With the academic year under way in Kazakhstan, the country's education system is back in the spotlight. In connection with President Nursultan Nazarbayev's desire to turn Kazakhstan into one of the world's 50 most competitive economies, officials want to make rapid progress in raising education standards.
There is a lot to be done. Specialists say the system, as presently configured, has numerous shortcomings. "The main problem is that it's not really producing the people the country needs because the focus of the education system is not on producing people with the analytical and transferable skills they need to survive in the modern world," Paul Bartlett, Almaty-based teacher trainer and education consultant, told EurasiaNet.
The government reform plan is nothing if not comprehensive. Education funding -- some $4.7 billion this year -- has grown by seven times over the last 10 years, according to the Education and Science Ministry. The state now plans to boost spending from 3.6 percent of GDP currently to 7 percent.
The reform plan contains a large amount of funding for school construction/renovation, as well as a move in 2010 from an 11- to 12-year program of schooling. There is also money for opening 30 specialized language schools to achieve Nazarbayev's goal of producing students who are able to speak Kazakh, Russian and English. In addition, the Education Ministry is expanding computer access and wants to double the number of schools with an Internet connection to 96 percent, a ministry official, Farkhad Kuanganov, told EurasiaNet in written responses to questions.
Another major element of the plan is boosting notoriously low teacher salaries. Teachers got a 30 percent salary increase in 2007, and will enjoy pay hikes of 25 percent in 2009 and 2010, and 30 percent in 2011, bringing average monthly salary to 64,000 tenge ($530). "The correlation of the salary of a Kazakhstani teacher to GDP per head of the population remains significantly lower than in OECD countries, and lower than in Russia," acknowledged Kuanganov.
Some education specialists in Kazakhstan wonder whether the spending increases will produce desired results. "If they're putting that much money into education and they're not paying the teachers [high salaries], where's the money going?" asked a Western professor based in Kazakhstan, speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "I would suggest corruption. Whose pocket is it going into?"
"[Pupils] are bribing their way through high school," the Western professor said. "There are terrible attempts to bribe their way into university. ? The bribery continues at the professors' level." The graft stems from low pay for teaching staff but "makes the system really rotten," he added. The Education Ministry points to its anti-corruption plan, with measures including confidential phone lines and postboxes for reporting bribery, along with computer-based state-controlled testing to eliminate opportunities for graft.
In a public opinion survey on the education system, bribery ranked only as the third most serious concern among respondents. The poll -- conducted by Berkut Monitoring in April and May, and published in the Respublika newspaper in July -- revealed that citizens are more concerned about the poor quality of teachers and the lack of adequate textbooks.
Bartlett suggested that teachers may not be so much poorly-qualified as they are ill-equipped to deal with reforms, as teacher-training initiatives fail to trickle down: "It's coming from the top down and I think they maybe need to develop things from the bottom up."
Some observers argue that the Unified National Test (ENT), a standardized exam introduced in 2004, promotes rote learning and makes it more difficult for students to thrive in the Western-style learning environment that Kazakhstan wishes to embrace. The ministry disagrees, saying it provides an objective knowledge assessment and assists decision-making for education managers. Public opinion is evenly split on ENT, according to the Berkut Monitoring survey, with 41.9 percent positive and 40.3 percent negative. A report in July that a teacher at a military college in Petropavl was arrested on suspicion of selling ENT responses for $400 fuelled suspicion that the test is subject to corruption, though the ministry says the answers are "state secrets."
Another question is whether everyone is really behind the move to Western standards. "Education is in turmoil here," the Western professor said. "I want to say that it's heading in the right direction, but there are factions in the Education Ministry who want a Western education and there are factions with the old dinosaur mentality."
One sign of the administration's commitment to improving standards is the Bolashak grant program that sends 3,000 Kazakhstani students abroad to study annually. Despite controversy over the program, including claims of nepotism and graft in grant allocation, observers say students often return with a sound education and altered mindsets that benefit the country. New quotas this year will give rural students more opportunities to study abroad.
To improve things back home, the government has moved to weed out poorly performing universities, closing 36 higher education institutions that were deemed not to meet national standards. In addition, Kazakhstan has committed to the Bologna Process, which aims to harmonize European education standards, and is planning to seek international accreditation of higher education institutions. Over 30 million tenge of budget funds has been allocated for five universities to work towards international accreditation this year, Kuanganov said.
No matter how much money is poured into the education system, the Western professor expressed the belief that things will change "only when those people rooted in the old Soviet education system are gone."
"That may take 20-25 years," the professor added.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.