The Kazakhstani education system has undergone significant reforms in recent years to bring it in line with European systems in an effort to raise standards, increase academic collaboration, and create a more skilled economy.


Increasing human capital through education is one of the keystones of Kazakhstan's plans for long-term economic diversification. An economy built on highly skilled workers in high-value industries is only possible with a well-educated population, and the government is well aware of where the nation's population falls short by global standards. In response, concerted effort is underway to transform the system, drawing upon the nation's commodities wealth and economic development to give the education system new resources.


Ever since the modern Kazakhstani state emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991, the education system has been largely based on Soviet traditions. Recently, however, the Kazakhstani government has been moving to a more European-based model in order to put their students on the same platform as the larger international community. Education is available in both Kazakh and Russian via a network of state-owned, constitutionally protected schools. Education is compulsory for all Kazakhstani citizens between the ages of six and 15, with additional free kindergartens available for four and five-year olds. An estimated 80% of Kazakhstanis begin their education at these kindergarten facilities. Early childhood education is one of the government's points of emphasis for the 2011-2020 national education program, which calls for universal preschool by 2020. Preschool coverage has improved over the past decade and is now available to most Kazakhstanis, although gaps remain in rural areas and among children with disabilities. After completing nine years of primary and lower secondary school, Kazakhstanis have the option of choosing one of three possible higher secondary school tracks: general education, which is designed to prepare students for university admission, initial vocational education, which is provided by training schools, and secondary vocational education, which is provided by colleges.

The compulsory primary school system has resulted in outstanding levels of basic education competency as measured by participation and literacy rates. Over 99% of Kazakhstanis complete primary school, with an additional 90% completing a secondary school education. As a result, the literacy rate is over 99.8% for both men and women, one of the highest rates in the world. However, Kazakhstani students' results on global standardized tests remain below their neighbors in Europe and Central Asia. On the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a performance assessment administered every three years by the OECD, Kazakhstan scored 48th out of 65 countries, behind neighbors Russia and Turkey. Still, the 2012 results showed marked improvement over the 2009 PISA, especially in math and science, and demonstrated that the gap between genders was narrowing as a whole. Though full results on the 2015 exam are not available yet, Kazakhstan showed further improvement across the board on the 2015 PISA. In its report on the 2012 PISA results, the OECD highlighted areas with room for improvement within the Kazakhstani school system, noting that students from Russian-speaking households and Russian-speaking schools outperformed Kazakh speakers, while there were significant performance disparities between students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds


As of 2011, Kazakhstan had 147 institutions of post-secondary and tertiary education, a list that includes undergraduate institutions, secondary institutions, and technical schools. Kazakhstan's university system formerly followed a Russian model but has been moving to a more widely used credit-based system in recent years. Upon application, students are accepted within a specific major and can earn bachelor's, specialist, master's, or doctoral degrees. There are also designated national research universities that offer five-year development programs approved by the government. Kazakhstan's post-secondary structure underwent significant reforms in 2004, when legislation was passed that raised qualification requirements for post-secondary institutions, establishing new best practices for university management. Additional legislation passed in 2007 moved the Kazakhstani higher education system in line with the EU's Bologna Process, a set of agreements that were designed to streamline the continent's higher-education systems. Domestic and international educational officials agreed that the changes were needed in order to streamline educational processes between Kazakhstan and its neighbors, allowing for increased exchange between nations and more efficient operation.

As of 2011, there were over 600,000 students enrolled in Kazakh higher education institutions, with 320,000 of them in state institutions. Kazakhstan's government regulates and holds a significant amount of control over the nation's public and private post-secondary schools, including setting curriculum and admissions standards. However, private institutions have a bit more autonomy, including initiatives in place with the aim of increasing university self-governance and decentralizing executive hiring decisions. Government and education officials are optimistic that by allowing universities to take more control of their operating processes, the system can become more efficient and better able to meet the needs of individual universities.


While public education spending has been rising over the past decade, Kazakhstan still spends much less than its peer countries on education, as measured by percentage of GDP. In 2010, the last year for which figures were available, public spending on education equaled 3.8% of GDP, or 11.7% of GDP per capita. This represents a threefold increase on 2005, but was still below the OECD average of 4.9% of GDP and the lowest among the European and Central Asian countries that participated in the 2012 PISA. In comparison, top PISA performers spent over twice that amount per capita. Kazakhstan's development plan calls for spending to increase, especially in early-childhood education. Kazakhstan's university system is primarily state funded, and private institutions that meet certain criteria can also receive state funding. Around 20% of Kazakhstani post-secondary students receive grants, with funds allocated depending on national programs and initiatives; students interested in programs that are not currently in high demand are more likely to have to pay the full cost of their education. State grants are highly competitive and allocated based on performance on state standardized tests. As part of the Kazakhstani government's sciences push, research funding is expected to be 15 times greater by 2020. Still, simply spending more on education will go only so far without adequate oversight structures to make sure that it is being utilized effectively. Increased school and university autonomy will help, as will simplifying allocation formulas to allow for more transparency and flexibility.


Kazakhstan's overarching educational objective is to increase skilled workers and develop a more diversified, knowledge-based economy. In 2010, the Kazakhstani government premiered a business and science roadmap that sketched out a development plan for 2020. The program calls for increased interactions between industry and research institutions with the aim of developing new innovations and pathways for the knowledge economy. Several partnerships are already underway with more under construction, including the Science Park Astana Business Campus at Nazarbayev University, an “intellectual innovation cluster” that has agreements with General Electric, Microsoft, Samsung, and several other leading multinational tech firms. Expected to open in 2018, the center will provide some 8,000 jobs and become one of the nation's research hubs, with projects planned in the geological, high technologies, engineering, biomedical, and social service sectors. Kazakhstan has also been aggressive in hosting international science and technology conferences to further increase the transfer of information available in the country. Kazakhstan's government has also been working to increase the share of doctors in the country, setting the goal of 1,000 new doctors a year.

Additional partnerships with European academic institutions are also possible now that Kazakhstan has moved from the previous Soviet university system to alignment with the Bologna Process. There were more than 60,000 Kazakhstanis studying abroad in 2015, mostly in Russia and China, as well as 10,000 foreigners studying in the country thanks to new legislation that has opened the country to international universities. Government officials recognize that further proficiency in English will be needed to raise the degree of international academic collaboration within the country, and have expressed their intention to make Kazakhstan a country whose population can use Kazakh, English, and Russian interchangeably. It is this institutional recognition of education's importance that bodes well for Kazakhstan moving forward; though the nation faces challenges, the willingness to tackle educational issues means that progress should continue.