Kazakhstan: Short on Funds, Not Ambition

short on funds not ambitionALMATY, Kazakhstan | With its booming oil industry, Kazakhstan, unlike many of its Central Asian neighbors, can certainly afford to invest in education. Yet, recent increases in its education budget have been far from enough to fulfill the government’s grand ambition to quickly catch up to European academic standards.

Furthermore, frequent cabinet reshuffling has undermined the state’s overall strategy, as new arrivals to the Ministry of Education have perennially ordered changes to ongoing reforms. But far more damaging than the government’s inconsistency is the dire lack of money, especially at the local level, set aside to implement a massive overhaul of the education system as planned.

Climbing Figures

Since 2000, the Kazakh state has steadily increased allocations to education from 71.9 tenge million to 455.2 million tenge, according to government figures. A study conducted by the Karaganda-based Education and Development Center reported that the amount of state spending on education rose by 130 percent in the years 2001-2005, alone.

However, climbing figures are not necessarily cause for celebration. Though education spending now represents around 3% of Kazakhstan’s GDP, it is still below the minimum 4-6% share recommended by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as the level of government spending during perestroika and the early years of Kazakh independence.

Furthermore, the state’s education development program, scheduled to run until 2010, assumes that the government will be capable of continuously increasing funding, but this is far from certain given current economic trends. Kazakhstan has been hit hard by the international crisis in liquidity, sparked by the declining value of the American dollar, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that economic growth is likely to fall below the government’s projections.

Recent injections to the budget have been far from enough to reverse the decline in education standards, resources and infrastructure spurred by chronic under-funding in the 1990s. The current situation is largely due to the structure of education financing in Kazakhstan: in the 1990s, the main burden of funding schools was transferred from the central government to local administrations, with state injections not exceeding 20 percent in the period since. The state budget funds capital investments in education programs, while local budgets have the burden of managing immediate expenses, including teachers’ salaries, utilities, libraries and other resources. Meanwhile, local governments typically spend only 6 percent of their budgets on education – hardly enough to support the state’s grandiose plans, according to the International Institute for Modern Policy, an Almaty think tank.

Teachers’ salaries remain extremely uncompetitive and many are drifting out of the profession. In a joint letter to the prime minister last November calling for substantive wage increases, the Federation of Trade Unions of Education and Science Workers and the Federation of Public Health Workers decried the fact that a typical teacher can expect to earn only 27,000 T per month ($225 USD), well below the national average.

As in other parts of post-Soviet Central Asia, low compensation and insufficient and outdated resources have created an aging workforce that is not well-versed in contemporary teaching methods.

Moreover, many schools continue to grapple with a shortage of quality textbooks and technological equipment. The government’s computerization campaign was allegedly completed in 2000; however, as of 2007, there were many reported cases of incomplete deliveries of PCs to schools, meaning that the allocated money or the equipment itself was most likely stolen.

In early 2007, the government launched a highly publicized campaign to equip every school with “interactive desks” by the beginning of the next school year. These were computerized desks which would supposedly allow schoolchildren to listen to live broadcasts by the president or prime minister and receive instruction from their teachers online. Teachers, for their part, were asked to develop educational materials that could be installed on the interactive desks, and integrate their use into the curriculum.

Not surprisingly, the campaign was a huge failure. The lack of broadband internet in Kazakh schools precluded watching streamed video and engaging in e-learning, not to mention the fact that most teachers had no idea how to use the machines. Ironically, because the interactive desks were very expensive, administrators were hesitant to let teachers and students anywhere near them.

Supply Far Behind Demand

Perhaps the greatest shortage of educational resources in Kazakhstan consists of a lack of schools themselves. In the case of preschool education, which is fully funded by local authorities, the situation is particularly bad. There is a dramatic shortage of kindergartens across the country and, as a result, even some state-run schools have begun charging for instruction. An Almaty kindergarten can charge up to the equivalent of $100 USD a month, compared to the average monthly salary of $340.

At the same time, Kazakhstan’s growing birth rate has led to a stark imbalance between demand for preschool institutions and supply, with the number of children officially five higher than the number of available places in Kazakh kindergartens.

