Kazakhstan's higher education system is taking a battering from the global financial crisis, jeopardizing Astana's ambitious plans to turn the country into an Asian tiger economy. Thousands of young people face expulsion from universities as they find themselves unable to pay tuition and fees. The government has moved to quell public outcry by fast-tracking measures to assist financially-strapped students.
There are wider implications: problems in higher education could jeopardize President Nursultan Nazarbayev's key priorities of transforming Kazakhstan into a knowledge economy, turning the country trilingual and making it one of the world's 50 most competitive countries (Kazakhstan ranks 66th in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2008-2009).
Financial difficulties are hitting state and private universities alike, with both facing falling enrollment and decreasing revenues from students. The private, Almaty-based Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP) is no exception. This is one of the few institutions in Kazakhstan that conducts courses in English, and which features a Western-style curriculum built around critical thinking rather than the rote learning typical of the Soviet-era system.
As the crisis started to bite early this year, KIMEP faced a budget shortfall of $6 million. For the 2009-2010 academic year, revenue may decrease by up to 20 percent, the institute's president, Dr. Chan Young Bang, cautioned in April. KIMEP is facing "serious challenges . . . due to the extraordinary economic setback," he said.
The university calculates that up to 900 students may not be able to pay tuition for the 2009-2010 academic year. KIMEP is implementing austere measures to balance its books, cutting 23 mainly expatriate faculty positions and announcing a 16 percent rise in tuition fees, currently $6,000-$7,000 per year -- an extremely high sum in a developing country like Kazakhstan.
The measures provoked an outcry among students, who staged a protest in the university courtyard in late March. Despite explanations from the university administrators, who insist the measures are needed to ensure the institute's survival, rumblings of discontent continue to be heard. "I think if they fired [so many] teachers, they should decrease maybe the price of education," Public Administration student Zarina told EurasiaNet. Her comments echoed the general mood on campus these days, with students complaining of high tuition fees and airing concerns about the departure of so many foreign faculty members. "The quality of our education is decreasing because of these teachers [being fired]," said senior student Zhannara.
The furor attracted the attention of Almaty's mayor, who summoned Bang on April 25 and warned that "payment for studies is among the highest in the country, and the students want to receive the corresponding education."
"You should take all measures to ensure that the students' interests do not suffer," Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov said in remarks quoted in a mayor's office press release.
Kazakhstan's universities are facing a double whammy, with the financial crisis biting as they grapple with a demographic conundrum: student numbers are falling because the birth rate plunged in the early 1990s in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Dr. Ustina Markus, a former KIMEP faculty member, acknowledges that the financial crisis has hit the higher education sector, but also points to management failures as a factor in the university's financial problems. The demographic dip was predictable, she says, and the scale of the financial crisis was emerging last year, when KIMEP recruited 30 new faculty members -- before cutting 23 positions this year. She points to the lack of a reserve fund at the university and a construction boom on campus, much of it carried out by a company that reportedly has ties to Bang, as evidence of questionable financial decisions. Bang insisted KIMEP is "transparent . . . and democratic in decision-making."
Universities across the board are facing difficulties. In January, there was a public outcry after a member of parliament, Saginbek Tursunov, claimed that 200,000 students had been forced to withdraw for non-payment of tuition and fees. That claim prompted Prime Minister Karim Masimov to intervene. The figure, it turned out, proved grossly exaggerated -- Education and Science Minister Zhanseit Tuymebayev clarified shortly afterward that of 7,000 expulsions during the academic year so far, 3,000 were performance-related. However, that still left 4,000 students whose education was interrupted due to financial problems. Masimov decided to take action on a matter that he said was "growing into a purely political one."
"Find a solution," he ordered, and officials were quick to proffer one: the Samruk-Kazyna state fund and the Education Ministry signed an agreement with Alliance Bank to offer low-interest loans to high-performing students. The state is providing $100 million for the package, available to students at a 9 percent interest rate with a 20 year payback period.
The plans suffered growing pains, with reports of a low take-up rate, prompting another outburst from Masimov. "This is shameful, embarrassing. It is not clear where the money has got stuck. What is this mess?" he asked a government session in March. Masimov was plainly concerned about student protests escalating, but by April the logjam was clearing, with some 9,000 credits of the 40,000 available taken up.
Even as the higher-education sector as a whole struggles in the face of the financial crisis, plans to open a new English-language university in Astana at a cost of $165 million are proceeding. The university, with a focus on science, will open in partnership with University College London in the fall, initially with a foundation course taught by UCL and later with degree courses taught by the University of Astana. "The Government's vision for the University of Astana as becoming in the long-term a world class university is a bold one, both for Kazakhstan and for the whole region of Central Asia," Dominique Fourniol, head of Media Relations at UCL, told EurasiaNet.
The ambitious project is a clear indication that Nazarbayev -- who ordered it -- is taking the long-term view, refusing to let the financial crisis hinder his far-reaching plans to make Kazakhstan more competitive in the modern world.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.