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The Education System in Kazakhstan

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06.10.2014, 12:38

The education system in Kazakhstan, which includes a number of distinct levels, has been very instrumental in helping this former member of the now defunct Soviet Union achieve economic and political success.[i]  In the following article we will discuss the country’s system of education in great detail, describing the basics associated with each of the aforementioned levels.

The Education System in Kazakhstan

The education system in Kazakhstan is overseen by the Ministry of Education and administered at the local level.  Schooling is mandatory for all students between the ages of 6 and 15, although there are several pre-university educational options for students between the ages of 16-18 as well.[ii]  Below you will find the various levels that make up Kazakhstan’s system of education, beginning with Kindergarten and culminating with the various higher education opportunities available in the country for students seeking advanced degrees and diplomas.

Kindergarten Education in Kazakhstan

As per the country’s Constitution, all children in Kazakhstan have access to kindergarten education, which is offered at no cost to the family.  Kindergarten typically serves students between the ages of 4 and 5, and while students are not mandated to attend this one-year level of education it is estimated that nearly 80 percent of children do begin their formal education at this stage.  Kazakhstan is home to over 100 kindergartens, over 80 percent of which are public institutions, serving approximately 150,000 children each year.[iii]

Kindergarten classes are held five days a week in Kazakhstan for approximately 3-4 hours a day.  The curriculum during this stage of education includes pre-writing, reading and arithmetic, art, music and play.  All kindergartens are currently expected to teach both Kazakh and Russian, and most emphasize one language over the other.[iv]

Kindergartens in Kazakhstan play an important role in helping prepare students for their first year of state-mandated primary education.  Children learn to socialize and work cooperatively with other students and their teacher through group work and games and come to know what is expected of them both academically and behaviorally in a school setting.

Primary Education in Kazakhstan

Primary education in Kazakhstan typically begins at age 6 and spans four academic years—Grade 1 through Grade Four.  Classes generally run in two sessions, from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM and from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM; with students either going to class in the morning or in the afternoon.[v]

All primary schools in Kazakhstan are state-owned and constitutionally protected.  The curriculum for these schools is developed and established by the Ministry of Education and individual schools are mandated to teach the ascribed curriculum to a “T”, thus giving students the best chance of success, with each year building on the one before.  Textbooks are provided by the government to each of the country’s primary schools, which in turn lend them to the students for their use in that particular year.

The curriculum in Kazakhstan’s primary schools includes courses in reading, basic mathematics, writing, Kazakh and Russian language arts, science, social science, art, music and physical education.[vi]

Primary school education is provided free to all citizens and residents of Kazakhstan and parents typically pay only for extra-curricular activities such as sports programs, music programs, and sometimes lab equipment or other special equipment.

Lower Secondary School Education in Kazakhstan

The period known as lower secondary or basic school in Kazakhstan is similar to middle or junior high school education in other countries like the United States.  This level of education typically begins at age 10 or 11 and spans a total of five years in duration—Grades 5 through Grade 9.[vii]

Some lower secondary school classes share same the same campus with the primary school (or higher secondary school) in the immediate area, while others may form a separate campus altogether.

The curriculum students can expect to encounter while participating in lower secondary school depends on their specific age and grade level.  At the lower levels, the curriculum is very similar to that of the primary school, albeit more advanced, with subjects such as mathematics, general science, social science, Russian or Kazakh language arts (depending on the primary language of the individual school) and physical education.  Older lower secondary education students, such as those in the 8th and 9th grades, can study more advanced subjects such as foreign language, Kazakh, Russian and World Literature, history, algebra (and other higher mathematics courses), physics, biology, chemistry and many others.[viii]

Higher Secondary School Education in Kazakhstan

Once students successfully complete their lower secondary school education they are permitted to follow one of three available tracks at the higher secondary school level.  Students may choose only one track, meaning they are not permitted to enroll in two or more tracks simultaneously.

