Kazakhstan’s higher education system is at the forefront of the country’s economic diversification challenge. While progress has been made over the past ten years, significant additional improvements will be required if Kazakhstan is to achieve its aims of developing high-quality, labour market relevant skills throughout the population, and establishing research and innovation as a key driver of economic growth. There are currently few measures of the current skills outcomes of the country’s education and training systems available, and of how well these systems are positioned to meet the needs of the labour market. Furthermore, much of the evidence on skills outcomes that does exist is not encouraging. Four principal features characterise the nation’s higher education system: low level of public funding, inefficient targeting of this funding, the legacy of central planning on the performance of higher education institutions, and information gaps that create obstacles to the implementation of evidence-based policy making and accountability.

In the past decade, Kazakhstani policy makers have recognised those key challenges and identified actions to address them. The country has embarked on an ambitious series of reforms which go some way towards addressing those challenges. A new State Programme for Education and Science Development 2016-2019 (SPESD) lays out the national strategy for the education sector in the coming years. It identifies priorities, targets, and indicators to be achieved by 2020 from preschool to higher education. Priorities range from developing new mechanisms of education financing such as per capita financing, to developing inclusive education with support for low-performing students. At the higher education level, the primary objectives of the SPESD include: equipping students with skills more relevant to the labour market; integrating Kazakhstan more fully into the European Higher Education Area; improving synergies between education, science and industry; stimulating the commercialisation of research; fostering national identity; and encouraging active citizenship and social responsibility.

Building on the 2007 joint OECD/World Bank report on Higher Education in Kazakhstan, this review examines how Kazakhstan can respond to current challenges by strengthening its higher education system to ensure that it equips students with the skills, knowledge and potential for innovation that are essential for economic and social well-being. It identifies which aspects of the six key areas from the previous report-quality, access, internationalisation, research and innovation, funding and governance-still require improvement. It also makes a number of recommendations for further reform, drawing on international experience and best practices from high-performing systems around the world.

This report encourages Kazakhstan to focus on the following areas to prepare students from all backgrounds to become part of a highly skilled workforce, able to compete in the worldwide economic community:

  • Build a strong quality assurance system that emphasises the high quality skills critical for labour market success and for social well-being, as well as on the quality of higher education “inputs” (i.e. student and faculty qualifications) and “processes” (i.e. instructional methods).

  • Examine the affordability of higher education and explore ways to increase access and tackle problems of inequity such as improving data systems to better monitor performance in the areas of access and participation.

  • 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 and ensure that all actors benefit-from higher education institutions to students.

  • Build capacity for high-quality research and further develop engagement mechanisms between higher education and potential users of this knowledge.

  • Increase public investment whilst making make sure that the allocation mechanisms put in place address the fundamental weaknesses in the system and give more autonomy to higher education institutions over their expenditure.

  • Strengthen and improve the transparency of governance in all public and private higher education institutions, while clearly delineating the respective purposes of the public and private sectors.