Chapter 7. The governance of higher education in Kazakhstan

This chapter looks at governance in higher education and recent steps Kazakhstan has taken to strengthen institutional governance, enhance autonomy and accountability, and balance financial flexibility and responsibility. It also discusses the roles of the public and private sectors in higher education. Four areas of priority are identified where significant governance challenges remain: excessive financial regulation of Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions; a lack of academic autonomy which discourages faculty and institutional creativity, initiative and responsibility; weak organisational autonomy of higher education; and regulation of the public and private sectors, which is excessive and lacking rational differentiation to reflect their distinctive roles.


Roles and responsibilities in higher education governance

Bases of authority and purposes for governance

Policy discussion of governance in higher education can have three focal points: the professional/collegial authority of the academic profession, the market and the government (or managerial) function. Each of these has an independent claim for legitimate authority, and in some respects their claims overlap (Clark, 1983). In most countries a role for each claim is balanced in an overall strategy for governing higher education (Figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1. Clark’s triangle of governance

Sources: Clark, 1983 (Adapted from Santiago, P. et al., 2008).

Building on this model, the initial sections of this chapter outline general principles and considerations surrounding higher education governance. This will in turn allow the challenges facing Kazakhstan to be better framed in the second part of the chapter.

The purpose of governance is to assure that higher education’s stakeholders are able to achieve the goals they have for the enterprise. These goals have been articulated in many ways, but the following common themes tend to emerge in most countries – including in Kazakhstan (for an example of how they are applied, see Box 7.1). Governments, higher education faculty and students all have particular perspectives on the process of higher education, but all three tend to seek a higher education system that:

  • Is responsive to the needs of students and employers in providing well-prepared graduates for jobs in an economy that increasingly values knowledge and intellectual skills.

  • Prepares students to lead fulfilling lives and to become responsible, well-informed citizens.

  • Generates new knowledge, and applies knowledge to improve the quality of life and solve the practical problems faced by a country, its businesses, governments and people.

  • Avoids being entirely dependent on the government and taxpayers for the revenue needed to support its operations. Generates financial support from the private sector, from the students benefiting from higher education, and from graduates and philanthropists with an interest in the common good.

  • Is efficient and effective in performing all of its missions.

  • Is globally recognised for its quality and for the benefits that stem from integrating the talent and experiences of the international academic community into the national higher education system.

  • Achieves integrity, avoiding corrupt practices that drain resources and damage the reputation of higher education.

Box 7.1. The new Scottish Code of Higher Education Governance 2013

The Scottish higher education system comprises a wide range of diverse institutions with differing governing instruments, traditions and strategic mission, and the new Scottish Code of Higher Education Governance is intended to reflect this diversity. The Code is not a prescriptive set of rules but rather a set of main principles supported by guidelines and examples of good practice to guide institutions. Institutions will either have to “comply or explain”. This approach promotes good governance in an effective and transparent way.

The code identifies the purpose of governance of the higher education system as promoting “the enduring success, integrity and probity of the Institution as a whole”, through:

  • institutional autonomy

  • financial accountability and efficiency

  • active stakeholder participation

  • guarding against potential conflicts of interest

  • maintaining and observing clear statements of authority and responsibility throughout the institution

  • matching such authority and responsibility with accountability to key internal and external stakeholders.

The governing body in a higher education institution determines overall strategic direction and sets institutional values. Its activities are distinct from those of the operational management of the institution, which are decided by the senior team of administrators.

Sources: The Scottish code of GOOD HE Governance (n.d.),

International experience suggests that if these goals are to be achieved, governments typically must play an active role in higher education. They cannot achieve these goals solely by relying on the tools at their disposal, that is, financial appropriations and government orders, regulation, information and direct provision. They also need to rely on professional expertise, non-governmental business and civil society leaders, private initiative and market mechanisms. Thus all of the three sources of authority identified in the model above are interdependent. In a well-functioning system of higher education, all three will be important and working together towards shared purposes (Maggio, 2012).

The role (and limitations) of professional expertise in governance

Excellence in higher education requires professional expertise as well as freedom for the exercise of this expertise. Advances in knowledge, in transmitting knowledge, and in solving social and economic problems do not typically emerge by simply complying with instructions and applying what already exists. They emerge when existing practice and knowledge are examined and challenged, when new approaches to old problems are tried, and when changing conditions lead to innovation and adaptation.

A key dimension of the notion of “academic freedom” is thus the belief that professional academics should have freedom to teach, do research and express their professional views without restrictions related to their employment. Such freedom is especially necessary in the intellectual space of classrooms and laboratories. This means that organisational policies should not restrict the freedom of thought, inquiry and expression of academic staff.

