Why Kazakhstan needs radical reform to modernize its education system and how it should be done

Since its foundation in 1991, KIMEP University has provided its students with a world-class, Western-style education, unparalleled leadership training, and exceptional professional development and orientation.

Many of the over 14,000 graduates have become prominent leaders and have made important contributions to Kazakhstan society. One of our esteemed alumni currently serves as Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister; another is the current Chairman of Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms of the Republic of Kazakhstan; yet a third is one who became the Chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan in February this year.

KIMEP has some distinctive features that make it a unique university in Kazakhstan. All of its full-time faculty members are qualified (academically or professionally). KIMEP University has been granted accreditations from credible international accreditation agencies. All policies developed and implemented at KIMEP University are comparable to those in many Western academic institutions. Whether it concerns recruitment, promotion or termination, all decision- making is transparent. With 93% of its graduates hired within 6 months after graduation, KIMEP ranks first in terms of employability.

In the past few years, we have witnessed some progress in the field of higher education in Kazakhstan. In 2010 Kazakhstan signed the Bologna Declaration, which brings it more in line with Western-style, credit-based institutions and facilitating international mobility. In 2019, Kazakhstan universities adopted the European credit system (ECTS). The Bolashak scholarship program has enabled thousands of students to obtain foreign degrees and bring their skills home to Kazakhstan. However, much still needs to be done. Important reforms must be implemented if Kazakhstan wishes to achieve a revolutionary and rapid improvement of its education system.

The Kazakhstan higher education system must address four major deficiencies.  Firstly, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MSHE) continues to control every aspect of academic institutions, a method of leadership that is inherited from the Soviet period.  In the USA, the main mission of the Ministry of Education is to ensure a positive environment promoting competition between institutions, excellence and innovation. The role of the education ministries is that of a facilitator, allowing universities and academic institutions to compete and to excel.

Secondly, ministry management over universities currently relies on permanent control over everything using quantitative indicia, not qualitative. This idea of quantitative monitoring impedes the quality of education and kills innovation and competition between institutions. It obstructs initiative and creativity. In addition, such centralized power brings serious, harmful consequences such as nepotism, waste of resources, and lack of credibility. The organization and functioning of higher education institutions must be based on essential principles of management, which include transparency, arms-length dealing, credibility, and accountability.

Thirdly, much of the current faculty in Kazakhstan universities were educated under a system that is no longer relevant. Under the Soviet system, disciplines and fields of study were drastically different from the ones we teach at present. Consequently, many professors have earned degrees that are not relevant to what they are actually teaching. Especially when it comes to business, management, and education, most professors are not qualified to teach the subjects assigned to them. Thus, the student does not receive a modern education that will provide him the tools to fill positions of the current market place.

Lastly, there is no transparency or accountability in some educational institutions making corruption an endemic problem. This is a consequence of the centralized and authoritarian general functioning of the education system of Kazakhstan. According to the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Kazakhstan is ranked 102nd among 180 countries in public perception of transparency scoring only 37/100.

In order to address these deficiencies and achieve sustainable quality in education in Kazakhstan, the educational system must initiate important reform measures.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education must act as a facilitator for universities to reach excellence through academic freedom. Education based upon competition implies critical thinking, analytical reasoning, ethics and social responsibility as well as transparency at all stages. Universities must compete with each other within a more horizontal organization of the education system, which will stimulate innovation.

Allowing academic freedom does not mean chaos, but a more horizontal way of functioning, based on consensus and procedural clarity. Universities should be allowed to organize entrance exams based on clearly identified needs. The freedom to do so is an essential part of academic freedom, fostering competition among institutions and leading to the innovations needed to adapt to the realities of a market economy. Assessment of a university’s or a program’s quality should consider the percentage of qualified faculty members, employability of students, international programs, return on investment for the students and institutional accreditation.

Secondly, university leadership must be trained in policy development, management, and transparent leadership and training. Currently, all the power lies with university presidents. The presidents decide everything, from curriculum and allocation of funding to decisions about staff and faculty. This authoritarian, centralized organization creates tremendous problems, which should be dealt with by providing autonomy within the structures of academic institutions. The current system breeds bureaucracy and corruption. To bring change, universities must empower faculty members and make them accountable. Every core decision must be the result of dedicated, transparent processes. Overall, a bottom-up organization within higher education institutions would bring more positive results than the current top-down monolithic organization of universities.

In addition, it is essential that all professors not holding relevant degrees to teach their assigned subjects must be retrained, earning a relevant degree from credible academic institutions within the next five years. MSHE should help facilitate this through scholarships and organizational support so that professors attend conferences and earn the necessary credits and qualifications required to fulfill their mission. Administrative staff should go through similar trainings in order to adapt university management to the new realities. Staff missions must be clearly defined to make people accountable for their actions. Overall, the education system of Kazakhstan should be able to produce expertise and confer the skills that are relevant to the society it is designed to serve.

Lastly, there is an urgent need for transparency, integrity, openness and honesty in all spheres. The over-centralization of the educational system’s organization is detrimental to competition and breeds corruption and irregularities. Precious resources are allocated based on ineffective criteria. It should not be forgotten that the main mission of any academic institution is to maximize and optimize the well-being of its students. Presidents and faculty members are here to serve students. That means a global cultural change with the help of MSHE, which should constantly evaluate and review student satisfaction and make relevant decisions based on that criterion.

To implement all these recommendations, it is of paramount importance that the ministry produce an ambitious strategic plan to change current practices and policies and enter a new paradigm. A specially dedicated committee that includes qualified faculty members from Western institutions with local faculty as well as administrators should draft this plan. The committee would develop detailed recommendations for the Ministry to follow in order to bring tangible progress to the education system. The committee would provide oversight to the introduction of these reforms that would result in Kazakhstan’s educational system fully entering the 21st century.

Chan Young Bang is founder and President of KIMEP University. 

He received his PhD from the

University of Colorado and taught at UCLA, the University of San Francisco and Hanyang

University. In Kazakhstan, he served as economic adviser to the First President, Nursultan

Nazarbayev, and as the vice-chairman of the Expert Committee, which oversaw the introduction of market-oriented reforms and privatization. Dr. Bang has received numerous orders and citations from the Republic of Kazakhstan, including the “Dostyk” Order First Class, conferred by the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in 2022.