The goal to improve the education system has governmental officials and analysts discussing how to make the reductions as painless and as rational as possible.
Kazakhstan wants its higher education system to exemplify quality over quantity.
Members of parliament in April announced plans to streamline the country’s higher education system and improve its quality. The envisioned five-year programme will cut the number of universities to about 100 from 150.
“We should focus on quality, not quantity,” Deputy Education and Science Minister Murat Orunhanov said. “In developed countries, there are from one to six universities for every 1m residents, while we have nine universities [per 1m residents].”
By cutting back to 100 universities, Kazakhstan, with a population of about 17m, would have six universities per million residents.
The plans call for Kazakhstan to have 40 state, 45 private (some owned by one individual, others with shared ownership) and 13 military universities. The reform would leave most oblasts with one large state university and one large private university.
Authorities will carry out the reform – which President Nursultan Nazarbayev has praised – by merging educational institutions, downgrading some universities to colleges and ordering some universities to shut down, Orunhanov said.
Country has reduced number of universities before
The reduction will be the third since the country gained independence.
Similar streamlining efforts occurred in 2008 and 2012. Before 2008, the country had more than 300 universities.
“The previous cutbacks in the number of universities helped students in that it mainly affected low-level universities that weren’t able to prove that their teaching and education met the norm in the country,” said Muktar Lasizov, a student at Nazarbayev University.
His sister had been studying at what she considered a substandard university in Shymkent and quit that school, he said. If the reform sparks institutions to improve their offerings, he said it would be a good thing.
Challenges with revamping education system
Some have cautioned that problems might arise during the streamlining, though, and a smooth transition for the country’s 572,000 university students was urged. Konstantin Kaufman, 21, for example, is graduating this month from Parasat University with a degree in management.
“Just recently I found out that my university will merge with Caspian Social University,” he said. But with the proposed merger, his diploma will reflect that he graduated from Caspian. “So my degree will be from another university, and not the one I chose four years ago.”
With such concerns in mind, Education and Science Minister Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov recommended a thorough examination of the entire university system before making any cutbacks.
Another aspect that needs to be considered is how to direct university students into needed fields of study. For example, he said the country has a shortage of doctors and teachers, but far more applicants than needed want to study law.
That is another legitimate concern, said Aldan Smayyl, an MP from the lower chamber of parliament, is among those who have suggested a different reform programme. “We should not reduce the number of universities but rather the number of departments in them,” he said.
The streamlining process and the rationale behind it
Authorities in May created a National Public Reform Council to carry out the streamlining process. The council is accountable to the Education and Science Ministry and includes MPs, representatives of political parties, journalists and rectors of municipal and private universities.
The council’s main task is to bring up for public discussion the process and to work out suggestions meant to ensure high-quality education for specialists in an innovation-based economy.
Authorities raised the idea of streamlining the university system for several reasons, Rahman Alshanov, president of the Association of Universities of Kazakhstan and a member of the National Public Reform Council, said.
“The first factor is competition, and ‘dumping’ [of university graduates] on the educational market,” he said. “The second factor is personnel. Employers want skilled specialists, which is why we have so many universities.”
Preservation of healthy competition among universities is important in the reforms and officials shouldn’t close any institutions without good reason, he said. But the reforms should help modernise the system, Janna Akhmetova, an instructor at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, said.
“This will particularly benefit highly specialised departments such as journalism,” Akhmetova said. “Previously Kazakhstan had two journalism departments; now it has 20. I’m all for rationalising the number of journalism departments, so that they adhere to common criteria and standards.”