Independence of thought does not preclude academics from working collaboratively. College and university faculty are most effective not when working in isolation but when they are stimulated and challenged by colleagues, when their individual work is validated by colleagues and when they collaborate with colleagues to address shared problems. The broader social benefits of academic freedom explain why faculty members have a substantial role in governance at well-regarded institutions of higher education. A higher education system that does not provide academic flexibility and freedom will have difficulty attracting and retaining the talent that are required for excellence.

All this is not to suggest that flexibility and freedom can exist without responsibility to others. If an academic community becomes excessively self-referential – if it cuts itself off from the interests of its students and the surrounding community – it will lose the information and feedback it needs to fulfil its mission. If it fails to fulfil that mission, it will lose the public trust and access to the resources it needs to carry on its work. This is the reason why both the market and governments have an important role to play in higher education governance.

The role (and limitations) of the market in governance

The second source of authority, the market, is an inevitable and natural constraint on academic authority and autonomy. Payments by students to professors or institutions have long been a common means of financing higher education. Without students’ willingness to study and pay for this privilege (with their fees and/or with their foregone income), higher education could not survive.

The price system and the marketplace are effective means of allocating resources and making many decisions in society. It works especially well where goods and services are widely or universally consumed, where there are many competing providers, where most consumers have access to good information, where there is freedom of choice among providers, and where consumer decisions occur frequently and have only short-term consequences.

Although a number of these conditions are met in higher education, other important ones are not. Higher education is increasingly widely “consumed”, and the number of competing providers for some of its functions (instruction in high-demand fields such as computing, business, etc.) has grown rapidly. However, there are very few or no private providers for basic research, or for instruction in important fields that have low enrolment demand (e.g. much of graduate education). A government that looks to the market to meet all of a nation’s higher education needs will find that important needs go unmet.

Because of the nature of higher education, the market system also creates risk for consumers. Students vary greatly in the quality and amount of information they have when they are purchasing higher education, and in their ability to “shop” intelligently among various providers. Some students have the benefit of exhaustive information to inform their decisions and possess the financial wealth necessary to choose expensive or distant providers. A great many students do not enjoy these advantages, though. If they make a poor choice, it may be impossible for them to recover from the loss of capital and time. Students who lack resources may also have a difficult time accessing private capital markets to finance their investment in education.

These factors significantly limit the potential of the market, absent governmental intervention, to meet a country’s needs for higher education. The market will not respond to important public needs when profit potential is limited. It will not serve students who lack financial or geographic access to providers either. Some educational providers in the marketplace may be tempted to achieve or expand their profit margin by cutting corners on quality or to enrol students who are unlikely to benefit from their programmes.

In response to market limitations, most countries have created and sustained public institutions of higher education, provide public programmes to financially support students attending public and independent institutions, and use regulations to provide quality assurance and consumer protection. However they have also relied on markets and competition among institutions for the benefits that these provide: attracting investment and philanthropic capital to support higher education; promoting responsiveness to the needs of students and the labour market; and providing incentives for institutions to improve through competition on the basis of quality and/or price. The market sends signals that governments, institutions and students ignore at their own risk.

The role (and limitations) of government in governance

The third basis of authority for higher education governance is the legitimacy of the sovereign state. In the 21st century, higher education is an enterprise that involves a large fraction of the population. Knowledge has become increasingly important in the world economy: in many countries, a minimum of some postsecondary education has become a de facto requirement for acquiring and holding a well-paying job. As a result, the question facing a 21st century government is not whether to be involved in higher education, but how to be involved in a way that will effectively marshal the capacity of institutions to meet the emerging needs of the population and the economy. Governments must consider the demands of the marketplace for talent; the needs of their people for opportunities to prosper in a knowledge economy; the necessity of identifying, nurturing and respecting expertise in higher education; and the necessity of making prudent investments in order to meet national objectives (Lingenfelter, 2004).

Different countries have pursued different strategies for providing higher education. Most have strongly emphasised the direct provision of higher education through public institutions. Some countries have relied primarily on private independent institutions, but far more have employed both public and private institutions to deliver different degrees and serve different purposes. Regardless of the chosen mix of public and private institutions, countries need to make a range of decisions about their strategies and the governance of the system:

  • To what extent, for what purposes, to whom and in what ways will the state provide financial resources to advance educational attainment and research?

  • What factors will the state establish as conditions for receiving public subsidies?

  • What mechanisms, regardless of sector, will the state employ to ensure quality and to establish appropriate protections for students as consumers?

  • What mechanisms will the state employ to govern publicly owned and operated institutions?

The effectiveness of a government’s role in higher education depends on several factors:

  • The quality of its overall vision for higher education in the nation. Is it sufficiently broad, deep and well-designed to meet the nation’s needs?

