COVID-19 highlights vulnerabilities in higher education
In March 2020, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan declared a transition to distance education. Most universities in Kazakhstan were unprepared for the stay-at-home order and the massive migration from university to home due to COVID-19.
Few had fully developed electronic learning systems and platforms such as Canvas and Google Classroom to implement high quality digital learning environments. Some classroom assignments were directly sent via the WhatsApp or Telegram application on mobile phones.
To continue online ‘face-to-face’ communication between faculty members and students, some universities used Zoom. Few universities have corporate licences to use Zoom so after 40 minutes online the classes pause. Moreover, students from remote places and small villages have had issues with internet access.
Kazakhstan is a developing country where accessibility to an internet connection is still limited in rural areas. Electronic devices are also limited for family members. Moreover, digitally astute junior faculty members adjusted to the new realities of online education quite easily whereas senior faculty with more teaching experience often lack basic computer skills and risked being left behind. Another problem was that the pandemic made it necessary to digitise study materials to share with students. This took some time to implement.
A test of funding and autonomy models
According to s World Bank assessment in 2017, approximately 70% of Kazakhstan’s total expenditure on higher education came from private sources, specifically from tuition fees.
As higher education institutions in Kazakhstan are primarily tuition-driven, students must be thoroughly satisfied with online and offline education if universities are to keep the money coming into their coffers. There is no data to indicate the level of satisfaction with online education during the coronavirus quarantine, nor reliable information to find out how many students are returning to universities in autumn 2020.
Leading public institutions in Kazakhstan have already announced that they will resort to distance learning once again in the next semester. A drop in student enrolment in the autumn will lead to significant financial consequences and a potential crisis.
Moreover, Kazakhstan embraced institutional and academic autonomy in higher education to replicate Western-style higher education models. Reforms, programmes and laws have been introduced to restructure historically centralised systems. COVID-19 is a practical test for whether Kazakh universities have become fully autonomous, given that instant internal decisions have to be made to adapt to changing circumstances without external interference.
Issues for students with disabilities
Another group of students, who were potentially at risk during the lockdown period were students with disabilities. There are about 700,000 people with different types of disabilities in Kazakhstan, according to the Ministry of Social Protection and Labour.
Students with disabilities make up 0.14% of the country’s 18 million population or 1,255 people. The transition to distance learning was supposed to help students with disabilities by improving access. But the pandemic demonstrated the disinterest of the Kazakh education system in students with disabilities. Their situation has in fact become more challenging.
There is a lack of properly designed study materials and computer software for people with sensory impairments – such as sight issues, hearing impairment and physical disability – and a shortage of adapted versions of commonly used applications like Zoom, Moodle, Microsoft Teams and others, so it has been more difficult to socially integrate students with disabilities and improve their digital literacy during the pandemic.
The international higher education community has urged university administrators to prioritise the challenges of students with disabilities. Those challenges commonly affect their academic performance and daily life. There have, however, been no reports in Kazakhstan on how to accommodate the learning needs of these students.
One institution, Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University, recently launched an online project – the ‘virtual laboratory of inclusive education’ – which covers access issues for all. The project is supported by the Ministry of Education and Science and is presented in a series of webinars for specialists in the field of inclusive education at all levels, from schools to universities. The project also aims to develop international partnerships on inclusive higher education.
Another challenge for Kazakh higher education has been student mental health. Worldwide, many traditional and non-traditional students have been undergoing severe stress and depression due to isolation as a result of lockdowns and the move to study from home.
At American higher education institutions, students are being encouraged to receive online counselling to address this. In Kazakhstan, the practice of obtaining professional therapy is still heavily stigmatised and underdeveloped. Yet this type of service is essential, and especially so during the current pandemic.
By 17 August 2020 in Kazakhstan, nearly 103,000 people in had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 1,269 people had died because of complications.
To reduce the stress that students, faculty members and administrators are facing, caused by fear of COVID-19 and isolation, proactive universities could adopt online counselling services together with high quality distance education. Mental well-being is vital for the learning process.
Need for a review
Students are currently on summer vacation in Kazakhstan. Universities across the country have less than two months to resume online education. Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has expressed concerns about the upcoming academic year as schools and universities are unprepared to deliver quality online education.
To improve the effectiveness and quality of education, university administrators and policy-makers should conduct a rigorous assessment of coronavirus measures introduced in spring 2020.
Nazgul Bayetova is a PhD candidate in higher education at Florida International University in Miami, United States. Madina Karsakbayeva is a PhD student in special education at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary.