Always dreaming big, the government has set in motion a sweeping series of reforms that aim to put an educated generation of citizens at the helm of a knowledge-based economy.

Every year Kazakhstan moves further away from the bloated education system it inherited following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its long-term aim? To boost the country's human capital and foster sustainable economic growth.

According to an OECD report, the education sector is composed of preschool, primary, basic (lower) secondary, upper (general or vocational) secondary education, as well as post-secondary, and tertiary (graduate and postgraduate) education. One of Kazakhstan's key challenges is its sheer size, with over half of all 7,500 public primary and secondary schools in the country classed as “ungraded." Simply put, these institutions do not have enough students to fill classrooms, meaning pupils of different age groups often share a class. Many of these schools are located in sparsely populated rural areas, performing far worse than larger schools in urban areas. This reality has led to “lower-than-anticipated" results in international assessments, according to the OECD, and forms the causa facere behind the wealth of reforms currently being carried out. And in that respect, players across Kazakhstan's education landscape really are on the same page.

Reforms aimed at boosting excellence across the field are grouped under the State Program of Education Development in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2011-2020, a document that was brought into being by Presidential decree in 2010. Managed by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the reforms are widespread, including the transition to a 12-year education model and the attainment of a higher education better suited to the evolving job market.


The preschool sector is dominated by the public sector and provides education for children from 0 to six years old. Enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years, with 584,305 children enrolled over 7,221 establishments in 2012, up 151% on 2007. In terms of primary and secondary education, one of the State Program's major goals was well on its way to full implementation by 2014; the adoption of a 12-year model. Thus, the country has now ditched its old 11-year model, unburdening young learners and allowing them more time to develop and hone the skills they'll need for their future careers. The sector has a smattering of private institutions, although these make up just over a hundred of the approximate 7,500 schools across the country. The introduction of the 12-year system, it is hoped, will bring the country's education system in line with international quality standards and allow for better global integration. While the effects of the transition will not become known for a few years, it is likely that the extra year will mean students are better prepared for higher education.


Following the transition to a free market economy in 1991, the higher education sector has experienced the most significant change. There were just 55 state institutions in 1990, but that had risen to over 180 private and public institutions by 2001. The rapid growth came at the expense of quality, however, and a series of reforms since increased technical requirements and paved the way to the introduction of PhDs. And due to the resultant quality controls, the number of higher education institutions dropped to 131 state, private, and special status universities in 2014, with more consolidation expected in the upcoming years, according to ICEF Monitor. In terms of students, there were 570,000 enrolled in Bachelor's programs in the 2012/13 academic year, down from 634,000 in 2008/09. That said, the number of Master's students increased to 25,299 from 11,395 and the number of PhD students grew almost four fold to 1,517. The implementation of reforms in line with the Bologna process has also been profound when it comes to internationalization, which has become a key priority for the Ministry. Approximately 43,039 Kazakhstani students studied in foreign countries in 2012, while almost 9,000 made the opposite trip. Many of Kazakhstan's outbound students are members of the Bolashak scholarship program, which funds the brightest and best to continue their studies abroad on the condition that they return to work in Kazakhstan for at least five years.

When Kazakhstan set out to reform its education sector in 1991, it knew the journey would be a long one. Now, as it reaches half way in its 2011-2020 State Program, observers are beginning to get a glimpse of how the graduates of tomorrow will be able to feed the Central Asian country's ever-diversifying economy. Making sure that the strict new standards are implemented across the board will be the challenge from this point on, while encouraging the most vibrant students to remain in the country after education will be the true acid test.


Recognizing the importance of education, President Nazarbayev called on educators in Kazakhstan to focus both on the development of sciences in general, and on training highly qualified professionals to fill positions in the country's diversifying economy. According to the President, training professionals in leading universities as well as their active participation in the realization of the country's new economic policy, are two key factors for ensuring stable economic growth in Kazakhstan.The Bolashak program, which translates to “future" in Kazakh, was established by decree of the President Nazarbayev in November of 1993. The program provides the opportunity for the most talented students from Kazakhstan to access higher education at the best universities overseas. In the first years of its implementation scholars were limited to study in four countries—the US, Great Britain, Germany, and France. Later, more countries were added to the roster which now stands at 30 countries.A milestone in the history of the Bolashak program was the establishment of the Center for International Programs, which implemented the objectives of the program and administers the Bolashak scholarships. The Ministry of Education has introduced a system to ensure that all Bolashak scholarship holders return to Kazakhstan after completion of their studies abroad. Upon completion of their programs, scholarship recipients return to Kazakhstan to work in different Kazakh companies, governmental structures, and international organizations for a period of at least five years.In 2011 the training of students under bachelor's degree programs was stopped. In the past any graduate of a Kazakh universities could apply under this category, but now applicants are expected to have at least a two-year work experience. The Kazakh government has also recently announced that the Bolashak scholarship has raised its standards for foreign languages. Starting from 2014 the threshold level for the Masters programs and internship applicants was raised from 3.0 to 4.0 out of 9.0 for the IETLS. For PhD programs the language proficiency level of IETLS has been raised to 5.0.In addition to foreign language proficiency, the applicants are now supposed to possess a higher level of Kazakh language proficiency. The minimum score for Kaztest, which tests proficiency in Kazakh, is now 85 points out of a possible 150 for the national language test. During the period from 1993 through 2013 the Bolashak International Scholarship has been awarded to 10,346 Kazakhstanis, providing scholarships to studying at the top 200 universities of 33 countries around the world. 21% of those who returned to Kazakhstan are employed with national companies, with another 55% being employed with private companies.Around 1,000 scholarships have been issued in 2014. However, a change in the studying habits of recent Bolashak scholarship winners reflects a move away from focus on business and computer science majors, popular since the inception of the program, to social media and cultural studies. In 2014, the scholarship was enriched with two new categories in Media and Cultural Studies, that include journalism, cinematography, and TV journalism. David Manshuri, CM at WE Partners Kazakhstan, commented on the importance of the program, saying that “it is an incredible program that the government is investing in for the future. We are trying to assist young students who would like to receive a Western or foreign education…and we now see a lot of students choosing a Chinese or Asian university."

Craig Halsall
Headmaster, Haileybury Almaty
There are challenges that face any school in terms of the barriers to learning, which are well-known to anyone working in the education sector: engaging each student to the maximum is easy in theory, but harder in practice. Every school faces these issues, but in addition to that, to offer a broad curriculum in Kazakhstan requires innovation. We need to make sure that youngsters have the opportunity to engage in sports, music, arts, and drama, and that is particularly difficult within a local context.