Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Education Racket

Students in Kazakstan are being exploited by unscrupulous private universities.

These days in Kazakstan, opening your own college is a doddle. Just apply to the authorities, pay a fee, and the rest will be rubber-stamped.

Over the last three years, private higher education institutions have mushroomed. Most of the hundred or so independent establishments have been set up by state universities to raise money - higher education funding has fallen dramatically during Kazakstan's transition to a market economy. Others are entirely private.

But recent studies show that many of these colleges fail to meet basic educational requirements. Often, licences have been revoked, leaving parents - who pay sizeable fees - out of pocket.

Gulnar Kokpaeva paid $850 to enrol her son in the 'lycee' class of the Technical University. "Pupils were supposed to complete the final high school year and the first year of university simultaneously before moving straight on to the second year," she said. "But after the winter term the 'lycee' class was closed down and had its licence revoked."

The college directors offered parents the chance to transfer their children into a different class for an additional fee, promising that they would automatically become third-year students at the end of the course. But, no longer trustful of the administration, Gulnar sent her son to another school.

The quality of teaching at many of the new independent colleges leaves a lot to be desired. Courses are not properly assessed and resources, such as text books, are often thin on the ground.

Yet college fees can run to $2000 a year. One of the most prestigious independent universities, the Kazakstan Institute of Management, KIMEP, charges $1,900 a year. The Kazak-American University charges $2000. Arts colleges - offering courses for musicians, actors and performers - are the cheapest.

But with Kazak salaries averaging 8700 tenge, $60, a month, even the cheaper courses are out of reach of many would-be students. Asel Tasjanova, 17, has left school but is unsure about her future. ''My parents don't have the funds to pay for my studies,'' she said. ''Now I'm burying myself in my text-books and hoping I'll pass the exam to qualify for a grant. If not, I'll get a job, though finding work is difficult at the moment.''

Asel's situation is not unusual. "I've been working part-time as a bus conductor for the last year," said Talgat Izdauletov, 18. "Sometimes, I even fill in for my father on the night shift. He works as a security guard." Talgat's only hope of higher education is a correspondence course, but he doesn't even know whether he can afford that. "Education is something of a luxury as far as I'm concerned."

In a stark contrast with Soviet-era free education, even students at state universities now have to pay. Only a third of colleges get government funding, and are consequently the hardest to get into. To win places, students have to have done very well at school and pass tough entrance exams.

Bakhyt Jarkenova's daughter is one of this year's 230,000-strong crop of school-leavers, "If she doesn't get a free place, I won't be able to pay for her further education - I don't have a job of my own. And I won't mind, because here the system is completely geared towards the rich."

Teenagers from rural schools find themselves in the hardest position of all. "Even if a student from a rural community or another town gets a grant and a bed in a hostel," said one parent, "he's still going to have to find money for food, clothing and a monthly transport pass. That alone costs 500 tenge, $3."

But even those lucky enough to get a college place will subsequently struggle to find a job. Svetlana Malinina, 26, graduated from KIMEP last year. She was unemployed for a year and is now working as a secretary.

Botagoz Yendibaeva, 22, is a trained mathematician who graduated from Kazak State University. "I've been out of work for a year," she says. "I worked as waitress for a bit but I can't find any other work. So now I just stay at home."

Not surprisingly, many school-leavers are wondering why they should bother with education at all if they're going to end up as waitresses. Especially when they could just become businessmen and buy a diploma.

Aigul Myrzatai is a journalist with Vremya Po newspaper in Almaty.

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