Autonomy central to Kazakhstan’s ‘world class’ HE ambitions

Development of Kazakhstan’s university system assessed in new book

June 14, 2017
University in Almaty Kazakhstan
Source: Getty
Academic freedom: the Kazakhstan government’s aim is to ‘stimulate a knowledge economy’

Higher education institutions in Kazakhstan are being given more autonomy as the country’s government looks to channel its oil wealth into the creation of a “world-class” university system.

Matthew Hartley, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told a seminar at the University of Cambridge that the government’s goal is to “move from a centrally controlled [higher education] system to one that is based on much more institutional autonomy”.

With his colleague Alan Ruby, senior fellow in the Pennsylvania GSE, Professor Hartley advised the Kazakhstan government working group that established the New University of Astana in 2010 – subsequently renamed Nazarbayev University – on how to create a governance structure for a research institution.

The university is named after the nation’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who recorded his fourth election win in 2015, gaining 97 per cent of the vote and attracting criticism from foreign observers regarding the lack of genuine opposition candidates.

Not only has the government “concluded that a centrally controlled system is never going to produce truly excellent or world-class institutions”, Professor Hartley told the Cambridge event, it believes autonomy will “allow institutions to be more responsive to their local contexts” and will “promote institutional innovation”.

The Kazakhstan government’s goal with its Nazarbayev University project was to “stimulate a knowledge economy” and one “less dependent on the extractive industries of oil and coal”, Professor Ruby, who joined the university's board of trustees last month, told the seminar.

Kazakhstan inherited the Soviet division between teaching in universities and research carried out by specialist institutes, he noted.

Professor Ruby highlighted key challenges such as the financing of tertiary education (where he said the fact that only 30 per cent of entrants receive financial support means “inequality of access persists”), concerns about quality and “innovation” in teaching being “constrained by the regulatory framework”, and “stagnation of intellect” in the research-only institutes. These factors, he said, mean that “concerns about national priorities for diversifying the economy persist".

Professor Hartley told Times Higher Education that he acknowledged that spending on research-intensive world-class universities “necessarily means fewer resources for other institutions unless the government is able to expand the ‘pie’ of funds for higher education".  

“On the other hand, efforts to put funds into existing institutions without a clear model of change runs the risk of shipwrecking on the existing practices and norms of the institutions…thereby producing no change at all.”

Professor Hartley and Professor Ruby explore the country’s ambitious higher education programme in Higher Education Reform and Development: the Case of Kazakhstan, published by Cambridge University Press last month.

Professor Hartley said one lesson from the Nazarbayev University experience was clear. “Reform of a system can’t happen on the back of a single institution, however world-class," he said. "What is needed is a shift in the policy context – eg, more autonomy – and opportunities for the better institutions to work together on change.”  

On the question of academic freedom, Professor Hartley said: “My sense from what we’ve heard at other campuses in Kazakhstan is that faculty feel like they can teach or do research on whatever they want. They say they have academic freedom.”

But he added that “research that is highly critical of the current government or governmental policies, like we might see in the US or the UK, is not evident. I suspect there is self-censorship happening.”

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