Building a skilled population able to compete in the global marketplace is central to Kazakhstan’s economic and cultural ambitious. As such, educational investment has been one of the nation’s priorities over the past decade. Decades of strong investment in education has given Kazakhstan a solid base of human capital, and educational and governmental leaders now look to increase technological literacy, bring the education system into closer alignment with the rest of Europe, and develop new international partnerships, with the ultimate goal of forming closer ties with the rest of the world.
Primary and secondary education is available in both Kazakh and Russian free of charge to Kazakhstani citizens. School enrollment is compulsory between the ages of six and 15, with free early childhood education programs available at the age of four. Secondary schools in Kazakhstan are split into general pre-university education, lyceums that offer a mix of general education and vocational training, and state-owned colleges that are provide advanced vocational education. The compulsory education system has been a significant success and has produced baseline results on par with the world’s best educational systems. UNICEF reported that as of 2012, Kazakhstan’s youth literacy rate was 99.8% for both men and women, thanks to universal primary school enrollment and attendance. Enrollment dips slightly for secondary school, but at 89% for both sexes, it is still on par with OECD nations. Kazakhstan’s results on international standardized tests, however, places it slightly below regional neighbors. It scored 48th out of 65 countries on the 2012 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), below Russia and Turkey.
Kazakhstan’s higher education system is currently in the midst of transitioning from a Russian-based model to the Western model. The country currently has a highly centralized network of schools split into professional institutes, academies, and research-focused universities. The number of private universities has grown considerably in recent years as demand for post-secondary education options has increased. As of 2011, Kazakhstan had 146 institutions of higher education, 73 of which were private. More than 600,000 students were enrolled in these institutions, with just under half of them in private facilities.
Reforms in the higher education model date back to 2004, when legislation established new standards for university management designed to improve qualifications and allow for more local oversight. In subsequent years, Kazakhstan has passed legislation aligning its higher education system with the EU’s Bologna Process, a set of standards for university credits. As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan’s centralized system made exchanges with EU universities difficult, hampering the knowledge transfer opportunities critical for development. To rectify this, Kazakhstan is in the process of handing over autonomy to educational institutions, allowing them to form exchange agreements best suited to the needs of their students and local employers. Progress on this front has been steadily ongoing, and the EU expects Kazakhstan’s institutions of higher education to be functioning autonomously after 2018.
A final barrier to continued Kazakhstan’s educational development is itsrelatively low levels of public spending. As a share of GDP and on a per capita basis, Kazakhstan’s public spending per student is well below the OECD average. Education spending has gradually ticked up over the past decade, and Kazakhstan has plans to direct new money into early childhood education and higher education research initiatives. As part of its drive to remake the higher education system, Kazakhstan has announced a plan to increase applied-science research funding by partnering with international corporations. The Science Park Astana Business Campus at Nazarbayev University, for example, has signed agreements with multinational technology firms to achieve its goal of becoming the country’s technological, biomedical, and engineering research hub. Such partnerships should bring a wave of new investment and knowledge into the higher education sector, giving Kazakhstan the spark it seeks.