Assessment and recommendations

Kazakhstan finds itself at a crossroads. Recent market volatility has highlighted the risks of dependence on energy resources, and has put into relief the need for economic diversification and the importance of further developing the skills of its population. There are few measures of the current skills outcomes of Kazakhstan’s education and training systems, and of how well these systems are positioned to meet the needs of the labour market. Much of the evidence on skills outcomes that does exist is not encouraging. This review examines how Kazakhstan can respond to current challenges by strengthening its higher education system to ensure that it develops the skills, knowledge and potential for innovation that underlie economic and social well-being.

Part One: The context of this review

Taking stock of progress since 2007

In examining the higher education system in Kazakhstan, this report builds on a 2007 joint OECD/World Bank review (OECD/World Bank, 2007). Each chapter includes an overview of progress made in the past decade across the main areas explored in the 2007 report, while at the same time examining policy responses to evolving dynamics in higher education and the wider socio-economic context.

Assessing the higher education system today

Kazakhstan’s higher education system has made progress over the past ten years. However, there is wide scope for improvement in delivering high-quality, relevant labour market skills to all Kazakhstanis who might seek them, and in supporting economic growth through research and innovation. Kazakhstani policy makers have indeed recognised key challenges facing the nation’s higher education system and identified actions to address them, but implementation has been incomplete or ineffective.

We begin our assessment by noting four principal features of the nation’s policy making architecture for higher education that shape all aspects of its performance: its persistently low level of public spending, its inefficient targeting of public spending, the legacy of central planning on the performance of higher education institutions, and deficits in information that hamper evidence-based policy making and accountability.

Public spending on higher education is persistently well below international levels and that of peer nations

The level of public spending on higher education in Kazakhstan in 2007 relative to the size of the nation’s economy – public spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – was low. It remained low at the time of this review. Kazakhstan’s public spending on higher education in 2013 was 0.3% of GDP – compared to an average of 1.6% across OECD countries, and over 1% in many emerging economies, such as 1.4% in the Russian Federation. Low public spending has contributed to weak performance in both the teaching and the research and development missions of higher education institutions. This has also led to heavy reliance on private spending, which has adverse equity implications because it relies primarily on student paid tuition fees and revenues and generates competition, thus leaving students with an educational disadvantage behind.

Kazakhstan found it difficult in past to increase public spending relative to its GDP during a period of economic growth. More recently, low commodity prices and slow growth make additional public spending on higher education still more challenging. However, given the very substantial ambitions that recent national development strategies have laid out for Kazakhstan and its people, policy makers and stakeholders will need to work together to find ways to increase investments in higher education. A central issue will be moving towards a more equitable balance between public and private financing.

Public spending is poorly targeted, both with respect to students and higher education institutions

The inefficient targeting of public spending is a concern highlighted in various chapters. There are areas of public spending that appear to be consuming resources, but doing little to help Kazakhstan attain its policy objectives. The nation’s limited spending on higher education might be able to achieve a good deal more if it were allocated differently.

State grants to students, typically awarded on the basis of academic merit, often pay the tuition and living costs of students who would likely be able to meet these costs using their family’s or their own resources (whether out of pocket or through borrowing). If adequate funding were available to meet the needs of those who cannot study without public support, then the current merit-based approach to state grants for higher education might be justifiable. Nevertheless, in the current context, and despite the apparent wide support they enjoy, state grants continue to disproportionately support those who could study without this public subsidy and thus represent an inefficient use of resources.

The current concentration of funding in a few priority areas of the higher education system provides another example of the potential for more productive resource allocation. In a resource-constrained environment, highly concentrated funding for “excellence” may be the enemy of widespread quality. In the area of research in particular, there is much to be said for concentrating resources to achieve economies of scale and scope. Yet recent policy has devoted substantial resources to a single higher education institution – Nazarbayev University – and given the limitations on the current public education budget, the university generates significant opportunity costs for the rest of the system.

Nazarbayev University is consuming a large portion of total public spending. At best, this is an experiment that carries substantial risks: it is an open question whether any excellence that the university may achieve can outweigh reduced funding for the rest of the system, and whether this excellence can be shared in a way that benefits the entire system of higher education. The review argues that, as new resources are allocated to higher education, these should be focused on improving the general quality of the entire system.