The first track that is available to students is known as the General Education track, which spans two years and comprises grades 10 and 11.  This track is purely academic in nature and is designed for students who plan to pursue university studies after finishing secondary school.  The curriculum for general higher secondary education is similar to that of its lower secondary counterpart, although the subject matter students will encounter is much more difficult.[ix]  All instruction is geared towards preparing students for university admission following graduation.

In addition to the general education track of higher secondary education there are also two types of vocational tracks: 
Initial Vocational Education
Secondary Vocational Education

Initial Vocational Education in Kazakhstan is provided by the country’s (initial) training schools and lycees, while Secondary Vocational Education is provided by colleges.[x]

Below we will take a look at the various institutions that provide basic and advanced vocational education and the type of programs they institute.

Training Schools (Initial Vocational Education Track)

Training schools in Kazakhstan are designed to train students in a trade or skilled profession of some type.  These programs, which are entirely vocational in nature, can span anywhere from one to three years, depending on the type of trade or profession in which the student is focusing his/her study. 

Graduates of training schools can go on to further their studies at either a vocational college or university, or enter the world of employment in the same or related trade.  Training school education is provided for students free of cost, although students may be required to purchase special equipment, textbooks and other materials.[xi]

Lycees (Initial Vocational Education Track)

The lycees in Kazakhstan are also set up to offer students an initial or basic program of vocational education and to prepare them for a variety of skilled professions.  However, lycees differ from training schools in that they also offer basic academic education along with specific vocational program instruction.  All of the programs in the country’s lycees span three academic years, often referred to as grades 10-12.[xii]

Colleges (Secondary Vocational Education Track)

Secondary or Advanced Vocational Education is provided by Kazakhstan’s colleges, with programs that also include general academic education.  Depending on the field of study, the program length at the country’s colleges can span anywhere from three to four years—Grades 10-12 or Grades 10-13.  Accelerated programs exist for students who have already completed both general secondary education and initial vocational training in the same field. Graduates may go on to the university to continue their education or they can opt to begin working in their chosen field of study.
After the 1999 Budget Law was passed, colleges became state-owned and self-financed.[xiii] This was done in part to ensure more of the country’s students continued their education past the compulsory age of 15.
The curriculum for both initial and secondary vocational education is established by the Ministry of Education, with little choice left up to the individual schools. Textbooks are sold in bookstores throughout the country and are purchased by the students themselves.

Tertiary Education in Kazakhstan

Tertiary or higher education in Kazakhstan is provided mainly by the country’s universities.  Following the Russian system of tertiary education, universities in the country focus entirely on teaching and do not engage in research (as universities do in other parts of the world).[xiv]

Students who wish to apply for university admittance must, at minimum, possess a leaving certificate or its recognized equivalent from one of the country’s higher secondary education institutions.  Since 2004, all secondary school graduates have also had to pass a new exam, the Edinoe Nacional'noe Testirovanie (Unified National Testing Exam) and receive the corresponding diploma, the Certificat o Rezul'tatah EHT (replacing the Complex Testing Exam) to enter a university.[xv]  Some schools may also require a separate entrance examination, as may specific departments within a given university. 

Students who are accepted to a university at any level must apply under a specific major, and the curriculum is set by the university (according to State legislation) for each major. For example, economics majors will all study in the same courses in the same order, separate from English majors who have a different curriculum. Some courses are required for a variety of majors and there is a possibility of switching majors, but typically classes do not transfer to the new major and the student is expected to reenter in the new major as a first year student.[xvi]

As with most modern universities, the higher education institutions in Kazakhstan offer a number of degree options in hundreds of possible majors.  Currently there are four levels of tertiary education in Kazakhstan:[xvii]

·Bachelor Degree.  The Bachelor degree in Kazakhstan typically spans four years or eight full semesters for full-time students.  These basic higher education degrees provide students with the required fundamentals specific to their chosen field of study.

·Specialist Degree.  The Specialist degree or diploma, which generally spans five years in duration, includes specialized education that is a bit more intensive than the normal Bachelor degree.

