Kazak Students Say No to High Tuition Fees

Education minister comes under concerted attack for plans to make university study more costly.

Kazak Students Say No to High Tuition Fees

Education minister comes under concerted attack for plans to make university study more costly.

Plans to bump up university tuition fees in Kazakstan have provoked outrage among young people who say they will prevented from going onto further education.

The public outcry appears to have forced the education ministry to backtrack, saying the increases will not be as high as was first suggested.

The proposed increase is part of a wide-ranging reform package intended to bring Kazakstan’s education system up to international standards by the year 2010.

The plans envisage tuition fees increasing two- or threefold to 2,000 to 2,500 dollars, while doing a PhD could cost up to 9,000 dollars a year. At the moment students have to pay between 500 to 1,000 US dollars a year, depending on where they are studying and what subject. That is already a lot considering that average monthly wages run at about 200 dollars. A minority who get top scores in entrance examinations are awarded grants.

On August 25, the day the education ministry submitted its reform programme to the cabinet, young people gathered outside the government building demanding the dismissal of minister Jaksybek Kulekeev and urging Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov not to allow tuition fees to rise.

The education minister said on August 25 there was no alternative: his ministry needs the income so that it can hire top-notch lecturers who will raise standards.

“If we maintained the current education fees, university lecturers would be paid 300 dollars [per month] at best. But it is virtually impossible to attract highly qualified staff for just 300 dollars. So tuition fees need to be increased two- or threefold, at least,” said Kulekeev at a press conference two weeks ago prior to the cabinet meeting.

Kulekeev’s deputy Gennady Gamarnik added that the money was also needed to equip universities with modern information technology.

Few people doubt that education in Kazakstan – which combines leftovers of the Soviet system and various elements drawn from European and American experience – is in need of a major overhaul.

Diplomas issued by Kazak universities are not recognised in Europe, and minister Kulekeev says the country ranks near the bottom in a list of 216 countries. “We are outperformed by some African countries,” he said. “It is necessary to abandon old priorities and change the entire educational process dramatically.”

Students, both current and prospective, say the benefits of the reform will be irrelevant if no one can afford to go to university.

“If the parent’s pockets are empty, so will the lecture halls be,” said Asel Maratova, a student now on a distant learning course.

The Union of Kazakstan Patriotic Youth, set up by students to present their interests, has led the protests, urging prime minister Akhmetov “not to triple tuition fees, but rather to reduce them”.

“Students are demanding Jaksybek Kulekeev’s departure, and are ready to take to the streets if their voice is not heard,” said a statement issued by the union as the minister’s plans went before the government.

The youth union’s head, Makhambet Abjan, said the issue was about preventing the emergence of new class barriers based on money and education.

“If we increase tuition fees, only the wealthy will be able to study. The poor will either remain in technical colleges, or simply drop out,” said Abjan. “The minister disagrees, so we conclude that his intention is to introduce social gradations dividing society into rich and poor students.”

According to Abjan, “The education minister has told us a lot about market economics. We have realised that he does not draw a distinction between throat-cut capitalism and the classical – in other words socially oriented - market economy envisaged by the Kazak constitution.”

Students already attending university courses say they will be forced to drop out if fees are increased.

“I have joined a faculty where you pay 900 dollars per year,” Indira Saubaleeva, a first-year student in Astana, told IWPR. “My parents can just about pay that much. But I’ll have to quit if they increase the tuition fees. I think that a great many people will have to do the same.”

Many students say they are already under pressure because universities have already been raising their annual fees without consultation.

The plan could backfire by encouraging more students to study in Russia.

“Many people in Kazakstan already send their children to study in Russia, and the wealthier ones – to Europe or the United States,” said Svetlana, a lecturer at Kazakstan State University Almaty. “If tuition fees are increased as Mr Kulekeev intends, studying in Russia will look [relatively] cheaper, and prospective students will go for this option because Russia offers a far better quality of education.”

As well as anger from students, Kulekeev’s scheme came under attack from political heavyweights including the Kazak president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva.

“Why raise tuition fees at all universities?” argued Nazarbaeva, who has taken up a number of causes that run counter to official government policy since founding her own political party Asar at the beginning of the year. “If they want to increase the fees, they should open three or four prestige universities like Oxford or Cambridge, and introduce high tuition fees there. But not everywhere.”

On September 1, members of Kazakstan’s parliament – many of them government loyalists – laid into the tuition fee plan one after another.

The following day, Kulikeev held a press conference in which he appeared to retreat somewhat under the barrage of criticism, and suggested that the rise in fees would not be drastic. “If we increase the cost of study without having created an alternative funding source or mechanism, many kids won’t be able to get a higher education,” he said, without elaborating on how he planned to alleviate the scheme’s impact.

Alia Asembaeva is the pseudonym of a journalist from Astana.

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