The persistence of practices from an era of central planning and control result in inefficiency and diminished performance by higher education institutions

The legacy of centralised planning and control is a third overarching area of concern identified by this review. Kazakhstan has made progress in opening up higher education and making use of student choice and local initiative by involving to some extent not only higher education institutions but also other stakeholders such as local employers and Supervisory Boards. However, too much of higher education is still subject to a centralised command and control approach, which generates inefficiencies, and reduces performance and interferes with higher education institutions’ capacity to respond fully to students’ or labour market needs. For instance, while the efforts that have been made to shift from a rigid regulatory institutional “attestation” process to a quality-enhancing “accreditation” system represent a good start, progress has been slow. The rigidities of institutional attestation undermine the potential of the quality assurance process to drive institutional improvement processes. This system makes it difficult for institutions to raise standards, and further develop high-quality learning and research because they don’t have the institutional autonomy to lead improvements.

Significant gaps in the availability and use of data inhibit evidence-based and improvement-oriented policy making

Finally, gaps in the availability and use of data are detrimental to higher education policy making and improvement in Kazakhstan. Data are collected, but little of this data appears to be used (or useable) for strategic policy purposes. Conversely, data that are important for evidence-based policy making are absent. For example, there are no reliable and current data on the revenues and expenditures of higher education institutions. There is limited data on the social and economic characteristics of students in state-funded higher education students and on the effects of socio-economic status (SES) on learning outcomes at the school and higher education levels. The absence of institutional data makes it difficult for higher education stakeholders to discuss and evaluate the government’s spending priorities for higher education institutions. The absence of student data makes it difficult to assess who is benefitting (and not) from the government’s merit-based grant system. Where data is collected, they may be rudimentary and unreliable, as those on graduate labour market outcomes have been – limiting the ability of students and institutions to respond to labour market information in making programme choices. Taken together these gaps in information have the effect of limiting the ability of stakeholders to engage in analysis and discussion that improve public policies and the performance of the higher education system.

Part Two: Key findings and recommendations

Below we review the key findings and recommendations offered in the report’s principal chapters.

Quality and relevance

Chapter 2, with its focus on the quality and relevance of higher education in Kazakhstan, looks at how students acquire technical and professional skills and knowledge, as well as the broader skills they need to succeed. It is helpful to think of quality as the degree of “fit” between the skills and knowledge that higher education develops, and the goals that education’s various stakeholders (e.g. students, governments and employers) have for it.

The chapter looks first at two key inputs to higher education in Kazakhstan: students and faculty members. While there clearly are pockets of excellence across the system, the skills and abilities that students bring to higher education are on average weak and the Unified National Test (UNT), which determines student entry to higher education, is not well designed to encourage or recognise higher order competencies such as problem solving and innovative thinking. Understandably, this has effects on how well higher education itself can perform. Moreover, despite the existence of regulations stating that faculty should hold at least a master’s degree, too few faculty members hold the level of formal qualifications that would typically support the performance of a high-quality system.

The chapter next looks at a variety of processes surrounding how higher education admits entering students and then helps them develop into graduates. Kazakhstan is to be lauded for moving to implement the Bologna Process, which has brought welcome changes to the education system. These include the implementation of a system for translating national Kazakhstani credits into European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits, and changes to the duration of the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to make them into four-, two- and three-year cycles respectively; and increased engagement of Kazakhstani students and faculty members in mobility activities – including through enhanced support for travel both within and outside Kazakhstan. However, some barriers and implementation gaps, such as the difference of principles behind the system of the ECTS and the way the system works in Kazakhstan. For example, the Law on Education (2007) and associated regulations impede students from freely selecting courses or instructors, thus limiting the full potential of credit-based learning to promote mobility and flexibility.