  • The effectiveness of its strategies for public investment. Do public investments achieve their intended purposes? Are they efficient? (This issue is discussed at greater length in Chapter 6).

  • The effectiveness of governmental regulations and practices in assuring and advancing quality, responsiveness to public purposes and the integrity of the system (discussed at greater length in Chapter 2).

  • The ability of the government to employ market forces and the abilities of others – academics, independent institutions, civic and business leaders – to accomplish purposes that are beyond the capabilities of government alone.

  • The ability of the government to strike an effective balance between accountability for public purposes and the academic independence required for excellence in higher education.

One obvious limitation on governments is financial in nature. In theory, governments could levy taxes sufficient to pay all the costs of a desired system of higher education. Most governments, though, have found such levels of taxation to be politically impractical and fiscally undesirable. Higher education provides significant benefits for individuals and for many commercial and social interests within society. Experience demonstrates that individuals and others are willing to invest their own resources in higher education. These investments of private money and time are a resource to higher education that also serves the public interest. The obligation of government is thus to assure that adequate resources are provided for an excellent higher education system and that citizens can afford to participate in it.

Governments are also limited in their expertise and agility. Academic flexibility and freedom are essential because academic issues are complex and change is constant. Excellence requires the decentralisation of academic authority, both among and within institutions. This allows institutions to deal with complex and dynamic academic work, while responding to the changing needs of the individuals and communities. Governments cannot acquire the knowledge required to govern higher education fast enough, nor can they change quickly enough to manage colleges and universities effectively. Sometimes they institute “buffer bodies” that operate closer to the actual delivery of higher education. Even these bodies, though, face limits on their knowledge and responsiveness.

The role of boards in the governance of public institutions

There is an inevitable tension between public ownership of an institution of higher education, and the flexibility and operational autonomy that are essential for excellence. In many countries, boards of directors play a significant role in managing that tension. Governing boards typically function as:

  • the body that has the authority to choose a chief executive and to evaluate his or her performance

  • the decision-making body that makes or ratifies major policy decisions concerning the budget and strategic plan of the institution

  • a source of advice, support and accountability for the chief executive

  • a permanent, self-renewing body committed to the effectiveness and the continuous improvement of the institution

  • an advocate for the institution with the community and with government

  • a source of financial support

  • a means of assuring that the institution is responsive to the public interest.

In some jurisdictions, the members of public institution boards are appointed by the executive branch of government (generally to staggered terms of office). However, in the United States, for instance, some governing boards are directly elected by the public (this is relatively rare for public universities and more common for community colleges). In countries like Canada, while governments have no direct role in selecting governing board members, they must approve selections, and have the right to withhold approval. In some countries governing boards have a substantial number of members who are faculty or staff at the institution, although with a requirement that a significant number of members (e.g. a majority of the board) be external to the institution.

Boards of public institutions that are appointed by governments do not function simply to oversee the implementation of centralised policies. They create a space for diversity and innovation in the public sector, within the broad framework of institutional missions established by the government in its overall plan for higher education. They may not have the independent authority to establish (for example) a medical school or PhD programmes, if these are not within the approved mission of the institution. However, boards do oversee the institution’s pursuit of its mission. Strong boards have discretion to identify which decisions can and should be delegated to the Rector, other administrative leaders or the faculty, and which decisions require board approval.

The effectiveness of a board depends on the ability of its members to understand what is required for institutional effectiveness. This includes an understanding of the appropriate role and limits of the board in setting policy; establishing goals and standards for performance; providing space for executive leadership; and avoiding dysfunctional interference in operations. It is important that governments or others appoint board members who have the stature, experience and ability to perform these important responsibilities. Many boards develop their own orientation and training activities to help new members become effective. Some governments provide formal training or encourage board members to participate in associations that help board members understand and fulfil their responsibilities.

If governmental policy does not assign significant responsibilities to a governing board and give it discretion to do its work, it will not be possible to recruit capable board members. The kind of person who can be an effective board member will likely not be interested in serving on a board that has no significant powers. A division of labour between government policy and institutional governance can be established to the benefit of both. Communication (at times frequent) between governing board members and governmental authorities is necessary to achieve common understanding and mutual benefit. However, a separation of powers is essential to realise the benefits of a board (see Box 7.2).

Box 7.2. Ireland and university governance

Ireland offers an interesting example for the development of university governance over time. Given the role universities play in national economic and social development, and their reliance on public as well as private funding, the national government and the university sector partnered to jointly establish a framework for governance.

The evolution of the governance framework can be traced back to the Universities Act of 1997 and the “The Financial Governance of Irish Universities” code of 2001. In 2007, the Higher Education Authority and Irish Universities Association jointly updated and replaced the relevant provisions of the 2001 Code and extended its scope well beyond financial governance with “Governance of Irish Universities - A Governance Code of Legislation, Principles, Best Practice and Guidelines”. All universities adopted the Code’s principles and reporting requirements.

