Are we really ready to be independent?

Lately, Kazakhstani government has been  adamant to grant universities more independence and autonomy. This reform, as they think, will boost higher education institutes’ (hereafter HEIs) performance and increase their competitiveness on the world arena. However, in this maelstrom of reforms in higher education sphere have they pondered of the universities’ readiness to accept this responsibility? Have they thought how to amend the reform so it fits the local realities?  Well, I am a bit skeptical about it. The evidence at hand witnesses that universities are not ready to cope with this challenge. Professionally. Mentally. The long existent custom of being dependent on someone in Moscow and insufficient knowledge of the reform pose the main obstacles to the successful implementation of the reform.

After a quarter of a century of independence Kazakhstani HEIs still heavily rely on the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) and have only relative freedom of actions. This legacy of the Soviet Union became so deeply entrenched in the minds of people that they see any new form of GOVERNANCE as harmful and deficient. According to the data Sagintayeva and Kurakbayev (2015) reveal, people are reluctant to take the responsibility because they are afraid of it. Basically, they are so used to just fulfilling the assignments “from above” that they do not know how to deal with this new system. Additionally, there is a number of issues which arise from the incompetence HEIs staff.

Certain people believe that autonomy means greater accountability to the MoES. Thus, HEIs staff views autonomy as something that will complicate their laborious work. This brings up a crucial point of building trust between a university and MoES. The authorities should allow HEIs some freedom and treat them not with constant suspicion, but with respect and trust. Another problem, which is the product of ignorance, is people’s misbelief that rectors will have an absolute power and, therefore, run universities as their own businesses (Sagintayeva & Kurakbayev, 2015). To put it simply, people assume that rectors will have the right to hire or fire anyone they want, impose his own rules and etc. In reality, university autonomy implies that board of trustees and academic staff make this sort of decisions.

The HEIs reform brought up a number of issues which have been in shadow for the 25 years of independence. These issues, if not addressed, threaten the achievement of the reform goals. I believe we should thoroughly contemplate all the steps and introduce the changes one-by-one. Otherwise, we risk ending up with an ugly parody of an effective governance system.

How do you see the implementation of the university autonomy reform? Do you think it is a viable one in Kazakhstan?

Sagintayeva, A. & Kurakbayev, K. (2015). Understanding the transition of public universities to institutional autonomy in Kazakhstan. European Journal of Higher Education, 5 (2), 197-210.

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5 thoughts on “Are we really ready to be independent?

  1. Thanks for this interesting article. There are clearly lots of perspectives in this autonomy debate. Sagintayeva has also written on this with others and I recommend this article: Hartley, Matthew, Bryan Gopaul, Aida Sagintayeva, and Renata Apergenova. 2016. “Learning Autonomy: Higher Education Reform in Kazakhstan.” Higher Education 72 (3): 277–89. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9953-z.

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    1. Dear Emma,

      Thank you very much for your response.
      I have read the article you metioned as well as some other ones on the topic of university autonomy in Kazakhstan because I wrote a paper for my class. However, I would love to read more works which focus on this issue and provide some useful advice on the implementation of autonomy in local universities. Today we are witnessing historical events of reshaping Kazakhstani higher education system and, I believe, it is crucial to examine and evaluate our progress along the way, so we can alter some things and achieve the best outcome.
      Thus, there is an acute need for more research and more articles anout university autonomy in Kazakhstan.

      Kind regards,

      Lenera.

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  2. Thank you, @lenerakezlevli, for bringing up the issue. However, I disagree with your point. I think it is wrong to halt democratic reforms out of fear that people are not ready for democracy. How will you know that the universities are finally ready for decentralisation and self-governance? It seems to me that when this type of rhetoric is used, authorities either underestimate people’s capacity for self-organising or deliberately try to scare them to retain power.

    Interestingly, a similar process is happening now in our country on the constitutional level: the President has initiated a reform of taking some powers from his own office and passing them down to the Parliament and the Cabinet. If the members of our parliament are ready for more power, why do you think our universities are not?

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  3. Dear Andrey,

    I appreciate your comment. I’m afraid, however, that you understood me a little bit wrongly. On the contrary, I’m one of those people who believes that we are capable of accomplishing great things.
    The point I’m trying to attract attention to is the absence of necessary support and practical advice to those who are implementing the reform. Because “reformators” do not bother to see one step further and equip people with essential knowledge and tools, people “in the field” oppose the reform and prefer to stick to the old system. Therefore, we encounter people who see these indeed beneficial reforms as another chance for those who have authority to make money.
    The same situation is about Trilingual education reform. Why do so many teachers and parent oppose it? Because many of them do not know what it really is.

    Kind regards,

    Lenera.

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