Similarly, while it is promising that Kazakhstan has shifted towards an accreditation approach based on external quality assurance, the legacy of centralised control hampers progress. The Minister of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (MESRK) remains the authority which stands behind accreditation decisions and the consequences of these decisions. Internal institutional quality assurance and improvement mechanisms, as well as the broader accreditation system, still appear to be underdeveloped. The large number of programmes and institutions that have undergone formal accreditation by the two national agencies in a relatively short period of time raises concern about the thoroughness of the process, given the limited number of faculty in Kazakhstan who have the expertise needed to serve on review panels. Kazakhstani higher education institutions also undertake their own internal quality assurance activities. These primarily involve the preparation of self-studies in preparation for accreditation and attestation. Those self-studies may thus simply be bureaucratic exercises.

There are a variety of approaches to learning and teaching that can help students build the skills they need. Linking classroom instruction to supervised work experience is one such way of helping students get ready for life after school. Though all students are reported to get work experience over the course of their studies, the effectiveness of these experiences appears to be uneven. More could also be done to provide them with the chance to do supervised research.

The curriculum structure of Kazakhstan’s higher education system, and the processes that support curricular design, are not yet sufficient to generate academic programmes of consistently high quality. The remaining state controls on curriculum at the institutional level – and gaps in capacity for curricular planning – appear to put limitations on student learning. Employers are often involved in the curriculum on an ad hoc basis and such collaboration only involves local industries; but this involvement is not yet generalised and fully co-ordinated. Despite recent amendments, the National Qualifications System, which should be a main force guiding curricular development, is still in its early stages of development and requires further alignment with international benchmarks.

Faculty members are subject to high workload since they are required to carry out an excessive amount of administrative tasks and undertake a large number of classroom teaching hours. Together these demands risk displacing the effort that they need to put into course planning and student assessment. Gaps in professional development opportunities is another factor that hinders faculty in advancing their teaching practice and adopting more student-focused approaches that support the acquisition of higher order competencies.

The available data on students’ learning and labour market outcomes of students are not sufficient to permit an extensive analysis of the quality of higher education outputs and outcomes. The final-year test that is given to students does not measure the broad range of skills that graduates need for success in a modern society and economy. By placing excessive emphasis on the acquisition of factual knowledge, it orients students towards superficial learning.

Data on the earnings levels of graduates and other key variables are lacking, and reliable data on basic questions such as employment status are only beginning to be collected. Employers report some dissatisfaction with the skills of graduates, which is a typical observation in most countries. The review team noted, though, the real concerns expressed by some international employers, which suggest that Kazakhstan may not be producing the skills it needs to succeed in a global marketplace.

Chapter 2 recognises the importance of ties between employers and higher education that can help align instruction with labour market needs. It concludes with observations on how these two partners might better collaborate to help ensure graduate success, while not losing sight of other broad goals of higher education (e.g. educating informed citizens, enabling personal development).

Chapter 2 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Place greater emphasis on “21st century” graduate outcomes anchored by a qualifications framework. It should be ensured that curricula, course content, teaching approaches and assessment methods employed by higher education institutions foster the skills required for success in a modern economy and society. The UNT should be revised in the same direction. The development of a modern and easy-to-use National Qualifications Framework, aligned with international benchmarks, will be important to ensuring coherence across these reforms.

  • Put in place decentralised support that enhance the qualifications and the professional experiences of academics, teachers and academic leaders. Professional development opportunities should be provided locally to all core staff, and faculty workload reviewed to enable adequate time for other instructional and research duties. Faculty with the highest qualifications should be well distributed across the system and effective approaches to faculty development shared.

  • Put in place quality assurance processes that facilitate continuous improvement at both the institutional and system levels. At the system level, accreditation processes should be strengthened in line with Bologna principles and standards, and clear targets agreed for monitoring performance. At the institutional level, emphasis should be placed on strengthening internal quality assurance processes such as peer review and student feedback.

  • Reinforce linkages between higher education institutions and employers. Internships and other work-study programmes that actively expose students to authentic work-related situations should be encouraged, and policies put in place to pair academics with practitioners and reinforce faculty members’ linkages to the labour market. A more structured approach to engaging employers will be important to the success of these reforms.

  • Develop a strong, reliable and well-disseminated system of labour market information that reports on the outcomes of higher education graduates. This will empower students to make choices that reflect economic demand for skills. Better information will also enable more effective funding approaches to address specific labour market failures.

