The quality conundrum in higher education

Internationalisation has been on the higher education reform agenda since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. One element of internationalisation has been to integrate Kazakhstan’s universities into the European Higher Education Area, including joining in the Bologna process. This provided a basis for student mobility and a platform for closer relationships with universities around the world.

However, recent interviews with university board members suggest that there are other internationalisation strategies being pursued at the institutional level. Two strategies that have emerged are establishing international branch campuses and developing Kazakhstan into a regional higher education hub.

While Kazakhstan has four branch campuses on its soil, all founded by Russian universities, our initial research identified two Kazakhstani universities that were expanding their global reach by establishing branch campuses.

In a southern university, the rector’s proposal to establish a branch campus in Russia was debated by its governing board and the rector. The rector argued that a branch campus would benefit the university’s overall development. Some board members doubted the financial viability of the strategy, arguing that without any solid expectation of a financial return, the university should not pursue the formation of a branch campus.

The debate was robust but healthy and resulted in a decision to start the branch campus as a pilot project with its future subject to its financial performance. With the pilot under way and its financial performance still unproven, the university is seeking to further its international network in the region by negotiating to open a representative office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The second example is South-Kazakhstan Pedagogical University, which has opened a representative office in Brussels with the aim of developing it into a branch campus that will attract students from across the European Union. In addition to integrating the university into the European Higher Education Area, the university’s leaders see the initiative as a way to promote Kazakhstan’s education system, which has a strong emphasis on mathematics and the sciences.

In both institutions the rationales for these cross-border activities have been linked to the need to diversify revenue streams, to reduce dependence on state support and local students’ tuition payments. Engaging internationally has drawn the institutions into the global market for goods and services.

Cross-border student mobility

Institutions in the north of Kazakhstan have encountered a different aspect of the global market: cross-border competition from Russia.

In one provincial capital the board secretary of a local university was concerned that many of the city’s young people were being aggressively recruited by Russian institutions that send staff to work with local high school students months before the final exit exam. This early admissions work was successful, with more than 40% of secondary school graduates enrolling in Russian universities.

One response to this recruitment strategy was a proposal to ban Russian university representatives from entering the city’s schools, an action that would require decisions by the Ministry of Education and Science and the national parliament.

The outflow of students to Russia is only one piece of cross-border student mobility. There are large numbers of Kazakh students in China, North America and Europe. In the case of China, there were almost 14,000 Kazakhstani students studying in China in 2016. The number is expected to rise with the increasing number of scholarships provided for Kazakhstani students under China’s One Belt One Road strategy.

In the context of this wider pattern of mobility, it is the outflow of students from Kazakhstan’s Russian border areas that has captured domestic media and popular attention. Despite political interest there has been no immediate solution. The costs to students are essentially the same between the two national systems and some Russian institutions facing enrolment pressures because of a reduced youth population offer scholarships or fee waivers.

Russian universities have a competitive advantage, a popular perception of a higher quality and long-established prestige. Students who do cross the border may have more post-graduation choices open to them in Russia’s larger and more diversified economy.

In a sense the decisions of young people in border communities to maximise their opportunities by choosing the highest quality institution is ‘market rational’. For Kazakhstan’s local institutions, internationalisation and competition will force them to address the quality of domestic higher education. It is the perception of higher quality just as much as skilful recruiting and scholarships that make the Russian universities attractive.

Improving the quality of education

A board member of a university in Central Kazakhstan argued that strong state-led action is not the ideal approach to improve quality of higher education. Instead he advocated introducing more international competition, emulating Singapore, Doha and Dubai which attracted leading institutions to create degree programmes and universities in special economic zones or with state subsidies and regulatory waivers.

He also stressed that this approach would serve as a stimulus or an incentive for Kazakhstani universities to improve. He believed that as result the “weak universities” would close and the “good universities” would become stronger.

Cross-border competition is shaping the ecosystem of Kazakhstan’s higher education system. It is being felt by university and administrative authorities and many of them are responding. Senior managers and scholars have started to see they are in a market where higher education services can be exported and imported.

Competition, both domestic and international, can help streamline and improve the services and lift quality. The question remains whether internationalisation can lead to better quality, or whether better quality of education can result in internationalisation.

Aisi Li is an assistant professor at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education, Kazakhstan. Alan Ruby is a senior scholar at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.