Master's Degree Higher Education Administration – Kazakhstan is a country in transition. Since becoming the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence in 1991, its leaders have sought to transform the country’s economy, free it from the grip of central planners and open it to market forces. Kazakhstan’s leaders have at least nominally sought similar transformations elsewhere. Government officials have declared a desire to decentralize political power, reverse decades of international isolation, and reunify an independent, self-governing country that has been tightly integrated into the Soviet Union for more than half a century.
But as the length of this still-incomplete transition shows, their success has been mixed. Sometimes continuity has prevailed over change and the lingering traces of the Soviet past still mark the land and its people. Despite ambitious restoration efforts, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has shrunk to 10
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Compared to the previous year after the diversions of Soviet rivers for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. Russian, the language of politics, commerce, and education in the Soviet Union, also remains the most widely spoken language in Kazakhstan, although reform efforts to promote the Kazakh language have made significant progress.
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This transition has not spared Kazakhstan’s education system. Since independence, the government has enacted education reforms aimed at opening up education provision to the free market, decentralizing administrative supervision and accountability, integrating the education system more closely into the international community, and using education to unite the nation . In recent years, given the country’s economic and political ambitions, the race to transform the education system has only intensified.
However, as in other industries, progress has not been smooth. In a syncopated series of advances and retreats, government officials announced sweeping reforms to swiftly bring them back. The basis of these reforms, as well as many other reforms in contemporary Kazakhstan, can ultimately be found in the upheavals in the country’s social, political and economic experience in the immediate aftermath of independence.
The collapse of the Soviet Union sent shockwaves through all corners of Kazakh society, unleashing epidemics of long-forgotten diseases, fears of violent political unrest and mass exodus of ethnic minorities. The country’s economy suffered especially. Part of the Soviet Union since 1920, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakhstan SSR), as it was known from 1936 to 1991, was one of the most closely associated with the metropolis of all the former Soviet republics. Its economy has long depended on the unhindered transportation of natural resources, mined from its rich soils and transported to other Soviet republics for processing.
As these now post-Soviet states imposed new tariffs and customs, disrupting the country’s long-established supply chains, Kazakhstan’s economy collapsed. Between 1990 and 1995, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell 31%.1 Hyperinflation soared, reaching nearly 3,000% in 1992 when the government lifted price controls and raised the money supply to cover a large budget deficit. Growth was slow until 1999, hampered by low oil prices and a severe economic recession in Russia, which remains Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, culminating in the 1998 Russian financial crisis.
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The breakup also caused massive social displacement. Between 1989 and 1999, more than 1.7 million ethnic Russians and more than half a million, or nearly two-thirds, of ethnic Germans left the country. At the same time, the birth rate of those who remained fell sharply, causing the population to decline by more than 9% between 1991 and 2001, when it reached 14.9 million. These losses exacerbated the country’s economic woes. The loss of large numbers of Russians and Germans, a disproportionate number of whom had previously held skilled positions in government and major industries in the Kazakh SSR, left a vacuum in the country’s labor supply.
These early social and economic problems influenced the first phase of the nation’s independence. Combined with the loss of subsidies and Moscow’s tax collection mechanisms, the collapse of the economy sharply reduced state revenues, leading to a sharp deterioration in the quality of public services. The collapse also forced the government to consider drastic economic reforms, which it outlined in Kazakhstan’s 2030 Strategy. This strategy, adopted in 1997, gave priority to reducing government intervention in domestic and foreign trade, improving tax and tariff administration, overhauling corporate governance structures, foreign investment and international relations, promoting and privatization of state enterprises.
The privatization of state-owned enterprises has had a particularly important impact on the future of the country and its education system. In the 1990s this led to the sale of state-owned assets. Foreign investors, hoping to profit from favorable prices by buying a stake in Kazakhstan’s rich oil fields, have descended on the country. According to the 1999 transition report of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), in 1999 almost half of all medium-sized enterprises and two-thirds of all large state-owned enterprises had been sold.
While not as thorough as in other sectors of the economy, this push for privatization has also extended to education. The 1990s saw a rapid expansion of private academic institutions, many of which, as time has shown, were of very poor quality. While most public schools and universities remained under tight government control, legislation enacted shortly after independence introduced tuition fees at public universities.
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While international financial institutions praised Kazakhstan’s leaders for their impassioned embrace of privatization, other observers were more skeptical. In 1999, Transparency International ranked Kazakhstan in the bottom quintile of its Corruption Perceptions Index. In the years that followed, the news revealed the dark underbelly of Kazakhstan’s free-market reforms, revealing a world of behind-the-scenes deals and widespread kickbacks that reached the highest levels of government. In 2003, two US businessmen, one of whom was a former head of the Mobil Oil Corporation, were indicted for taking $78 million in bribes to secure oil contracts. The bribes were paid to two high-ranking Kazakh officials: former Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
While the economic changes following Kazakhstan’s independence have been rapid and disruptive, its political system has been characterized by much greater continuity. Nazarbayev, who for years served as prime minister of the Kazakh SSR and chairman of its Communist Party, has successfully transitioned to the newly independent country’s top presidential post. Though he ostensibly ran the country as a democracy, Nazarbayev quickly suppressed any political opposition when he was in power, winning several elections with more than 95% of the vote. Surprisingly, international election observers have criticized all elections since independence as unfree and coercive. Nazarbayev also quickly sought to centralize power in the president’s office, tightly controlling all levels of government. It remains to be seen what effect Nazarbayev’s resignation will have on democratic processes in 2019. Despite his resignation, Nazarbayev remains the president of the country’s most powerful military institution and head of the dominant political party.
These events significantly influenced the course of Kazakhstan’s subsequent history and especially its education system. While conditions have changed dramatically in the new millennium, the turmoil of those early years continues to shape the country to this day.
Kazakhstan’s experience in the 21st century is significantly different from the experience of the last decade of the 20th century. In 1999, Kazakhstan’s economy entered a new phase of rapid expansion, fueled by the devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the tenge, and the beginning of a nearly decade-long period in which the world price of crude oil rose more than 10-fold . In 2006, after more than half a decade of annual GDP growth rates hovering around 10 percent, Kazakhstan’s economy, which until recently seemed on the verge of collapse, ranked among the middle-income countries of the world. With a few notable exceptions, growth has remained steady since then.
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These improvements added to government coffers and fueled ambitious development plans. In late 2012, President Nazarbayev presented the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy, an ambitious national plan that aims to make Kazakhstan one of the world’s 30 most developed countries by the middle of this century.
The booming oil economy has also increased the demand for professionals with the education and skills to work in the new companies. Even today, despite rapidly increasing participation rates in education, businesses still report widespread skills shortages. In 2017, Kazakh leaders listed an “inadequately educated workforce” as one of the top three barriers to doing business in the country, after access to finance and corruption. The low unemployment rate confirms these concerns. In 2019, the unemployment rate among 15-24 year olds was just 3.7%, well below the average (12.4%) of the member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2 It was even lower for the more educated. workers. Unemployment among those with at least a college degree or short higher education was just 3.5% in 2017, compared to 5.3% among those with secondary education and 6.7% among those with a primary or secondary education.
Despite the country’s dramatic economic turnaround, problems persist. First, the benefits of growth have not always been equally distributed. Located almost entirely in Central Asia, although a
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