metrics which simply don’t favour the continent’s institutions:
Any observer of higher education in Africa would immediately realize that African universities, with the exception of a handful, stand no chance of appearing under the THE Rankings; or for that matter under other global university rankings such that the Shanghai Jiao Tong Ranking or the QS World University Rankings, which equally use criteria with a heavy bias on research, publications in international refereed journals and citations. African universities have to cope with huge student enrolment with limited financial and physical resources. They are short of academic staff, a large proportion of whom do not have a PhD. Not surprisingly, their research…
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