In 2012, the “Governance of Irish Universities” was updated once again to reflect new advancements and best practices in governance, with updated requirements, responsibilities and accountabilities in areas such as internal control, audit and risk management.

The Code, which is intended to be revised periodically, assists universities and their governing bodies in the management of universities by outlining appropriate procedures and controls. The principles and best practices provided are not meant to be prescriptive. Rather, they serve as a reference point that each university interprets according to its unique circumstances and organisational structure. On the whole, this provides the government and general public with comfort that universities are operating in accordance with well-developed standards and practices of governance and accountability.

Sources: Governance of Irish Universities (2012),

The governance of higher education in Kazakhstan

Twenty-five years ago, the governance and financing of higher education in Kazakhstan was almost exclusively based upon the authority and resources of the state. Starting in 1990, however, Kazakhstan also began to rely on the market for the provision of higher education: it began encouraging and assisting the development of private institutions of higher education, and requiring both public and private institutions to rely primarily on student paid tuition and fees for revenues. The reliance on market mechanisms did not, however, diminish the role of the state in governance. While there were some important differences between public and private institutions (e.g. regarding the authority for appointing rectors), the government continued to play a very strong role in the regulation of both public and private institutions.

Government regulation of higher education and the “attestation process”

The government’s regulation of higher education is based on the Law on Education (2007). The Committee for Control of Education and Science conducts an “attestation” review of each higher education institution at least once every five years to determine compliance with the law and regulations – with focus on input and process measures such as student/faculty member ratios, as well as on student performance on subject-matter tests. If an institution is found not to be in compliance with the law, its license is suspended and its rector is liable to prosecution for administrative offenses. During the period 2008 to 2014, the Committee undertook attestation reviews of 157 universities. In addition, the Committee also performs regular inspections of higher education institutions (with those judged to be riskier being inspected more frequently) to ensure their compliance with regulations; ad hoc inspections can also occur in response to complaints. In 2014, inspections led to the suspension of the licenses of more than 20 institutions. Three of these institutions later had their educational license revoked and one voluntarily surrendered its license (JSC Information-Analytic Center, 2015).

There has been some movement though towards loosening this rigid attestation and inspection approach to quality assurance. In 2005, the government established the National Center of Accreditation within the MESRK. The creation of a legal authority to recognise accreditation agencies was a first step towards promoting professional/collegial authority as a tool in the governance of higher education in Kazakhstan. This legal authority was then reorganised into the Bologna Process and Academic Mobility Center in 2012. Currently two Kazakhstan-based accreditors and eight international accreditors are included in the national register of accreditors. As Chapter 2 also notes, anticipated changes to Article 5 of the Law on Education (2007) are designed to gradually replace attestation with accreditation for quality assurance purposes. Moving towards a more robust system for quality assurance, which helps to raise standards while encouraging greater institutional responsibility for leading improvements, will be critical to strengthening the architecture of higher education governance in Kazakhstan. It is also important to move ahead with other reforms, highlighted as central to more effective governance in the 2007 report, with respect to building the conditions for greater institutional autonomy and leadership.

Recent steps to strengthen institutional governance in Kazakhstan

The 2007 OECD/World Bank Review of Higher Education in Kazakhstan described a governance system that was largely informed by laws, and by the decision-making authority of the MESRK and other ministers. Figure 7.2 summarises the recommendations of the 2007 report, with a brief assessment of the current status where relevant.

Figure 7.2. Implementation status of the 2007 OECD/World Bank recommendations

Sources: OECD/World Bank (2007), Reviews of National Policies for Education: Higher Education in Kazakhstan 2007, OECD Publishing, Paris,

After these 2007 recommendations were made, the governance structure of higher education in Kazakhstan began to shift. In 2007 the MESRK issued an order establishing objectives for Advisory Boards. This order described the role of the boards as supporting higher education institutions in implementing their statutory functions; assisting in advancing international co-operation; assisting in improving the education, living conditions and employment of students from socially vulnerable strata of the population; and making proposals to “eliminate shortcomings” in the organisation of education. The order outlined no formal role of governance authority for these boards, but they were a first step towards building a non-governmental body to advise higher education institutions. About half of the universities in Kazakhstan (62 of 125) have now established Advisory Boards (JSC Information-Analytic Center, 2015).