During the economic crisis of the early 1990s, over 80 percent of the country’s kindergartens shut down due to a lack of funds. New schools only started to be opened in 1999, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)’s national human development report. The number has grown by 16 percent since 2004. Even so, only 27.6 percent of all children under the age of six attend preschool – a rate similar to Kazakhstan circa 1964 and one of the lowest among CIS countries, according to the Ministry of Education’s website.

Parents who are lucky enough to find places for their children are often disappointed by the condition of many Kazakh kindergartens, with their antiquated Soviet-era facilities and lack of skilled personnel. Kazakh-language preschools generally rate lower in their level of care and teaching than their Russian counterparts, said many of the parents interviewed for this article, and teachers in these schools tend to have less professional training.

The Ministry of Education’s establishment in 2005 of the Preschool Childhood Center, with its goal of standardizing preschool education, was designed to relieve this situation. However, experts believe greater progress will come only when the government passes legislation stimulating the private sector to open kindergartens, thus diversifying the field and providing real alternatives for parents.

Building Boom

On the secondary school level, the government has made significant strides toward improving a decrepit infrastructure which has contributed to a shortage of spaces for up to a half million pupils. President Nursultan Nazarbayev in his 2007 address to the nation ordered 100 schools to be built over the course of the next three years – 21 of which are already under construction. An earlier program called Aul Mektebi (“Rural School”) targeted the countryside, where many schools were closed down due to massive migration to the cities.

Nearly 140 villages have received new schools through the Aul Mektebi program, although some of the new buildings are admittedly of poor quality. The presidential order to build 100 schools does not, however, address the critical shortage of qualified teachers to work in these areas. Heavy internal migration from rural areas to the district centers and cities has left enormous gaps in rural teaching staff.

Real progress has also been made in eliminating earlier discrepancies between the quality of teaching in secondary schools that offer an education in Kazakh (44 percent) and those in Russian and Kazakh (nearly 26 percent). “There was a longstanding prejudice against Kazakh-language schools,” said Galina Samotokina, deputy head of the secondary education department in Almaty City Hall, “but it is now nothing more than a stereotype.”

Over the past few years, Kazakh authorities have attempted to eradicate the widespread practice of collecting compulsory fees ostensibly for school improvements, but whose real usage is hard to track. While these reforms did away with “voluntary contributions” to schools, at the same time, they permitted schools to begin charging parents for a broad range of services, thereby “…undermining the principle of a free secondary education, whereby taxpayers don’t have to pay any additional money to public schools,” said Irina Khalelova from the Public Parental Committee, an Almaty-based citizens’ initiative that regularly protests against such fees.

Secondary schools’ meager budgets, as well as the low salaries of teachers, have contributed to pervasive corruption, low teacher motivation, a brain drain of talented educators, and poor quality textbooks in Kazakh schools.

A lack of funds may have also have been behind the decision to postpone the start of an ambitious plan to shift from an 11-year to a 12-year system of secondary education — key to fulfilling the government’s plans to move closer to Western practices. Pedagogical universities have reportedly not even begun preparing teachers for the new system. Samotokina at Almaty City Hall cited a lack of official guidelines and new teaching materials geared to the 12-year system as the chief causes of the delay.

However, the lack of money is not the only factor behind the slow rate of progress in Kazakh schools, in the eyes of some education experts.

“Reform of the secondary school system is crucially important,” said Saule Kalikova, director of the Education Analysis Center at the Almaty-based Bilim (Knowledge) Foundation. “The state has made a commitment to complete this reform, which would allow us to integrate into international educational developments, but the process is lagging behind, because the local authorities are in charge of implementation on-the-ground, and it is hard to monitor what’s happening at this level.”

Zhanibek Khassan, Program Officer for the Kazakhstan Revenue Watch program of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan says that, in spite of increased funding, education standards in Kazakhstan will continue to slip. “The main reason for this is ineffective and non-transparent use of funds,” Khassan argues, pointing to school principals’ lack of managerial skills and the absence of monitoring and analysis on the part of the Ministry of Education. “It is virtually impossible to trace the movement of money – what are schools’ real needs, how much is being applied for and received, and how those funds are being spent at all levels.”


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