Access and equity

By building upon the recent expansion of access to higher education and enabling its benefits to be more widely spread, Kazakhstan will see wider benefits for individuals and society, from better health and life satisfaction to social cohesion and public safety. Economic growth and regional competitiveness will also be fostered.

Kazakhstan’s main policy focus with respect to access has been on the recognition and encouragement of academically higher-performing students. Students from rural areas of lower socio-economic status appear to face challenges in gaining access to tertiary education. Though some positive measures targeted at disadvantaged populations (such as targeting a proportion of state grants to students from rural areas and lower socio-economic status) have been taken, data with which to monitor the effectiveness and progress of these measures as well as the recognition of the existence of such categories are insufficient. This weakens the ability to analyse equity issues and understand the factors impeding the progress of disadvantaged students.

Poor and uneven student preparation – which is linked to unequal access to good primary and secondary schooling – is an important driver of higher education’s equity challenges. Policy interventions have primarily benefitted those schools whose mandate is to nurture academic excellence. The same can be said about the current admissions requirements for higher education which, for students coming from secondary school, are based on the Unified National Test (UNT). Although the UNT has increased the transparency of admissions measures, in its current form it has negative effects on both skills quality (see Chapter 2) and on equitable access to skills. It tends to favour students from better-resourced schools and those whose parents can afford tutoring. Alternative pathways to higher education, for example transfers from the vocational education and training (VET) sector, remain underdeveloped and undervalued. Furthermore, the Complex Test – aimed at students from VET colleges and those entering higher education via pathways other than direct post high school matriculation – not only shares many of the problems of the UNT but its implementation has created an additional barrier to higher education participation. Reforms are currently underway for both these tests but they do not address the fundamental issues to date.

The financial aid system (grants, scholarships, loans and savings incentives, social partnership arrangements) also has negative effects on equity of access. State scholarships are awarded based on measures of student excellence – but that approach is compromised by use of the UNT as the main criterion of excellence. Public loans for study expenses are underdeveloped and underused, while private loans typically come with high interest rates. A new savings-for-education scheme, while potentially promising, has few participants and is unlikely to serve those who most need resources to enter higher education. Higher education institutions also provide some student financial assistance: expansion is warranted here. Social partnership arrangements, another source of financial aid, seem to be slow to develop despite the government’s initiative to create incentive schemes for employers to provide support for employees who want to study at tertiary level.

The systemic challenge of lower-quality, less well-resourced schooling for rural and low SES students presents a significant barrier to equal academic achievement, but measures to address this remain limited. Rural and low SES students would be well served by a number of initiatives, such as increased outreach to overcome informational and aspirational barriers and expanded provision of academic programming through distance learning.

Chapter 3 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Reform the system of state grants and student loans to ensure that students from poorer families and rural areas of the country are adequately supported. More grant funding should be allocated to means-tested financial support, and student loans should be made more accessible and affordable to students who are not in receipt of a grant.

  • Reform the relationship between state grants and tuition policy. This implies decoupling higher education institutions tuition fees from state grant levels. The current situation whereby the university fee cannot be less than the state grant is not sustainable. Such an approach makes it impossible to increase per student public funding without at the same time generating new affordability burdens and creating further barriers to participation.

  • Improve the quality of primary and secondary schooling, and increase efforts to raise the educational aspirations of students in rural areas and from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. Schemes to enhance equity should be well documented to enable the scaling up of successful approaches.

  • Expand the use of technology-enabled learning and distance education methods (in particular e-learning) in order to provide high-quality learning opportunities for students in rural areas. Pay particular attention to e-learning support for teachers as a means to enhance teaching and enrich the curriculum, equipping students for success in tertiary education.

  • Accelerate current efforts to reform the Unified National Test (UNT), so that it is an effective part of a higher education admissions system that equitably recognises the abilities of prospective students. Equity would be enhanced if there was a central mechanism to recognise and redress (for example through “bonus points”) the ways in which educational disadvantage and adversity interact with the UNT.

