Kazakhstan: The Window of Opportunity Opens

2022 gave Kazakh academia a unique chance for advancement. The key is to use it.

Alexander Vileykis

 

Photo: The large number of private universities and reduced dependence on formal regulations have opened up new opportunities for Kazakhstan. Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

 

Higher education in Kazakhstan has been studied very little. There are currently only a few interesting projects tackling related issues.

A team of researchers from the AlmaU School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (authors of a series of texts on the history of higher education in Russia) have launched a study of regional education in Kazakhstan. During the first stage, we collected unstructured interviews with teachers and administrators. The conclusions we are publishing today are purely preliminary.

 

Selective Affinity: Pros and Cons

Kazakhstan’s higher educational system has a lot in common with Russia’s:

  • Similar social role of universities
  • Relationship between academia and corporations
  • Like-minded student body

The initial comparison speaks in Kazakhstan’s favor. Kazakh academia is reminiscent of Russian academia, but as it was ten or fifteen years ago, when we saw positive trends. At that time:

  • Russian universities had great potential for change
  • There were far more different types of organizations, including a variety of private universities and various trade-specific institutions
  • Academic mobility, working with foreign foundations, and participation in international grant programs was encouraged, rather than being a reason to “put someone on a list”

This comparison also has a negative side. The higher educational structures in both countries suffer from the same afflictions, such as academic dishonesty—a concept combining various forms of corruption among scientists: dissertation bribes, plagiarism, publications in predatory journals, and research grant fraud.

I have not found any publicly available quantitative studies on the extent of this “dishonesty,” so it is difficult to give a statistical assessment of it. But qualitative methods (in-depth interviews we have conducted, as well as participant observation) show that the problem is more acute in Kazakhstan than it was in Russia in 2021.

Unfortunately, in Kazakhstan, there are practically no extra-institutional organizations that might fight against such academic machinations (such as Dissernet and the Commission on Pseudoscience—the last one remaining in Russian academia, which was recently shut down). They simply have to be created.

 

Three-Publication Requirement

In Russia, publications in peer-reviewed journals were historically required for grant reporting, pay raises, and federally funded scientific projects (for example, Project 5-100).

In Kazakhstan, they add to this the requirement to publish in three journals indexed by Scopus or WoS. (In Russia, three articles in journals on the Higher Attestation Commission, or “VAK,” list were enough; this list includes a large number of Russian-language journals that are relatively easy to publish in).

This three-publication requirement stimulated not so much scientific development as stable demand for buying off publishers. Noticing this trend, a few years ago, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science made the task more difficult: now only publications in the top three quartiles of Scopus or the equivalent in WoS are considered.

There are relatively few journals in every subject area that fall into the so-called “third quartile” of Scopus or higher. Many scholars must wait a year or two before they are published.

 

Catch-22

This new standard did not solve the problem, but rather exacerbated it by increasing the cost of each individual article being published. Authors began to turn not to cheap, predatory Pakistani magazines (where the cost of publication ranges from $500 to $1,000), but to expensive Polish and Indian ones (where the price ranges from $1,000 to $3,000). The new requirements did not achieve the desired result—authors still utilize the services of predatory journals, it’s just that they now cost more money.

The situation has only worsened. Thus, within the corrupt system of the scientometric race, a new economic qualification has emerged, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Just as before, those with significant financial resources can solve their problems.

Meanwhile, young professionals:

  • can’t conduct science adequately without publishing
  • therefore, don’t have access to decently paid positions
  • which can only be obtained by defending a PhD
  • for which you need published articles

This is a typical bureaucratic Catch-22, a concept from Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name: a logical paradox created by mutually exclusive rules.

 

Alignment with Scientific Schools

The Kazakh higher educational system has been developing for many years, and not without glancing back at its northern neighbor.

Russian higher education historically differed from the Kazakh system in terms of the accelerated development rate of national science, which featured:

  • an extensive grant system
  • a variety of academic journals that have entered international citation systems in the last five years and have placed in the upper quartiles
  • large investments in scientific research (RnD)
  • joint laboratories with global universities

There were many reasons for this:

  • Strong scientific schools in the technical and natural sciences (subdivisions of the Russian Academy of Science, research institutes, and academic towns)
  • Huge investments from international funds in the 1990s
  • Considerable academic mobility in the 1990s and 2000s
  • A favorable climate for experiments in the 2000s
  • A number of federal science funding programs since 2005

Aside from that, in Russia, there were incentives and resources for the development of academic journals in Russian with a view to their subsequent introduction into international citation databases: a large amount of research, contributing authors, and demand for translations of relevant scientific literature into Russian.

