Kazakhstan goes West, but only so far

David Matthews reports on ambitious plans to modernise the country's post-Soviet academy

March 8, 2012

Credit: Getty
Glorious leader: Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president since the country's independence. Critics doubt whether academic autonomy can flourish in a repressive state

Kazakhstan has more higher education institutions than the UK, is seven times the size of Germany in terms of land mass, but has a population smaller than the Netherlands.

Factor in the legacy of a Soviet degree system and trilingual teaching in Kazakh, Russian and English, and it sounds like a recipe for an unwieldy academic sector.

Yet Kazakhstan is embracing the European degree system, attempting to attract international scholars and trying to repair its rusting science base.

But what are the prospects for scholarly progress in a nation where, according to one non-governmental organisation, academics are prevented from criticising the president and corruption in the education system is "widespread"?

Behind Kazakhstan's wholesale reform of the higher education sector is a desire to become more economically competitive, which means improving the country's "human capital" though better institutions.

Five years ago, a team from the World Bank found many strong points in Kazakhstan's academy.

The sector showed impressive "size and diversity" and there was "strong demand" for higher education as well as high student literacy and language skills, according to the World Bank's report, Higher Education in Kazakhstan.

But public spending was low, excessive contact hours were "damaging" the quality of teaching and learning, and the sector's science and technology base was "wasting".

As a former republic of the USSR, Kazakhstan inherited the Soviet "linear" system of degrees, explains Aidar Abrayev, head of the Informational-Analytical Department, which advises the country's Ministry of Education and Science on policy. Students were required to take five-year "specialist" degrees equivalent to combined bachelor's and master's qualifications, although "with higher secondary education, you could go straight into the third year of the specialist [degree]", Abrayev says.

This system put the country out of step with most of the world.

In March 2010, Kazakhstan followed other ex-Soviet states including Russia and Georgia in signing up to the Bologna Process initiated by the European Commission, in which university education is separated into bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels.

However, Abrayev acknowledges, not all of Kazakhstan's higher education institutions have yet adapted to Bologna's requirements.

Universities are also being pushed to teach in English in order to bring Kazakhstan within the orbit of the international scholarly community.

For example, the L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University, based in the capital Astana, is in the process of converting most of its programmes to English from a mixture of Russian and Kazakh.

The government has also established a new legally autonomous institution in the capital, Nazarbayev University, where all academic work is conducted in English and most faculty are drawn from outside the country, Abrayev adds.

University College London runs a year-long course at Nazarbayev that leads to a "university preparatory certificate". Students then go on to undergraduate studies.

The University of Pennsylvania was consulted on the structure and governance of Nazarbayev before it was set up, and several other Western institutions have been involved.

Foreign scholars are being brought in as another part of the attempt to internationalise the Kazakh sector. Last year, the government invited 1,100 overseas university teachers and scientists to give lectures at of the nation's universities.

According to the Eurasian National University, also based in Astana, 306 academics from Europe, the US and Kazakhstan's neighbouring countries came to teach master's and PhD programmes in English last year.

Some foreign scholars stay for short periods, but others have remained for as long as three years.

Sebastian Stride, a senior researcher at SIRIS Academic, a Barcelona-based consultancy, and an expert on central Asia, says that "both the Bologna Process and the introduction of English are viewed positively" in Kazakhstan.

He acknowledges that there is "some resistance from the older generation of scholars, but less than in many other countries".

But Stride says there is also confusion, because in some institutions the US university credit system is used in parallel to the European one.

"For example, at Nazarbayev, different faculties use different systems," he adds.

Trouble at mills

A wave of private universities set up after Kazakhstan became independent in 1991 are less encumbered by the legacy of the Soviet degree structure.

But their proliferation since independence has created another problem: diploma mills.

In 2000, there were 123 private higher education institutions in Kazakhstan, although the introduction of new government quality standards have forced some of them to close or merge, reducing the number to 92.

However, diploma mills still exist "because of the high status given to diploma holders", says Stride.

The number of public universities has fallen from a peak of 69 in 2006 to 56 last year, but Kazakhstan still has 148 institutions serving a population only slightly greater than that of Greater London and the South East of England.

Institutions will continue to be merged or closed, says Abrayev.

Another weakness pinpointed by the 2007 World Bank report and still prevalent is that universities "do not effectively relate to the labour market".

According to Mukhambetkali Burkitbayev, the first vice-rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, there are few opportunities for students to undertake internships in the private sector.

"British education, in comparison with Kazakhstan's, is more market-oriented and has a strong connection with industries to do joint projects," he says.

Research and development also remain weak. Kazakhstan used to be an important centre for Soviet military and space research, but by 2005, the number of scientists in the country was less than half what it had been at its peak, according to the World Bank report.

Almost no new scientific equipment was bought between 1983 and 2004, and research has been hamstrung by a requirement for academics to have 800 to 900 hours of contact time a year with students, prompting the World Bank to judge R&D and innovation as the "least reformed" areas of the system.

Research conditions in Kazakhstan are still not attractive to young scholars, according to the British Council, and the average age of researchers in the country is 55.

There is now a push to publish research in English rather than Russian to open it up to a global audience, and some of the new money being ploughed into the Eurasian National University is being spent on laboratory facilities.

Still, "many fields of knowledge, including cutting-edge fields such as nuclear energy, are now 20 years behind", says Stride.

"This is progressively changing with the increase in investment in higher education and research, but it will be at least another five to 10 years before the results start to become visible," he adds.

Freedom in doubt

But for all Kazakhstan's Western pretensions, doubts remain about academic autonomy and freedom in a repressive state.

The country is ranked as "not free" by Freedom House, an NGO that says that opposition journalists face "attacks, arrests and libel judgments".

"The government reportedly permits academic freedom, except with respect to criticism of the president and his family," Freedom House reports. "Corruption in the education system is widespread, and students frequently bribe professors for passing grades."

Nazarbayev University, touted as a model for a new type of free and independent institution, is named after Nursultan Nazarbayev. Prime minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic from 1984 to 1989, he has held the office of president of Kazakhstan since the country's independence.

In last year's election, he sealed another term in power with a reported 95.5 per cent of the vote in a poll that featured an "absence of opposition candidates and of a vibrant political discourse", according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But according to Assem Satmukhambetova, a former student of the Kazakh Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research who now lives in the UK, in today's Kazakhstan "there is no restriction to express yourself or what you think".

However, "maybe due to Soviet thinking", some people are still reluctant to criticise the president or the government - "especially professors", she says.

Stride observes that there is "still a lot of corruption" in the university system - a reason why Nazarbayev delegated its admissions process to UCL "to ensure the quality of student recruitment".

But he adds that the Kazakh government is "highly ambitious and has invested very large sums of money in the sector in the past few years".

Stride believes that Nazarbayev has the potential to become one of the top 200 global universities "fairly rapidly".


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