In 2012, the MESRK issued additional guidelines for the establishment of “Boards of Trustees.” These boards are to be composed of representatives of the Ministry, the local executive body, the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, the public and the leaders of state-owned companies. Boards of Trustees have some limited powers of governance that are not granted to Advisory Boards. They decide on the allocation of sponsorships, charitable assistance, and funds received from non-government sources, including the allocation of any net income the state permits an institution to retain. Boards of Trustees have unimpeded access to documents concerning the state of the institutions. They may determine the term of office and salary of the Board’s secretary. They may also make proposals to the Ministry on the participation of the state-owned institutions in other legal entities and on “other substantive matters”.

In 2015, the MNERK issued rules governing the election of officers to Boards of Trustees. These rules, covering seven pages and 25 topics, specify in great detail the procedures used for selecting board members; the qualifications and disqualifications of board members; specifications about the required content of applications for election; procedures for evaluating board members; and other substantive and procedural matters. This detail demonstrates the seriousness with which this initiative has been advanced and betokens a commitment to ensuring that it is successful. At the time of this review, nine state-owned universities had Supervisory Boards. Plans were underway to create such boards in 20 more public institutions.

Although these are important first steps toward a more decentralised system of governance, higher education in Kazakhstan is still largely controlled by detailed and prescriptive laws and regulations, and by decisions taken by the MESRK (and by other national ministries to which some public universities report). Most of the fundamental laws and practices governing and constraining higher education institutions have not changed. One of the most important of these is the provision that the rectors of public institutions are still appointed, and can be removed, by the President of Kazakhstan (national universities) or by the minister (state universities).

However, some laws and regulations, such as those prescribing the content of the curriculum, are indeed gradually changing. State compulsory educational standards, which establish the content of the curriculum, have been relaxed to give higher education institutions more autonomy in their design of academic programmes of study. At the bachelor’s level, 45% of the curriculum is now prescribed, and 55% is flexible. At the master’s level, 70% may be determined at the institutional level, and at the doctoral level this figure rises to 90%. However, during the OECD review team’s visits to campuses, it was not yet evident that substantial changes or improvements in actual practice have resulted from this provision of greater flexibility. Furthermore, individual faculty and academic officers expressed concern about the value of some of the remaining mandated components of the curriculum, suggesting for instance that these can crowd out other more important learning, that they are sometimes outdated, and that they can make co-operation with institutions outside Kazakhstan challenging.

In many respects, the slow rate of change in Kazakhstan’s higher education governance is unsurprising. It would be unusual (and may even be imprudent) for governing authorities to make fundamental changes in law without an extensive period of deliberation and discussion. It can also be quite difficult for individuals and institutions to implement new ways of working quickly. Inertia is a very powerful force in most organisations, and it is particularly powerful in institutions of higher education where the work is spread out over many departments and areas of study. It is easier to change a simple organisation than a very complex one, especially when traditional practice has emphasised compliance with detailed law and regulation.

The decade between the 2007 OECD/World Bank review and this OECD review of higher education in Kazakhstan can be characterised, then, as a period of activity that has moved in the general direction of the 2007 review’s recommendations on governance. It has not yet led to fundamental change, though, in the relationship of higher education institutions to the state. Boards of Trustees and Advisory Boards have been created in public institutions, but their role is almost entirely limited to that of giving advice; indeed, boards appear to be playing a significant advisory role at only a few institutions (Hartley et al. 2015.) In response to ministry mandates, most campuses have reached out to regional employers for input, and it was reported to the OECD review team that in some cases these have efforts have produced productive and influential relationships. However, it is not clear yet that campuses have the flexibility necessary to fully and promptly respond to the needs of the communities they serve.

The slow rate of progress towards greater institutional autonomy also suggests a real degree of ambivalence – especially among administrators and members of the public. For instance, some of the government officials interviewed by the OECD review team questioned whether higher education in Kazakhstan is in fact prepared for more autonomy. Concerns about the expansion of autonomy may partly be explained by the continuing need to address a set of problems that arose after the rapid and largely uncontrolled growth of private higher education provision that began in the early 1990s. In this regard, and as noted elsewhere in this review, the MESRK has taken steps to optimise the system and to assure the quality of provision.

Discomfort about institutional autonomy may also be linked in part to societal concerns about institutional accountability. These are evidenced for instance in public unease about corruption occurring at higher education institutions. Students surveyed in the late spring of 2014 reported that bribes are routinely required for the purchase of course assignments, examination results and access to dormitories. This survey led senior officials to call for stringent anti-corruption measures aimed at corrupt university managers (Zakon, 2014).

Thus, while the development of new governance arrangements with more institutional autonomy is an important part of the modernisation process, it will be essential for the Ministry to ensure that greater institutional autonomy is accompanied by the development and implementation of robust accountability mechanisms and good governance practices at the institutional level. Institutions need to build their capacity for self-governance. The newly created Nazarbayev University provides one example of a workable governance model that other institutions in Kazakhstan can learn from, if effective means to disseminate these lessons are implemented.