  • Further develop mechanisms that recognise and provide credit for VET qualifications, in order to take better advantage of the training that occurs in VET colleges and better advantage of the potentially close relationship between technical and higher education. These mechanisms include formalised credit transfer, recognised articulation pathways and partnerships between universities and VET colleges. Reform of the Complex Test will also be important to facilitate access to higher education for graduates from VET colleges.

  • Improve data systems to better understand system performance in the areas of access and participation. Commit to establishing robust and reliable data regarding students of low socio-economic status and other vulnerable groups so that they can be clearly identified and their progress tracked throughout their studies and post-graduation.


By internationalising higher education, Kazakhstan can help ensure that graduates develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a globalised world. Internationalisation means sending students and faculty members abroad to study or work; bringing students and faculty to Kazakhstan from other countries; and broadening the curriculum for the majority of Kazakhstani students who do not have an international experience during their studies.

A small but stable number of Kazakhstani students study abroad (with heavy weighting towards universities in the Russian Federation), but the number of international students who come to Kazakhstan is very small, and the curriculum does not yet have a strong international perspective.

Kazakhstan has made significant recent efforts to promote the internationalisation of higher education. These include the Bolashak scholarship programme, the creation of Nazarbayev University and adoption of the Bologna Process. Bologna, for instance, has created opportunities for institutions and students within the context of the broader European higher education sphere and has stimulated staff and student mobility.

Nonetheless, the chapter identifies a number of challenges facing internationalisation. For instance, limited academic autonomy restricts institutions’ ability to engage in partnerships and develop joint programmes. Meanwhile, the low level of English language proficiency in higher education and the limited English language competency of staff adversely affect the extent to which academics can engage in activities such as research collaborations, international research publication, programme collaboration and joint teaching. The lack of a fully operational and effective system of external quality assurance reduces other countries’ (and other countries’ students) interest in Kazakhstani higher education. In addition, the remaining rigidity in the curriculum can make it hard for students to gain credit for international experience. Whereas most countries with successful internationalisation strategies for higher education have taken an integrated approach, Kazakhstan still faces challenges regarding co-ordination across ministries.

This chapter also notes that international academic partnerships remain underdeveloped and declarative in nature, and that most institutions lack adequate capacity to prepare students for international experiences or to strategically plan for international engagement. There is currently little evidence of meaningful international co-operation resulting from these agreements; where tangible examples of collaboration do exist, they are primarily with institutions located in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Deficiencies in the data needed for institutional and system planning are a key concern in that regard.

Nazarbayev University represents perhaps the most obvious exception to many of the concerns outlined above. The presence of international faculty on its campus is notable in comparison to other higher education institutions, which face challenges (low salaries, poor infrastructure, high instructional workloads) making them unattractive to foreign faculty. However, the higher education institutions’ current reliance on course licensing agreements with foreign higher education institutions as part of its internationalisation strategy should give way to true partnerships, but bringing its model to other higher education institutions remains a challenge. The Bolashak scholarship programme has evolved somewhat with the creation of Nazarbayev University: it now focuses on post-baccalaureate1 students. While quite expensive, Bolashak has enabled some 10 000 students to study abroad. As the programme continues to evolve, it should strive to make better use of its existing assets, and in particular of its alumni network.

Financial barriers remain for students who wish to study abroad – and low levels of knowledge of English constrain students’ choice of possible destinations. Consequently, digital technologies hold real promise for helping develop global skills and knowledge in students who are unable, or unwilling, to leave Kazakhstan.

Chapter 4 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Take a whole-of-government approach to international higher education, with a robust policy framework and national strategy that aligns with Kazakhstan’s goals for human capital development. The creation of an inter-governmental committee or group would help ensure a more integrated approach to internationalisation across sectors. Platforms for knowledge sharing and networking at the local and institutional level about the strengths and weaknesses of the higher education system would enable all stakeholders to gain a better understanding of the complexity and potential of internationalisation. These might include networking opportunities; facilitating exchanges between staff, student exchanges, joint graduate programmes; exchanging best practice and materials; participating in one another’s conferences; and inviting one another to participate in major initiatives.

