Two years ago, Krzysztof Rybiński, a Polish economist leading a private university in Warsaw, was contacted by headhunters from Moscow.
They had spotted his profile on LinkedIn and wanted a Russian-speaking European university leader to reform the prominent Narxoz University in Almaty, a city in the far east of vast Kazakhstan, a few hours’ drive from the borders of north-western China.
Sixteen months into his job as rector, he told Times Higher Education about his efforts to root out cheating, plagiarism, corruption and staid teaching, which have led to the firing of hundreds of academics.
“I worked with clients in many places…I thought nothing would surprise me,” said Professor Rybiński, who is a former vice-president of Poland’s central bank. But even he was “shocked” at how different Kazakh culture was, with its very strong family ties and old Soviet practices.
Higher education in the country, although “changing very, very slowly”, still prioritises “testing and memorisation”, he said, even though Kazakhstan has “on paper” signed up to Europe’s Bologna Process, which focuses more on skills.
Corruption is everywhere, Professor Rybiński said. “The vast majority of universities in Central Asia…have these problems with corruption, plagiarism and cheating,” he added. “When the cheating culture is everywhere from primary school to PhD…you have to take tough measures.”
To counter cheating in exams at Narxoz – students routinely talked to each other, took in “cheat sheets” and tried to bring in smartphones, according to Professor Rybiński – the university installed cameras in exam halls.
In the past six months, Professor Rybiński estimates that between 100 and 200 students have been caught and forced to retake exams. Now the level of cheating is “much, much lower”, he insisted.
To tackle plagiarism, all first-year students must take an academic writing course that impresses on them how wrong the practice is, and the university has begun running essays through plagiarism-detection software.
Payments to lecturers to boost grades and to get exam papers in advance also plague Kazakh higher education, Professor Rybiński explained. “Wages of teachers and academics are very low, which forces them to seek additional income,” he said. At Narxoz, “we had a few cases, and these people were fired.”
To deter bribe-taking, Professor Rybiński has instituted a system of collective punishment. If an academic is caught taking money from a student, not only are they fired, but so is their immediate boss. Since this rule has been brought in, “there has not been a single case [of bribery]”, he said.
Asked whether this would incentivise deans to cover up their subordinates’ corruption, Professor Rybiński said that managers are not punished if they themselves come forward with evidence of bribery.
Exam questions are automatically randomised so that students cannot buy advance sight of them, he said. “Computers don’t take bribes,” he added.
Professor Rybiński has also crushed resistance by academics to the introduction of the “flipped classroom” method – where students learn from online material by themselves and solve problems in class with teachers – and the use of massive open online courses.
“A large percentage of our staff continued to conduct the courses in the old way, the Soviet way,” he said. “We said ‘goodbye’ to them.” In the past two years, more than 250 have been fired. “We are tough,” he added.
Other universities in Kazakhstan that also specialise in subjects such as accounting and economics will have to follow these reforms, Professor Rybiński explained, because Narxoz is designated as a leading university in these fields.
Concerns have long been raised about academic freedom in Kazakhstan, which has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since 1991. Last year, a Dutch academic alleged that he had been edged out of Nazarbayev University – named after the president – after the Russian Embassy took issue with lectures about the fighting in Ukraine.
“In terms of academic freedom, it’s very different from the standard we are used to in the UK and the US,” Professor Rybiński acknowledged.
A quarter of any new course curriculum is still controlled by the Ministry of Education, although this is down from half, and in two years there should be full autonomy, he said.
Last year, Kazakhstan’s currency, the tenge, plummeted in value after it was allowed to float freely. This has halved Professor Rybiński’s budget for international recruitment this year, and so far just 10 faculty out of about 400 are from abroad, although he said that the overseas recruitment drive has only just begun.
Professor Rybiński hopes that overseas academics will be attracted by Kazakhstan’s stunning natural beauty, plentiful skiing opportunities and its promise of “the best meat in the world” – including horse.