state funding

Financing higher education in Kyrgyzstan

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For a small country with a population of a little over 6 million, Kyrgyzstan has an awful lot of universities – 68 at last count. For comparison, Singapore (population 5.8m) has exactly half as many and El Salvador (identical population to Kyrgyzstan) has 26 universities.

As with many countries in the former Soviet space, the number of universities and institutes (collectively, higher education institutions, or HEIs) rocketed in Kyrgyzstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even so, growth in the higher education system in Kyrgyzstan was phenomenally high, increasing by 325% in the first 15 years of independence. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, the increase over the same period was a more modest 197% (!).

Higher education growth in Kyrgyzstan came in both the pre-existing public sector as well as the nascent private higher education scene, and these days, the split between public and private HEIs is more or less 50-50.

With so many universities competing for students and limited state resources, Sputnik Kyrgyzstan recently published a fascinating interview with a senior administrator at one of the country’s leading institutions, Kyrgyz National University (KNU) on how the university gets and spends its money. This level of detail is often very difficult to glean from universities or Ministries of Education, so it adds quite significantly to our understanding of how higher education in a major state university in the former Soviet space is funded.

If cats did university budgets…


KNU is a public university according to its history and current legal status, but in fact only gets 7% of its funding from the state.

As one of the biggest universities in the countries, they have over 17,500 students on their books and it’s these students who basically keep the university propped up. 92% of students are fee-paying, meaning that only a small minority are funded by the state (through various scholarships for e.g. high academic performance in secondary/high school or family/social status).

The biggest source of income by far is the 485 million som a year the university generates from tuition fees – equivalent to US$7m. Not bad considering that tuition fees didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago.

From the state, KNU receives 40 million som a year (US$600,000) in the form of funding for students in receipt of government scholarships. The university allocates 60-70% of this on salaries and employment taxes.

Other income is minimal in comparison: 12 million som a year (US$170,000) in rent from its four dormitories, and 6 million som (US$85,000) from its residence in Issyk Kul (a popular lakeside holiday destination) and from eight dissertation councils.

In total, KNU is generating 543m som or US$7.85m in income a year.

Tuition fees and student numbers

Fees at KNU range from 31,000 som per year (about US$450) on ‘cheap’ courses such as physics, chemistry and Kyrgyz philology up to 46,000 som (around US$650) for economics courses in the Kyrgyz-European Faculty.

Each faculty has some wriggle room in setting its fees – some are planning to increase theirs by up to 10%, whereas others are actually decreasing them. This has been the case in physics and meteorology, where KNU has struggled to fill both fee paying places as well as state funded spots.

Total student numbers at KNU are considerably higher than at many universities, but have nevertheless dropped quite dramatically. Whereas around 28,000 students were fee paying 3-4 years ago, that number has almost halved to today’s figure of 16,330.

State sponsored places have also been reduced from 2,100 to 1,346. However, the university does not believe that the government will totally withdraw scholarship funding.


As a state university, KNU has some limits on how it can spend the tuition fee income. They are required to allocate 80% to salaries and the remaining 20% for local taxes, staff/faculty travel, physical resources (furniture etc) and infrastructure maintenance.

A senior lecturer can expect to receive around 6,000 som a month from the state funding (a paltry US$85), which KNU then supplements depending on the lecturer’s teaching load and level of qualification (PhD/Candidate and Doctor of Science qualifications would entitle to you a higher pay grade).

The university doesn’t say what the total monthly pay packet looks like for senior lecturers, but the average monthly salary in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital (where KNU is located), is US$285. Let’s hope that senior lecturers are not too far off that figure.

KNU pays 144 million som (US$2m) to the state in various taxes each year, as well as a whopping 564 million som (US$8m) for electricity, water, and communal and other services.

I can’t calculate the total expenses per year as it’s not clear from the article whether the 20% of fee income in taxes is included in the 144m figure noted in the previous paragraph. And either I’ve misunderstood someting or there’s a typo in the services figure: if it really is 564m som a year, that’s more than the total income and presumably would mean the university would run very quickly into bankruptcy.

Those queries aside, the availability of data like this sheds important new light on higher education financing in Kyrgyzstan. For me, the big takeaway is how little of the university’s funding actually comes from the state despite its appellation as a public university and, as a result, just how dependent KNU is on tuition fee income and therefore students’ continued desire to study at the university.

Kyrgyz students 2015 – who, what, where

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This is a wonderful infographic from Sputnik, a Russia media agency that set up shop in Kyrgyzstan last year. Produced recently for International Day of Students, the original article is here.

For me, the most interesting stories are:

  1. The mismatch between the funding that the state is making available to students, and the courses they want to study
  2. The continuing popularity of computing-related and social sciences subjects
  3. The huge growth in the number of international students from India and Kazakhstan, and the parallel crash in the Uzbek student body

For non-Russian readers, a translation is below.

Kyrgyz student infographic 2015

Emma’s English translation…

Title: Student-2015

Which courses did students choose this year, what do the brightest want to be come and which professions does the state need?

Image 1 (light background)

Left: courses for which the government provided the most scholarship places – physics/maths, philology (a combination of literary criticism, history and linguistics), medicine

Right: most popular courses (by enrolment statistics) – economics, law, medicine

38,275 students enrolled in 2015, compared to 38,259 in 2014.

Image 2 (dark blue background)

4,868 students received state funding in 2015; 3,415 students received state funding on the basis of their results in the nationwide admissions exams (ORT in Russian acronym) in 2015. The median score in the ORT was 150,8 to get a state scholarship.

33,407 students are self-funding in 2015. Their median ORT score was 133,2.

Which courses were most popular amongst those scoring highest on the ORT?

  Average score Highest score
State funded places
Software engineering 201,8 229
IT 190,3 214
Medicine and related 185 230
Self-funded places
Software and programming 202,4 234
International and comparative politics 170 197
International and business law 168,8 223

How many state funded places were offered in 2015?

5,441 divided between 24 universities. The highest number of places (615) went to the Kyrgyz State Technical University; the lowest (62) to the Kyrgyz Republic National Academy of Arts. The average tuition fee is 33,000 som (USD$430) compared to 30,000 last year.

Number of foreign students studying in Kyrgyzstan in 2014/15

The yellow to green indicator at the top is for countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States; the pink to red indicator at the bottom is for other countries. The graphs below show an increase from around 3,000 to 4,800 from Kazakhstan during the period 2009/10 to 2014/15 and a huge drop – from 6,000 to 600 from Uzbekistan. The biggest increase from outside the former Soviet region is from India, where student numbers have grown from around 500 to nearly 2,500.