  • Within the broad framework, permit individual higher education institutions to determine the approach to internationalisation that is most appropriate to their aspirations and circumstances. State initiatives such as the Bolashak programme, the adoption of the Bologna Process and the establishment of Nazarbayev University should be reviewed to ensure this impact is effective and supports system improvement.

  • Continue the current relaxation of curriculum and prescribed content to enable a more internationalised curriculum and enhance student mobility. Professional development should be implemented to develop faculty knowledge in this area and foreign faculty encouraged to share their experience.

  • Encourage collaboration between higher education institutions and reinforce efforts to identify and disseminate lessons from Nazarbayev University and the national universities on the internationalisation of higher education. This will require that they invest in rigorous approaches to evaluating their programmes.

  • Increase investments to exploit digital technologies in order to expand in-country “internationalisation through the curriculum”. Digital learning assets (such as MOOCs, i.e. Massive Open Online Courses, virtual classrooms and collaborative online course development) can enrich the curriculum, expand perspectives and connect faculty and staff with experts in other countries.

  • Establish indicators on student-, programme-, and institution-level mobility that allow international comparison. Publish these regularly and use them to inform monitoring and evaluation. Longitudinal databases that collect information about international students, and about domestic students going abroad, would provide valuable insights on the impacts of international mobility for individuals and for the economy and society more widely.

  • Increase the English proficiency of the youth population and faculty members, to help them better seize on a wide variety of internationalisation opportunities. The growing emphasis on English in schools is an important first step and needs to be expanded and adequately resourced. Targeting an allocation of Bolashak support to improve the English language skills of faculty members is one possible approach to enhancing the quality of teaching in universities; similar investment is needed to improve English language teaching in schools.

  • Expand the current scholarships scheme and introduce new forms of financial support for study abroad to increase the sector’s capacity for international mobility. Lower cost financial incentive schemes are needed that will support a larger number of students studying abroad. The state should consider establishing a mechanism to encourage private contributions to a mobility scholarship fund.

  • Better leverage the Bolashak programme. Activities of the Bolashak Alumni Relations Office should be expanded, and the skills and international connections of Bolashak alumni used for in-country peer learning and strengthening of professional and diplomatic networks abroad.

Higher education, research and innovation

Higher education does not simply develop the knowledge and skills of graduates. It also generates new knowledge through research. In addition, it enables innovation processes outside higher education institution walls by providing partners with knowledge that they can apply, and with a skilled workforce that can find new approaches to operational challenges.

Recent developments in Kazakhstan’s higher education research activities show promise. These include the establishment of new research grants streams, and the acceleration of investments at Nazarbayev University and the national universities. Nevertheless, key challenges remain.

Higher education in Kazakhstan still has a low capacity for research – and in particular, for high-quality research. This lack of capacity is linked to a variety of factors, including low public funding for higher education (both for research and for instruction); gaps in current funding instruments; and poor readiness at the institutional level to support research.

The low number of doctoral graduates, and the absence of a post-doctoral stream to help graduates establish their careers, is another concern. As faculty members retire over the coming years, it is an open question whether Kazakhstan will have the talented replacements it needs to develop research excellence and spur innovation.

The government’s focus on a single aspect of innovation – commercialisation – is also problematic for Kazakhstan. Like many governments around the world, it has put a good deal of emphasis on indicators of commercialisation. However, while commercialisation of university research clearly has its place in an innovation system, returns on investments here are likely to be small. On the other hand, not enough emphasis is placed in Kazakhstan on building engagement between higher education and the potential users of its knowledge, and on building the broad foundation of academic excellence which is essential both for knowledge discovery and for the application of knowledge to commercial and other practical purposes.

Finally, while Kazakhstan is right to seek a differentiated higher education system, its current approach to diversification lacks strategic coherence. It is not clear how research and research funding is planned among higher education institutions. Some research institutes have merged with higher education institutions but many remain independent. Further concentration in the public system, beyond merging research institutes with some higher education institutions, is enhanced by the designation of eleven national higher education institutions with extra funding and the creation of Nazarbayev University as a new model with deep funding. While the initiative to merge, allocate special status and establish a new model is positive, much of it could be negated by the policy to have the large number of institutions with the title ‘university’ become research active. This gap in turn affects the quality and quantity of research that the higher education sector can produce.