A lot has changed in 2022. We see exaggerated processes of nationalization in the sciences, resulting in “sovereign science.”

 

Seizing the Opportunity

Kazakh scientists also had the opportunity to take advantage of the Russian higher education system. Kazakh students could:

  • Study at Russian universities
  • Publish in Russian journals, where it was easier to make connections and there was no need to write in English.
  • Enroll in Russian postgraduate programs and defend their dissertations in Russia.

 

The opportunity to defend a dissertation without needing to publish in a Scopus-indexed journal, the availability of peer-reviewed journals in Russian, and the large number of internship programs were a natural solution to the institutional trap in which Kazakh science found itself caught due to the formal restrictions.

 

Kazakh Science at a Crossroads

Many academics built their careers through these arrangements. This, in turn, discouraged the development of Kazakhstan’s own network of journals and did not adequately stimulate research.

There are very few highly ranked peer-reviewed journals in modern Kazakhstan. There are no opportunities to publish in Kazakh and be indexed in Scopus/WoS at all.

 

Studying at global universities. For 20 years, the Bolashak Program has been enabling students to study at the world’s leading universities by providing state-funded scholarships. After receiving their education, students must return home and work in Kazakhstan for several years or compensate the state for the grant funding.

To date, there has been no significant public research on the effectiveness of the Bolashak program: state statistics only offer figures for the number of graduates.

Bolashak has helped countless young scientists, but has also become a tool that allows them to avoid investing in the development of local academic institutions. In addition, scientists who manage to publish in Europe or the US usually stay there.

 

Hiring foreigners. Hiring foreign specialists on salaries significantly higher than those of local scientists has become especially prevalent. It has become customary to solve the problem of the need for peer-reviewed publications in this way. A specialist from a foreign university indicates a local university as a second affiliation in his articles or takes local researchers as co-authors.

This is another typical type of “growing pain” for developing higher educational systems.

 

Cooperation with Russia. The opportunity to publish and defend in Russia still remains. But the Russian academic leadership’s intentions to remove themselves from integration processes will lead to reduced room for maneuver in the near future.

 

Window of Opportunity

There is one more significant distinction between Kazakh and Russian academia, pertaining not to the temporal plane, as we discussed earlier, but to the spatial plane.

Despite the benefits offered by Russian science that we have already discussed, the Russian academic environment has been undergoing consistent centralization for many years. Educational experiments have only been possible in a handful of universities.

Overall, an atmosphere of distrust has arisen in the majority of universities, leading to the creation of tools for manual control at any level, reduced international relations, and unified educational standards. The effect of path dependency and the logic of “pockets of effectiveness” have played a role as well.

Kazakhstan is moving in a different direction. Currently, Kazakh higher educational institutions come in a variety of forms.

Private universities, where regulations are much less strict than at state universities, make up about half of the country’s higher educational institutions.

International foundations and NGOs maintain their investments, finance research, and implement grant programs.

A modern Ministry of Higher Education and Science is ready to provide this freedom of choice in structural formats. Accreditation is available not just from the state, but also from several international organizations.

The fact that a unified structure of universities and academic centers has not developed in Kazakhstan has so far led to a decrease in formal academic indicators and the creation of barriers to interaction.

However, this has also allowed different types and structures of higher educational institutions, new to both the country and the region, to be created. What is important is that they are trying them out.

 

* * *

To use the language of institutional science, Kazakhstan is at a turning point. The external crisis has made it possible to reverse their current path and move along another, more successful trajectory.

The pivotal distinction between Kazakh higher education and its Russian counterpart is the opportunity to create “universities from scratch,” abandoning the institutional legacy.

The new staff of the Ministry of Higher Education and Science is open to creating international universities and increasing the autonomy of individual institutions.

The large number of private universities and reduced dependence on formal regulations open up new opportunities.

What matters now is whether they seize them.

 

Alexander Vileykis is an assistant professor at the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, AlmaU, and an expert in higher education.

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