Strengthening autonomy with accountability

The Country Background Report which Kazakhstan’s JSC Information-Analytic Center prepared for this review takes up a framework that the European University Association (EUA) created, and uses this to make a summary assessment of the autonomy of Kazakhstan’s public higher education institutions (Estermann, 2011). Figure 7.3 illustrates the results of this assessment (JSC Information-Analytic Center, 2015). If Kazakhstan fully met the EUA’s standards for four dimensions of autonomy – academic, organisational, staffing and financial – all the space on this circular figure would be filled in.

Figure 7.3. Summary assessment of the autonomy of Kazakhstan’s public higher education institutions

Sources: JSC Information-Analytic Center (2015), “Country Background Report”, prepared for the OECD follow-up review of higher education policy in Kazakhstan, JSC Information-Analytic Center, Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Astana.

According to the JSC Information-Analytic Center analysis, Kazakhstan meets 84% of the criteria established for staffing autonomy, 65% of the criteria for organisational autonomy, 51% of the criteria for academic autonomy and 38% of the criteria for financial autonomy. Among the 28 European countries included in this analysis, one-third have higher values than Kazakhstan for staffing autonomy; nearly one-half score higher on organisational autonomy; four out of five are higher on academic autonomy; and nine out of ten score higher on indicators of financial autonomy.

It is clear that academic and financial autonomy are the areas where Kazakhstan faces the greatest comparative challenges. It does better on the full array of indicators for staffing autonomy. However, Kazakhstan does not compare favourably on one particularly important indicator of organisational autonomy, the recruitment of chief executive officers. In more than half of the countries in the study, universities themselves are freely able to carry out the recruitment and appointment of chief executives with no validation from external authorities. In other countries an external authority “validates” the selection but rarely makes it. In Kazakhstan, the selection is made by the state.

Autonomy for higher education in Kazakhstan is far below the “ideal” as proposed by the EUA analysis, and it is well below the average levels of autonomy in the 28 European countries included in the study. Kazakhstan is thus lagging behind the international trend to replace centralised governmental control and regulation with forms of governance that emphasise policy leadership, the setting of national goals, decentralised institutional governance and the use of finance policy (e.g. performance funding) to ensure that institutions respond to public policy priorities.

As the EUA analysis argues, autonomy is good for higher education; university autonomy is good for countries and, if it is well managed, more autonomy is better than less. The rationale behind granting greater autonomy to institutions is to improve the responsiveness of higher education institutions to national and societal demands. This should lead to more innovative capacity and greater efficiency. By continuing its shift from a control to a steering strategy, the state could encourage a culture of performance that is able to meet the challenge of “intensified international competition” (OECD, 2008).

Regulation of course has its place. In determining the balance between regulation and autonomy, Kazakhstan needs to focus on its national goals for higher education and work on implementing approaches to governance that will advance these goals. The changes that have occurred since 2007 do indicate an appetite for ensuring that governance of higher education in Kazakhstan evolves. It is not desirable to wait for a “perfect moment” to undertake further change: concrete decentralisation measures can themselves build institutional capacity for self-governance. Nevertheless, as they move to grant institutions more autonomy, the government and national funding agencies need to make certain that assurances are in place. They need to ensure that institutions make use of resilient accountability systems that are based on outputs and outcomes, and on performance measures such as evidence of the cost-effective and efficient utilisation of resources.

Financial flexibility and responsibility

Kazakhstan is far from alone in dealing with the complex and controversial issue of how to balance university autonomy with improved accountability and transparency. However, levels of financial regulation in Kazakhstan are extremely high in comparison with other countries and reflect antiquated practices.

Chapter 6 of this report suggested a number of ways that financial deregulation could help the higher education system become more efficient and institutions become more effective. Because the ability to make decisions about the use of money is fundamental to every other area of governance, providing financial flexibility coupled with accountability for outcomes is an essential first step in helping institutions become strong and innovative in the pursuit of their missions. The responsible use of financial flexibility should be assured through audits to ensure financial integrity (see the example of Finland in Box 7.3) and through the supervision of governing boards to assure that money is employed effectively to advance the mission of institutions.

Box 7.3. Monitoring performance in Finland

The Universities Act (2009) gives significant administrative and financial autonomy to universities as independent corporations under public law or as foundations under private law.

Since 2010, universities are bound to general public accounting legislation. Financial statements are made public. Higher education institutions must provide information requested by the Ministry for the purposes of evaluation, development and statistics, as well as other information needed for monitoring and steering if this information is not otherwise available. Accurate information on performance and finances must be provided in a way that enables progress be evaluated against set goals.

Monitoring is undertaken annually using indicators of effectiveness and quality. The Ministry of Education gives feedback to the higher education institutions on their activities and development needs during the agreement period. As a rule, more comprehensive feedback is given during the intervening years between negotiations.