Chapter 5 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Focus on building the research excellence of faculty through a two-pronged approach. This would comprise: developing a broad base of frontier research where the primary criterion is excellence at the frontier of knowledge, and building a critical mass of research in areas of strategic importance to industry and other users of knowledge. The latter would require special initiatives to recruit and train highly talented faculty with expertise in these strategic areas alongside investment in the creation of university-led science and technology centres (or equivalent) that are inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional and engage industry as partners.

  • Devise a carefully thought-out implementation plan to increase R&D investment to 1% of GDP over 5 years to 2021. The efficiency of current and new investment should be reviewed by an international expert group.

  • Encourage higher education institutions to strive towards explicit and transparent policies on incentives and rewards related to research and innovation. A first step would be the broad acceptance of the principle of flexibility in allocating teaching duties at institutional level. Where there is consensus on the weighting of teaching, research and innovation, promotion between academic grades should be encouraged.

  • Establish a special task force to address the PhD pipeline and postdoctoral career path. Engaging higher education institutions in the task force will be important to ensuring that any solution gets implemented. The task force should revisit the one-size-fits-all policy for PhD graduation and formally establish the postdoctoral structure as a necessary stage of a career path in research and academia.

  • Foster a better balance between commercialisation and engagement. Commercialisation Offices should be integrated into the strategic planning exercises of higher education institutions, and engage systematically and intensely with industry to develop mutual understanding of respective needs and concerns. Foreign companies with manufacturing operations in Kazakhstan and R&D operations in their home countries should be particularly targeted for engagement.

  • Review how diversity of mission can be rationalised, optimised and sustained, given limited resources and high expectations of the system as a whole. Three types of mission might be developed: teaching only, research led to PhD level and local, needs-oriented teaching and research led to master’s level. Each institution would be expected to perform to international standards according to its mission.


Chapter 6 examines financing of higher education. The analysis looks at total higher education spending in relation to the size of the economy and at the current public expenditures on higher education broken down by broad object (as they were reported to the team). Low overall levels of public funding (with over a third of available resources going to Nazarbayev University and the Bolashak programme) suggest that other key areas of higher education are being comparatively under-resourced. Moreover, the main vehicle by which funding is directed to higher education institutions – the state grant system – has perverse effects for both students and programme mix. It also leads the government to spend scarce resources to encourage behaviour that would often have occurred without public investment. Finally, the formulas which drive funding do not appear to be well matched to their purpose.

Chapter 6 observes that recent incremental investments in higher education have tended to be for new additions to the system (e.g. the Bolashak programme, Nazarbayev University) while failing to deal directly and adequately with fundamental weaknesses in the system as a whole. One inherent disadvantage of the “concentrated new investment” approach that Kazakhstan has taken is that, in the context of finite resources, it is hard to achieve sufficient scale to take activity beyond a series of “one-off” initiatives. As Kazakhstan’s public budget faces the pressures of unstable resource prices, that problem will only be aggravated.

Finally – and anticipating the arguments of Chapter 7 on governance – the analysis observes that controls on how Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions spend their funding are excessive and counterproductive. This holds true of private institutions as well, even though they receive less public funding. The chapter concludes by briefly looking at these private institutions in Kazakhstan and by outlining key policy choices the government faces in dealing with them.

Chapter 6 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Increase the size of its public investment in higher education bringing it more in line with levels in peer countries that Kazakhstan seeks to emulate. New public investments should be carefully allocated in ways that attract and retain the talent essential for a strong system of higher education; reduce financial and social barriers to higher education; and ensure that sound student assessment practices foster the development of skilled graduates.

  • Re-assess now and at regular intervals in the future financing strategies for higher education in the context of national goals. This should engage a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that it is based on sound sectorial intelligence.

  • Re-evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the state grant system in serving national purposes. Modifications to the system, including providing grants based on the financial need of qualified students and expecting greater financial contributions from higher-income students, should be strongly considered.

