university admissions test
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.
With a plethora of institutional offerings, deciding what, where and how to study are perennial questions for prospective students around the world.
Here’s what Yelena Pak of Kazakhstan’s Delovoi [Business] Kazakhstan news agency [ru] suggests you should look out for if you’re going to apply in Kazakhstan.
University rankings are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, which seeks to ‘modernize’ its economy and society and to that end has joined pretty much every quantifiable measure of progress on offer.
Pak notes that Al-Farabi Kazakh National University takes national pride of (236th) place in the global QS World University Rankings. As she notes, this ranks Al-Farabi higher than the University of East Anglia in the UK, Miami U in the US and St Petersburg State University.
A number of other Kazakh universities have ‘progressed well’ in the rankings, says Pak. These include Gumilov Eurasian National University, Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University and Abai National Pedagogical University.
Kazakhstan now has its own national university ranking system produced by the independent Kazakh Quality Assurance Agency. This covers around a third of the country’s universities. Pak suggests that applicants also take a look at these ratings.
Study abroad or at home?
An option taken up by around 10,000 Kazakhs a year is to seek higher education abroad. Most head to neighbouring Russia, which not only shares a border with Kazakhstan but also membership of the Eurasian Economic Union and (for now at least) a common alphabet and language.
Other Kazakh students are scattered around the world, drawn by factors including availability of subjects and specializations that are not offered at home, the chance to study and live in a different culture and so on.
Pak bemoans the lack of information on university websites on the cost of study and living. This would certainly be a helpful addition for applicants who have not yet firmed up their study options.
Whilst tuition fees are now commonplace in Kazakhstan, it is still possible to study for free if you perform well enough on the Unified Entrance Examination. In 2017, the Ministry of Education will be giving out vouchers, the idea being that students can then apply the voucher (effectively a full fee waiver and a guarantee of the student’s high quality) at any institution in the country.
Pak points out that the university rankings Kazakhs are becoming so fond of are not very good at telling you about quality.
By this she infers the quality of the program (course), the depth and breadth of linkages between the university and other partners, and graduate career prospects.
This may be a temporary oversight. With the rush to measure and assess universities, it is surely only a matter of time before university choice in Kazakhstan is spelled out in even more detail.
I wonder, though, whether this will leave prospective students just as confused as they are now, only this time suffering from too much, rather than too little, information!
Here’s the critical quote from this World Bank press release reporting on the end of a five year Russian government funded project:
…improved education is fundamental to alleviating poverty and improving economic competitiveness
So says their Tajikistan country project manager Patricia Veevers-Carter. The purpose of the project was to introduce a standard university admissions test in Tajikistan, along the lines used by other countries and introduced in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 2002.
The admissions test is part of the remit of the National Testing Centre (NTC) established by the Tajik government in 2008. The NTC intends to undertake other assessments to inform educational policy and contribute towards the improved education that the World Bank underlines as being of such critical importance to the country’s development.
The early results are impressive: a 30% increase in the number taking the admissions test between 2013 and 2014. That figure masks a poor female participation rate at only 33% of the total number, which, sadly, is in keeping with the current enrolment breakdown by gender.
In the Kyrgyz case, it has been said that the university admissions test is a ‘a success story in the struggle to
eliminate corruption and nepotism from post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan’s education system’ (Smith, 2012), moving away from the informal practice of either paying under the table for admission or getting in because someone you know is able to negotiate a place for you.
So there may be lessons for Tajikistan to learn from the Kyrgyz experience, but there is still a long way to go before improvements to higher education in Tajikistan become fundamentally embedded. Starting with admissions, reforms are needed throughout the student journey, from funding to corruption to post-study employment.
Smith, M, Kyrgyzstan Trying to Systematize University Admissions, Curbing Corruption, EurasiaNet, 29.05.2012