Sources: Ministry of Education and Culture Finland (2010),; OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing,

Academic autonomy

Despite recent moves to increase flexibility in the content of academic programmes, Kazakhstan still has considerably more centralised regulation of the curriculum and of institutional processes than is typically found in European countries (and in other countries with strong systems of higher education). Centralised academic regulation is a poor substitute for a robust system of accreditation and a national qualifications framework. It dampens creativity and initiative, discourages faculty members from taking responsibility for the quality of student learning and undermines institutional responsibility for the quality of the overall instructional programme.

As discussed in other chapters of this report, additional efforts are needed to create and implement a strong system of accreditation and a qualifications framework that can guide programme development and assure quality. The rapid development of such tools, accompanied by further meaningful increases in academic flexibility, is an essential step in strengthening quality-focused governance structures.

Organisational autonomy

Organisational autonomy should not be confused with the absence of accountability. In fact, it might more properly be construed as organisational responsibility: the responsibility to serve the mission of the institution, the responsibility to improve, to become stronger financially, to be innovative, and to provide better service to students and the community. No matter how a governing board is constituted, accountability for these responsibilities needs to be present. On the other hand, if institutions do not have an independent governing board, they are lacking an important tool for responsibility.

Kazakhstan has begun taking steps towards greater organisational autonomy for its public universities. The creation of advisory Boards of Trustees and Supervisory Boards that have some (but still limited) powers is a step in the right direction. The creation of joint stock company universities is presumably another step in this direction, although the team was unable to judge how these arrangements actually work in practice. Progress is slow: it was reported to the OECD review team that the current roles of these boards are more honorary than substantive. Few important decisions are made in board meetings; most important decisions seem to be made elsewhere and then reported to the board for information or pro forma ratification.

Government and private institutions

A final important consideration regarding system-level governance for Kazakhstan is centred on the relative roles of the public and private sectors in higher education. The different legal and financial bases of private institutions and public institutions naturally lead to competition between the sectors. Private institutions sometimes argue that governmental subsidies to public institutions give the latter an unfair advantage, since they permit lower student fees (or better services at the same fee). It is understandable that private institutions might seek public support, arguing that public subsidies should be available on an equal basis for students attending any institution.

Public institutions tend to argue, on the other hand, that lower fees structures provide greater access for students, and that for-profit private institutions are prone to cutting corners on quality in order to maximise net revenues. Some public institution leaders also suggested to the OECD review team that private institutions are not fully accountable to the public, since they are not regulated as closely as public institutions – even though, in comparison to many countries, both sectors are heavily regulated in Kazakhstan. Yet private institutions visited by the OECD team expressed a belief that governmental regulation is excessive, while acknowledging that in many areas (especially procurement) they have considerably more flexibility than public institutions. Some predicted that quality in the private sector will eventually be much above that of the public sector unless the regulation of public universities is considerably reduced.

When governmental policy supports and encourages both public and private institutions of higher education – as it does in Kazakhstan – it is necessary to construct regulatory and financial policies that assure quality in both sectors, and that enable both to thrive. In Kazakhstan, both sectors are regulated more extensively than is useful, and there is no explicit framework justifying the differences in financial and regulatory conditions affecting the two sectors. It would be easier to develop a system of complementary, diverse public and private institutions if some broad understandings of their respective missions were made more explicit in governmental policy.

More than one approach to such a framework is possible. One potentially effective division of labour between the public and private sectors might allocate the following primary functions to public higher education:

  • Provide broad access to affordable higher education across a full range of disciplines in every region of the country.

  • Provide funding for basic research and for applied research that serves the needs of the nation.

  • Provide graduate and professional education that is beyond the financial capacity of most private institutions.

These functions would justify direct public subsidies to support functions not likely to thrive in private institutions and to ensure that affordable higher education opportunities are available to low-and moderate-income students.

This approach would also justify vesting governance functions in public institutions’ supervisory boards that are accountable to the government.

By way of contrast, the primary functions of the private sector might be to:

  • Provide alternative opportunities for undergraduate and professional education without governmental restrictions on price for students who may find such opportunities attractive.

  • Create a space to meet the needs of particular communities and to address demand for educational programmes not met by public institutions.

  • Develop innovative approaches to the delivery of instruction and to self-governance.

These functions, and the absence of a direct responsibility to meet publicly identified priorities, justify freedom from governmental regulation and governance on purely educational matters. Such freedom does not preclude some public financial support, though. For instance, some jurisdictions provide financial assistance to students who attend private for-profit institutions. In such cases, grant assistance is typically provided on the basis of financial need only and is limited to the amounts that are provided for student fees at public institutions. Alternatively, governments may provide a somewhat greater support to meet higher costs at private institutions, with the provision that this requires a commensurately larger contribution from students as well. In many countries, students at private institutions also benefit from publicly subsidised loan programmes and from higher education savings plans.