  • Reduce significantly the level of financial controls on institutions. Kazakhstan should emphasise post-audits rather than pre-audits, and allow institutions to retain and accumulate funds over time in order to strengthen their financial stability and flexibility and provide incentives for greater efficiency and effectiveness.


This chapter recognises positive shifts in higher education governance in Kazakhstan in the last ten years. For example, the government has sought a gradual movement towards more autonomy for institutions as seen in the creation of “supervisory boards” and the loosening of regulatory controls on the curriculum. However, authority still remains highly centralised. Where they exist, boards play a predominately advisory role. Significant operational autonomy, even for the national research universities, has not been attained.

The chapter then examines four areas where significant governance challenges remain. The level of financial regulation of Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions is excessive; a lack of academic autonomy discourages faculty and institutional creativity, initiative and responsibility; the organisational autonomy of higher education is weak; and regulation of the public and private sectors is both excessive and lacking rational differentiation to reflect the distinctive roles of the two sectors.

Chapter 7 recommends that Kazakhstan:

  • Strengthen governance at the institutional level to enable deeper decentralisation and greater financial, academic and organisational flexibility. This will entail developing within the public sector a system of governing boards with the power to select chief executives, provide oversight of institutional operations, and support the improvement and effectiveness of institutions in pursuing their missions.

  • Improve the transparency of governance in public and private higher education institutions. Instead of depending heavily on regulatory and procedural controls, the government should shift towards an audit approach to assure financial integrity. Over time such a system will enhance trust and help institutions to build their capacity for self-governance.

  • Develop and implement a robust system of accreditation and a national qualifications framework as the basis for assuring and improving academic quality. As outlined in Chapter 2, this implies moving from a rigid, top-down quality assurance process that relies on “attestation” and inspections towards an institution-led accreditation approach that both ensures and, crucially, 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 promote governance arrangements in each sector that match its policy purpose. This includes regulatory and financial policies that assure quality in both sectors, and that enable both to thrive. One potentially effective division of labour between the public and private sectors might allocate primary functions to public higher education institutions which are not likely to thrive in private institutions, and ensure that affordable higher education opportunities are available to low- and moderate- income students in both sectors.


Recent volatility in resource prices have highlighted just how vulnerable the country is to dependence on a single high-value (but low value-added) activity. Policy makers in Kazakhstan recognise the need to diversify the national and regional economies. As other reviews have observed, this requires changes in broad framework policies (e.g. regulatory policies) and capacity building (e.g. enhancements to governance). It also means ensuring that Kazakhstanis have a forward-looking mix of skills and that the innovation system is working effectively.

Higher education has an important role to play in meeting the challenges that Kazakhstan faces. While there have been some clear improvements in Kazakhstan’s higher education system since the time of the 2007 OECD/World Bank review, much remains to be done in the areas of quality, access, internationalisation, research and innovation, funding and governance. The following chapters lay out in detail what Kazakhstan might do to ensure that its higher education system is fit-for-purpose – that it is able to enhance individual and collective prosperity and well-being across the nation, now and in coming years.

Box A. Methodology of the review

This review builds on numerous resources, including:

  • the 2007 OECD/World Bank Review of Higher Education in Kazakhstan

  • a Country Background Report produced by the JSC Information-Analytic Center (IAC)

  • a review of existing literature on higher education in Kazakhstan

  • recent OECD studies of other sectors of education in Kazakhstan

  • interviews during two visits: a “pre-visit” and a main visit.

The visit used semi-structured interviews, conducted both by the full team and in sub-teams, to drill down on specific topics:

  • Interviews with Ministry officials and officials from other state agencies (the IAC, National Testing Center, etc.).

  • Visits to over 20 higher education institutions in six cities.

    • Rectors and senior management of institutions, faculty members, employers and students.

    • The sample of institutions broadly representative of the entire sector (state and national institutions; public, private and mixed; comprehensive and more specialised).


MESRK(2016), The State Programme for Education and Science Development in the Republic of Kazakhstan 2016-19, RK Presidential decree as of 1 March, 2016.

MESRK (2010), The State Program for Education Development in the Republic of Kazakhstan 2011-2020, RK Presidential decree as of December 7, 2010, Number 1118.

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