How do you catch the attention of a global audience increasingly used to high participation in higher education? In the case of Kazakhstan, one journalist thinks he’s found the answer, and that is to showcase the high stakes risks some people will take just to have the chance to compete for a place at one of the country’s universities. The language might be a little overblown, but Naubet Bisenov’s article is otherwise an excellent entry point into the world of Kazakhstan’s wannabe student population. The startling fact that is hidden amidst the moral panics created is the very fact that so many young people are so keen to continue their education. Without unpacking the many reasons that this might be the case, I think that makes for quite a different yet nonetheless extremely compelling story in itself!
His article from Intellinews is reproduced below in full.
Kazakh authorities are resorting to desperate measures to stem the endemic cheating at school final examinations.
The tests will be conducted in 166 specially-equipped testing centres between June 2 and 16 to which would-be students will be escorted by police. In order to “ensure necessary security measures” the centres will be equipped with 1,399 jammers of mobile communications, 438 metal detectors and over 2,500 security cameras.
Under pressure to pass the multiple choice test, in addition to memorising answers to test problems and questions, school leavers often resort to all kinds of cheating – from smuggling mobile phones and cribs into testing centres, to sending imposters to sit the test.
Tens of thousands of banned items are seized every year. Last year items such as mobile phones, portable radio sets, calculators and cribs were seized from 20,000 test sitters before the test and 32,000 during the test. In order to smuggle mobile phones into the testing centre through metal detectors pupils were reported to have wrapped them in aluminium foil and put in condoms or have worn a special skirt with secret compartments for hiding mobiles and cribs.
The most controversial case of cheating last year was a third-year male student from Almaty who disguised himself as a girl to allegedly sit the test for his “girlfriend” in South Kazakhstan Region. However, later the police established that the 20-year-old man had not even known the girl but was asked by his friends to do the trick. If found guilty, the trickster was expected to face a fine worth about KZT400,000 (about €2,000 at the time), but prosecutors said they hadn’t brought charges against the man.
The case, which the Education and Science Minister dubbed the “zest” of last year’s university admission season, is symptomatic of the corrupt university admission system: in 2015, the National Security Service uncovered 18 imposters in Almaty Region alone who reportedly offered to sit the test to desperate hopefuls for rewards ranging between $2,500 and $3,000.
Examinations in Kazakhstan are so fiercely competitive because of the shortage of university places paid for by the government, especially at the more prestigious, and often more expensive, colleges such as Nazarbayev University and Eurasian National University in Astana, and Kazakh-British Technical University, Kazakh National University and Kimep university in Almaty. Moreover, the Soviet-era practice of requiring specific diplomas for specific jobs, means that in order to qualify for better positions Kazakh citizens must go to a university to receive the appropriate diplomas.
But at the same time, the performance of Kazakhstan’s schools and universities are still well below that of Western Europe or even Russia. According to the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) tests of schoolchildren in 2012, Kazakhstan ranked 49th against the UK at 26th, the US at 36th and Russia at 34th, with the score for maths at 432 (the UK at 494, the US at 481 and Russia at 482), for reading at 393 (the UK 499, the US 498 and Russia at 475) and science at 435 (the UK at 514, the US at 497 and Russia at 486).
In university education not a single Kazakh university was ranked among the world’s 800 top universities by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016. In QS World University Rankings 2015-2016, there are only two Kazakh universities in the top 400: the Almaty-based Kazakh National University at 275th place and Astana-based Eurasian National University at 371st.
Next year the exam season could be even more competitive because the Kazakh government has cut the number of student grants that will be given to those enrolling in universities. The government set the number of student grants to be offered to university hopefuls at 31,700 grants in the next academic year against 32,788 grants this academic year.
The decrease in the number of student grants to cover tuition averaging KZT346,000 (€927) is explained by the lower number of school leavers this year – 121,091, with 86,991 taking part in the test, compared to 124,346 and 87,783 in the previous academic year.
The number of school leavers reflects a decrease in the birth rate in the country in the 1990s as a result of the economic crisis caused by the breakup of the USSR: it gradually decreased from 22.2 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 14.80 in 1998 and 14.47 in 1999 but started increasing from 14.90 in 2000 to 22.73 per 100,000 people in 2015. This will eventually translate into an increase in the number of school leavers in the near future.
The government also plans to change the current system that combines school leaving exams with university entrance ones in a single test, in order to reduce stress Kazakh university hopefuls endure in the summer after finishing school. School leavers will now sit two exams – one to leave school and another to enter university.
Critics says the current system puts too much pressure on pupils who need to score at least 50 out of 125 in the five-subject 3.5-hour-long test to enrol to university as tuition paying students, 55 to medical universities and 70 to prestigious national universities.
Whether qualified students receive grants or not depends on the number of grants allocated for particular specialisations and the number of hopefuls who apply for them. This year for the first time, the government will allow those who fail to score the minimum to resit the test for a fee of KZT2,242 (€6).
The average score was 79.4 in 2015, 2.5 points higher than in the previous year, with 14,420 scoring over 100 (17.4% of all test sitters) and five girls scoring 125 out of 125. The share of those failing the test was 18.6% in 2015 against 23.1% in 2014.