Whether or not public subsidies are available to private institutions, all institutions of higher education, public and private, need to be held accountable to quality assurance standards in order to assure that students benefit from the time and money they invest in higher education. International experience suggests that when public funds are available to private institutions (especially to for-profit private institutions) a robust quality assurance programme – rather than an exhaustive regulatory compliance regime – is an essential ingredient of success (see the example of Chile in Box 7.4).

Box 7.4. The Information Service of Higher Education (SIES) in Chile

Chile has an extensive network of both public and private higher education institutions. In Chile, the Information Service of Higher Education (SIES) is a subsidiary of the Division of Higher Education within the Ministry of Education. As part of the law on quality assurance, the Division was charged to develop and maintain a national information system of higher education that provides timely, relevant and reliable data to assist different stakeholders (e.g. policy makers, institutional leaders, employers, students and their families, etc.) in making informed decisions. For example, the SIES provides data on expected returns to credentials broken down by academic discipline and, in some instances, by institution. Information is also available at the institutional level on accreditation outcomes, finances, enrolment rates, the number of professors and on a variety of other indicators.

Sources: Ministerio de Educacion,

Moving forward

Changes to governance raise many of the same implementation challenges as other reforms. It is worth recalling the advice in Chapter 1 on how to address these challenges. When attempting a reform of something as complicated as higher education governance arrangements, policy makers need to:

  • Develop a working consensus on the direction of change.

  • Experiment with incremental change as necessary, but act and learn quickly.

  • Recognise that both problems and benefits are likely to emerge slowly.

  • Provide opportunities to learn and to build capacity.

  • Monitor results and use what is learned.

  • Build public trust in the higher education system among all stakeholders.

The government’s responsibilities and capabilities for nurturing and sustaining a strong system of higher education are not diminished when it delegates authority to governing boards and provides operational, financial and academic flexibility to institutions. The recommendations of this and previous reports on higher education thus simply advise Kazakhstan’s government to shift perspective from detailed operating regulations and compliance auditing to goal setting (steering the sector), delegating responsibility, monitoring results and adapting policy accordingly. A government’s stance towards board governance at public colleges and universities is an important part of such a shift. (Ingram, 1993; OECD, 2008).

A shift towards greater autonomy does not affect or diminish the most powerful tools available to government to shape and influence higher education: the power of investing in different institutions and purposes; the power to influence the price of higher education for students attending public institutions; the power to help students finance their enrolment in public or private institutions; and the power to withhold the right to operate from institutions that fail to meet acceptable standards of quality or integrity in serving students. A shift towards greater autonomy coupled with accountability does, however, increase the flexibility and effectiveness of higher education, and help better ensure that governments can meet their goals.


As Kazakhstan moves forward to build a higher education system that better responds to the skills and knowledge needs of a modern economy and society, this review recommends that it:

Strengthen governance at the institutional level to enable deeper decentralisation and greater financial, academic and organisational flexibility as well as freedom for the operations of higher education institutions.

  • The government should support the development within the public sector of a system of governing boards to select chief executives, provide oversight of institutional operations, support the improvement and effectiveness of institutions, and ensure that each institution successfully pursues its mission.

Concurrently, improve the transparency of governance in public and private higher education institutions.

  • For instance, instead of depending heavily on formalistic controls, the government should shift towards an audit approach to assure financial integrity. Rigorous, financial audits based on common standards should become the means of assuring integrity and transparency.

  • A focus on outputs and outcomes produced should supplement attention to inputs and the processes by which institutions use them. Also, measures to combat corruption should be deployed in ways that, over time, build public confidence in the higher education system. Examples of such approaches already exist at certain institutions within Kazakhstani higher education.

  • As observed throughout this review, Kazakhstan requires a national system of data on higher education to analyse the outcomes of higher education and to inform national policy and financial investments.

Within the academic community itself, develop and implement a robust system of accreditation and a national qualifications framework as the basis for assuring and improving academic quality. This will provide justification for academic operational autonomy.

  • As also recommended in Chapter 2, Kazakhstan needs to fully move from a rigid quality assurance process that relies on “attestation” and inspections, and fully deploy a resilient accreditation approach that both ensures and further develops high-quality learning and research.

Clearly delineate the respective purposes of the public and private sectors of the higher education system.

  • The government should require or promote governance arrangements in each sector that match its policy purposes.


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Ingram, R. T. (1993), Governing Public Colleges and Universities: A Handbook for Trustees, Chief Executives, and other Campus Leaders, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

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