The dark side of university student recruitment

You’ve travelled three days by bus, crossing almost all of the world’s ninth largest country…
You’ve crossed an international border…
You’ve learnt to communicate in another language…
You’ve committed to spending four years in a new city – and possibly a lifetime more…
Your family has undertaken to support you in this endeavour…
But when you arrive, you discover that all is not as it seems.

Sadly, this is a story that is repeated all too often around the world, often with awful or tragic outcomes. Yet it is rarer to come across such a situation when it comes to higher education.

We occasionally hear about unscrupulous recruitment agents or differential treatment of domestic compared with international students , but, on the whole, universities and colleges are tightly regulated by states, thereby limiting the scope for things to go truly wrong.

It is therefore unusual to come across a story quite as bizarre as the one uncovered by journalist Sania Toiken, writing for Kazakhstan’s Radio Azattyq in Russian. She discovered that there is a darker side to international student recruitment happening on her doorstep in the western Kazakh city of Atyrau.

Expectations vs reality

Her investigation revealed that a group of around 100 ethnic Kazakh students from China* was recruited to study at the Atyrau Institute of Oil and Gas on the promise of a decent higher education and the possibility of post-study employment in an area where there is a large gap in the market for Chinese speakers who also understand the Kazakh context.

To make the prospect of uprooting to move some 3,000 km from home more attractive, the students were offered free accommodation for the duration of their studies and a 25% discount on their tuition fees to study for any of the institute’s courses. They also had assurances from institutional leaders that a transition from institute to more prestigious university status was in the offing.

On arrival in Atyrau, the Chinese Kazakh students were met with a traditional Kazakh welcoming ceremony and the travails of their three-day bus journey seemed to fade away.

This hospitable welcome did not set the scene for what was to come.

First of all, bureaucratic complications meant some students were jailed in the local prison for two days because their Kazakh visas were not in order.

On release, they discovered that the student halls of residence they had been placed in were mouldy, damp and so cold that, as some of the students note in Toiken’s interview, they did not even need a fridge to keep their milk fresh.

When they finally got to the institute, further disappointments were in store. Student Yerkin Tannur recalls his dissatisfaction in discovering that Atyrau Institute of Oil and Gas only has four faculties, contrary to his expectation that the provision would be as rich as he could otherwise have found in China.

Not only that, but the Chinese Kazakh students were told they could only study economics or finance subjects because the institute had spaces in these departments – not the open invitation to join any course that they had previously received.

Financial problems

One of the biggest problems these students have been facing, however, is financial. Several of the students have been barred from taking end-of-year exams because they were unable to pay all of their fees, owing to a higher than expected cost of living. When they were eventually permitted to take the exams, an additional charge equivalent to around a third of the tuition fee was added to their bill.

The promised 25% fee discount – for which the students have confirmatory paperwork – has been withdrawn, with neither the two recruiting agents nor a university press officer able to shed any light on the change in policy.

Some of the Chinese group has been forced to return home without any degree to show for their time in Kazakhstan, whilst others have had to try and find work during vacations to earn some extra cash.

After little success with Atyrau Institute of Oil and Gas officials, the unsurprisingly frustrated students have turned to government officials for help, even going as far as to write to the Minister of Education and Science as well as the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. This is a serious matter in Kazakhstan, where the head of state maintains a tight grip on power, allowing little opposition and retaining strong control over higher education.

This is not the first time the institute’s practices have received unfavourable attention: in 2011 it was closed for six months after having been found to violate various state education standards.

As for the Chinese Kazakh students who have stayed in Atyrau, they remain positive despite their experiences. They hope for a response from the president in this sorry tale of miscommunication and misadventure.

* There are around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs in China. The vast majority live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Emma Sabzalieva is a PhD student in the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto, Canada. She researches the politics of higher education and social change in Central Asia.

'This Week' photo: Aydyngul Orynbekov, an ethnic Kazakh from China and a student at the Atyrau Institute of Oil and Gas in Atyrau, spoke to journalist Sania Toiken for Radio Azattyq, Kazakhstan.