·Masters Degree. Scientific-pedagogical education in Kazakhstan can lead to a Master’s degree, which typically spans an additional two years in duration after the Bachelor or Specialist degree.

·Doctoral Degree.  Doctoral degrees, leading to the Doctor of Science or PhD degree, can span anywhere from two too five years after the Master’s degree.

Full-time postgraduate studies (known in Kazakhstan as Aspirantura) that lead to the qualification of Candidate of Sciences (Kandidat Nauk) normally last for three years, and the submission of a thesis is required.  Under the new system of higher education, a PhD is conferred after two to three years' further study beyond the Master's Degree, while the Doctor of Sciences (Doktor Nauk) is awarded after the Kandidat Nauk and after completion of a thesis based on original research.[xviii]
Universities in Kazakhstan are typically headed up by a rector, appointed by the President of the nation, who wields considerable authority over the institution, approving all decisions including those regarding curriculum, personnel, and admission. This chain of command makes the universities in Kazakhstan much more centralized than their Western counterparts.

As of this writing, the top two universities in Kazakhstan are al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty and L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University located in Astana. Karaganda State University is also well-regarded.

Private universities also make up part of the tertiary educational landscape of Kazakhstan.  These schools, usually non-profit institutions, are subject to the same regulations regarding curriculum but are free to set tuition and salaries as they see fit. Public universities are subject to the same regulations as other government-owned organs, regarding not only fees and salaries, but also administrative structure, contracting and subcontracting, and ownership of property.

State owned universities receive funding if their enrollment reaches 86,000 students or 34%.[xix]  A small number of universities are financed through a budget line in the Republic budget, such as art academies or international universities.

The Bolashak Scholarship and Scholars

Finally, no discussion of education in Kazakhstan would be complete without mentioning the Bolashak Scholarship and Scholars, but first a bit of background.

History has shown time and again that reforming the educational system of a nation by training highly qualified professionals is always one of the keys to making a society more progressive and democratic. Some historical examples of this success include Post World War II Japan, Turkey and Hong Kong, just to name a few.  These nations have built economically and politically viable states through pursuing an active policy of learning from the most advanced educational systems in the world.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan was faced with a myriad of difficulties inherited by the former, including:[xx]
Economic turmoil
Social inefficiency
A legacy of environmental disasters
A huge stockpile of nuclear weapons.
At this monumental junction of its history, Kazakhstan had an important choice to make: empowerment through force and dictatorship, or prosperity through disarmament and democracy.  The new Kazakhstan President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, chose the latter, and today Kazakhstan is emerging as a new player in the global economy, and a key component to regional and world stability.

Much of Kazakhstan’s success can be traced back to 1993, when the country became the first Asian nation to launch a presidential scholarship program:  Bolashak, meaning "The Future" in the Kazakh language.[xxi] This program highlights the importance of educating and training Kazakhstan’s most talented youth at the world’s best universities.  On November 9, 1993, President Nazarbayev decreed, "In Kazakhstan's transition toward a market economy and the expansion of international contacts, there is an acute need for cadres with advanced western education, and so, it is now necessary to send the most qualified youth to study in leading educational institutions in foreign countries."[xxii]

As a result of this decree, Bolashak scholars are today trained in a number of fields, including:
International relations
Upon completion of their foreign educational programs, recipients return to Kazakhstan and engage in governmental work for a period of five years. The rigorous criteria for selecting Bolashak scholars assures that only the best and most promising students, regardless of ethnicity, are named Bolashak Scholars.[xxiii]

The Bolashak program is fully funded by the Government of Kazakhstan and overseen by the Ministry of Education and Science. Since 1994, hundreds of Bolashak scholars have graduated from top universities around the world, including the following giants of American education:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Carnegie Mellon
Indiana University
These same academics are currently working or have worked in various Kazakhstan government and international organizations, while contributing to the democratic transformation of their country.

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