What will President Nazarbayev’s legacy be for HE?

In a live televised announcement that caught everyone by surprise, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev announced on 19 March that, after almost three decades at the helm of the country, he would be stepping down as the head of state.

This was not an easy decision, he said, but it will no doubt be eased by the fact that Nazarbayev will retain considerable power in his ceremonial role as Elbasy (Leader of the Nation) and more concretely as chair of the country’s Security Council and Nur Otan party.

Nazarbayev has personally overseen or been involved in much of the transformation of the country’s higher education sector since Kazakhstan obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although his presidential legacy will not be settled for some time (not least because Nazarbayev himself will take some role in shaping it), I believe it is possible to identify five major narratives in the story of Kazakh higher education in the Nazarbayev era of 1989-2019.

Expansion and diversification of the HE system

Having inherited a comparatively large higher education system with 55 higher education institutions from eight decades under Soviet rule, the number of higher education institutions mushroomed in independent Kazakhstan in the 1990s – doubling by 1996 and tripling by the turn of the 21st century.

The overwhelming majority of growth has come in the new private higher education sector.

Private forms of ownership became legal in the perestroika late Soviet period under reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after the immediate economic crisis that unfurled across the former Soviet space following the USSR’s collapse, that private institutions of higher education began to emerge.

By 1996, there were already an astonishing 71 such higher education institutions in Kazakhstan; that number peaked in 2000 when 122 private higher education institutions were recorded as being in operation.

Untrammelled growth in the first half of the Nazarbayev era has since been brought under control with a wave of legislation setting out minimum requirements for higher education institutions and establishing more robust quality assurance measures. As a result, the total number of higher education institutions now stands at around 130: half are privately run and nearly half of all students study in private higher education.

New models of university

With the establishment of private higher education institutions as part of the Kazakh higher education landscape, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the government’s role had shifted away from provision of higher education towards quality assurance.

Throughout the Nazarbayev era, the government – often at the president’s initiative – has driven the creation of new higher education institutions. These have often been pioneers in establishing new models of higher education in Kazakhstan, moving it away from the Soviet model.

The university often held up as an example is KIMEP University, founded in the very early days of independence in 1992.

The story goes that Nazarbayev, on a tour of the United States to raise awareness about Kazakhstan (and in search of companies to help mine the country’s massive oil and gas reserves), used a lecture at an American university to lay out his own plans to set up a new liberal arts-style English-medium instruction higher education institution in Kazakhstan.

A member of the audience volunteered to help out, was co-opted as advisor to the Kazakh government and was later made president of the university, and that gave birth to the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research – or KIMEP, its Russian language acronym.

Other examples abound, from the Eurasian National University in Astana, the country’s capital since 1997, to the International Information Technology University. In each case, the higher education institution has been set up with a specific set of requirements in mind, whether that be to consolidate the emerging Kazakh national identity or to provide training in 21st century skills.

New models of university ownership

In its bid to diversify the cost of running higher education and in line with state programmes to transform Kazakhstan into a global knowledge economy, the Nazarbayev era also saw the proliferation of organisational ownership types.

According to the Association of Higher Education Institutions of Kazakhstan, there are at least six types of higher education institution, moving the conversation well beyond the ‘public’ and ‘private’ that is more usually encountered.

One of the most interesting and unusual ownership types is the joint stock company, of which there are 17 in Kazakhstan. Joint stock company-higher education institutions have the same legal status as private companies but have certain obligations to and for the state in the provision of higher education.

Kazakhstan may be unique among the former Soviet states in the creation of this hybrid public-private type of ownership. I’ve written more about this on my blog on education and society in Central Asia.

The government continues to shape the future of how Kazakh universities are owned and run; earlier in March 2019 it announced the sale of four state-run higher education institutions.

Determined to be world class

President Nazarbayev has invested time, money and policy tools into making Kazakhstan a legitimate player on the global stage of nations. Policy-wise, this is underpinned by Strategy 2050, which aims to make the country a top 30 global economy by the year 2050.

There is no better example of this strategy being enacted in higher education than Nazarbayev University – named after the president despite his apparent resistance.

Nazarbayev University, as I have written before, was designed from the outset to sit at the pinnacle of the Kazakh higher education system. It has its own line in the state budget and uses this to build state-of-the-art facilities, recruit international faculty and fully fund all of its undergraduate students. It is indeed an impressive – and expensive – endeavour.

Under President Nazarbayev, enrolment in higher education in Kazakhstan has increased to around 50% of the eligible population.

As shown above, students today have a plethora of institutions to choose from. If the domestic choice is insufficient, students can apply for a Bolashak (Future) scholarship, which since 1993 has paid for thousands of students to study at top universities abroad.

From doing work for other national governments, I know that Bolashak is seen as a model for how to rapidly bring in new ideas and knowledge through investment in people.

End of an era

Having been in power for so long, Nazarbayev’s decision to resign is genuinely the end of an era.

Astonishingly, around half the population has never known any other leader. Students graduating from university and college in the Nazarbayev era have grown up in a markedly different environment from their parents – and even from their Central Asian neighbours, where the hallmarks of the Soviet higher education system are still readily apparent.

Higher education in Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has not been reformed so radically that we can say it is totally different today. Many faculty with Soviet-era education and work experience are deeply unhappy about recent policies requiring them to publish a certain number of articles (including in English).

There is a sense in society that the quality of higher education is not what it used to be. Practices and ideas in higher education from the Soviet period still exist; corruption remains persistent and access to a degree can still be bought.

Yet for all that remains or is seen critically in Kazakhstan’s higher education, there is no question that Nazarbayev has had a significant impact on the form and direction of the sector.

I think it highly likely that whoever takes over from him in elections scheduled for 2020 will not – as has been the case in neighbouring Uzbekistan after the death of the Soviet-era president in 2016 – make significant changes to higher education.

The policies introduced in the Nazarbayev era will continue to shape higher education in Kazakhstan well into the future.

Emma Sabzalieva is a PhD candidate and Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, University of Toronto, Canada. She researches the politics and history of higher education, and social change in Central Asia. Her blog on education and society in Central Asia is at emmasabzalieva.com