Why world-class status is still mostly out of reach

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic with a population of around 18.5 million, continues its struggle for Europeanisation. Kazakhstan is known for its dry steppes, natural resources, vast oil fields and profitable uranium exports.

This geographically large, but scarcely populated country, located in the Middle East and Central Asia region, barely attracts the world’s attention, except when it comes to political grand corruption scandals.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s politics is not all about corruption. Kazakhstan’s national leader and former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, used revenues from the country’s natural resources to advance progressive reforms, including in the education arena.

Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades, holds the title Leader of the Nation. Despite many opponents and critics, one can argue that the title is well deserved, at least when it comes to attempting nationwide reforms.

Nazarbayev has created new universities, introduced privatisation into the higher education sector, promoted English in the curriculum and instruction in schools and universities and has initiated a switch to the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language. Nazarbayev’s successor as president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is continuing these reforms.

When it comes to reforming Kazakhstan’s obsolete and outdated higher education system, an inheritance of its communist past, Nazarbayev is known for his good ideas. These ideas – borrowed from the West and put forward by well-paid foreign advisors – are much more advanced than those that regulate formal education in other post-communist regimes.

Unlike other post-Soviet leaders, who routinely fail to deliver on their promises, Nazarbayev’s ideas are not simply empty rhetoric. Kazakhstan’s national leader has introduced useful and far-reaching reforms. However, their implementation remains problematic.

One problem remains the achievement of world-class status by at least a few of Kazakhstan’s leading universities. This is despite significant efforts made by the government.

In the 2021 QS World University Rankings, Kazakhstani universities performed relatively well. One of them, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, took 165th position in the top 200.

Nine more universities were included in the top 1,000. These included LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University (357th), Auezov South Kazakhstan State University (490th), Satbayev University (which ranked in the 541-550 section), Kazakh National Agrarian University (which ranked in the 591-600 section), Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University (which ranked in the 601-650 section), Kazakh-British Technical University (which ranked in the 751-800 section), NJSC KIMEP University (which ranked in the 751-800 section), Karaganda State Technical University and Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages (which both ranked in the 801-1,000 section).

If a university is included in the top 200, this university can usually be regarded as a world-class university. By occupying 165th position, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University gained the right to claim world-class status. The question is how stable this global position really is for the university.

Other rankings

Not all world university rankings were as generous to Kazakhstani universities as the QS ranking. According to the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings, produced in 2020 for 2021, none of Kazakhstan’s universities secured a spot in the first 1,000 ranked universities.

The ranking included only three Kazakhstani universities: Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University and Satbayev University. These universities were placed somewhere beyond 1,001. At least, Kazakhstan was mentioned in the ranking tables.

The results achieved in previous years were not much better. According to the THE World University Rankings 2019, Kazakhstan managed to get only one of its universities in the top 1,000. Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, located in Almaty, was placed somewhere between 801 and 1,000. LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University, located in Nur-Sultan, was placed outside the top 1,001.

Al-Farabi Kazakh National University was developed during the Soviet era, while LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University was set up during the post-Soviet period in 1996. The former is the product of Soviet education, while the latter has a strong Russian influence.

Finally, in the latest Best Global Universities Rankings, released by US News in October 2020 for 2021, Kazakhstan is not mentioned at all. It was not simply ranked lower than expected by national and academic leaders. As a country it simply disappeared from the world educational map in this ranking.

Why? If the ideas behind the reforms are brilliant and the money is there, how can we explain this failure? It would be naïve to expect those who have fed from the country’s national education projects for many years to suddenly admit failure. It would be even more naïve to expect them to try to identify the major causes of this failure. Instead, they are likely to blame insufficient funding and ask the government for even more money to be allocated to top universities.

Systemic issues

There are several fundamental problems underlying the failure to achieve and retain world-class university status. Many Kazakhstani universities continue to operate based on the Soviet model of knowledge creation and transfer. Most research is done in research institutes while universities are focused on teaching. In essence, many of these are colleges rather than universities.

On the positive side, some Kazakhstani universities are no longer characterised by the overspecialisation so typical of the Soviet system of higher education, having been established under communist rule in order to supply cadres to specific branches of the national economy. Since independence, they were remodelled into more diversified higher education institutions.

Another major challenge is the low level of faculty preparation for research, the product of a system marred by Soviet bureaucracy. Undeveloped doctoral programmes and an acute shortage of faculty trained in the West and therefore not up to date with the latest developments prevalent in Western universities have resulted in very low research output.

Nepotism in the hiring and promotion processes may also be widespread, slowing down reforms and preventing academic excellence from flourishing. A weak meritocracy, combined with a lack of research funding, results in an inability to publish in top Western journals with an international reputation. A low research output in terms of publications in peer-reviewed Western journals makes universities non-competitive.

Kazakhstani universities also suffer from weak internationalisation. There are only a small number of international students enrolled in Kazakhstani universities as compared to other major players on the world educational services market.

Foreign faculty members as well as holders of foreign doctorates are not hired in the country’s universities, with very rare exceptions.

Even special-status universities such as NJSC KIMEP University and Nazarbayev University cannot afford to hire high-profile Western academics in order to remain competitive on the international scene. Retention of the international faculty they have is yet another problem.

Old and outdated structures of university governance and management preserve a system in which academic bureaucrats representing the central authority retain a monopoly over decision-making. This obsolete structure prevents university development in Kazakhstan.

The heavy influence of the ruling political regime on universities along with university politicisation and indoctrination continue to be among the major factors that determine universities’ long-term strategic planning as well as their day-to-day operations.

Nazarbayev University, established by Nursultan Nazarbayev over a decade ago, cost Kazakhstani taxpayers billions of dollars, but there is not much return on this investment. Thus far, Nazarbayev University, envisioned as Kazakhstan’s elite and autonomous world-class university, has failed to appear in any world university rankings.

The university, designed to produce a new national elite, fails the diversity test. While the international hiring programme at Nazarbayev University and other advanced universities is very weak, ill-prepared local academics continue to penetrate universities, securing lavish faculty and administrative positions for themselves by playing the system to their advantage.

The far-reaching educational initiatives, undertaken by the Kazakhstani national leader, may come to fruition only after the country solves the puzzle of how to hire and promote on merit.

Nazarbayev as a reformer and moderniser has tried to literally pull Kazakhstan into the 21st century with the help of his educational reforms, but the task of pulling Kazakhstan into the top world rankings appears to be too hard – although not impossible.

One can only hope that it will soon reappear as a regular feature of the world educational map, although the problems it faces suggest there is a long journey ahead.

Ararat L Osipian is a founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA, and holds a PhD in education and human development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he was a fellow of the US Department of State.