The Republic of Kazakhstan enjoys a 99.6 percent literacy rate, which is higher than such countries as;
The system of education consists of:
- Preschool education
- General secondary education
- Out-of-school training and education
- Family education
- Secondary vocational training
- Secondary technical education
- Higher education
- Post-higher education
- Development of professional competence and in-service training.
The mandatory general education for young people, ages 7 through 16, is provided by various institutions. Before independence, the majority of students attended just over 8,000 primary and secondary schools. However, in 2000, the national population decreased which resulted in a slight reduction in the number of schools and students.
There are three main stages in Kazakhstan’s primary education consist of:
- Primary school, grades 1 through 4
- Secondary school, grades 5 through 9
- High school, grades 10 and 11.
It is a common practice that all three stages function under one administration and are located in the same building.
In 2004, high school graduates had to pass a new exam, the Edinoe Nacional'noe Testirovanie (Unified National Testing Exam) and receive the corresponding diploma, the Certificat o Rezul'tatah EHT (replacing the Complex Testing Exam) to enter a university. Presently, there are universities, academies, and institutes, conservatoires, higher schools and higher colleges. The three main levels of higher education include:
- Basic higher education that provides the fundamentals of the chosen field of study and leads to the award of the Bachelor degree
- Specialized higher education after which students are awarded the Specialist's Diploma
- Scientific-pedagogical higher education which leads to the Master's Degree.
Full-time postgraduate studies (Aspirantura) that lead to the qualification of Candidate of Sciences (Kandidat Nauk) normally last for three years, and the submission of a thesis is required. In the new system, a PhD is conferred after two to three years' further study beyond the Master's Degree. The Doctor of Sciences (Doktor Nauk) is awarded after the Kandidat Nauk and after completion of a thesis based on original research.
The school year starts on the first of September and lasts for 210 days, excluding weekends, holidays, and breaks. There are usually four to five 45-minute classes a day in primary school, and five to six classes of the same length in high school. Students are given a 10-minute break between each class and one 20-minute snack break. Homework requiring several hours of study is common, and since admission to universities is highly competitive, many parents hire tutors for their high school children, thus turning the other half of the day, and often weekends, into a second school.
Equaling the educational opportunities for boys and girls was a major goal of the Soviet Union and remains as such in independent Kazakhstan. Before 1917, the education of girls was organized within families to teach girls their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and cooks. In 1920 and 1921, only 1,900 Kazakh girls attended school. In 1976, this number rose to 424,759, and in 1999, the number rose to more than one million. Today, all schools are coeducational.
Additionally, instruction is offered in 21 languages:
- Kazakh (3,291 schools)
- Russian (2,406)
- Russian and Kazakh (2,138)
- Uzbek (77)
- Tajik (16)
- Ukrainian (16)
- German (16)
- Uighur (13)
- Other languages (86)
As for higher education, 177,000 students are taught in Russian, and 77,000 students in Kazakh. Since Russian scholars were the pioneers of science and engineering in Kazakhstan, the Russian language is used more in the poly-technical, technological, and scientific schools of higher learning. In some majors, teaching is also conducted in Uzbek, English, or German languages.
At the end of the 1980s, alternative types of general education were revived: gymnasiums and lyceums. In the past, gymnasiums had a very rigorous classic curriculum that prepared students for higher education, while lyceums emphasized math and science. However, after 1917, the Soviet government abolished both institutions and installed a unified system of education that tried to blend both trends. The experiment lasted for several decades and proved it did not meet the needs and interests of a diverse student population. For that reason, it came under public criticism, and since 2000, the system has re-instituted 31 gymnasiums and 96 lyceums.
The network of general secondary education establishments also incorporates 244 secondary specialized schools which, in addition to the general education curriculum, offer an in-depth study of certain subjects, the most common being foreign language. In addition, there are:
- 40 general children's homes with a contingent of 5,006 children
- 43 family children’s homes with 126 children
- 22 boarding schools for orphaned children and children deprived of parental care
- 48 seasonal general boarding schools attended by 15,647 children of migrant workers
- 249 year-round boarding schools with 8,250 children
- 32 boarding schools for 4,853 mentally and physically handicapped children
- 1 boarding school for 93 children with severe behavioral problems.
Along with daily general education schools, there are:
- 62 night schools
- 31 full-tuition by-correspondence schools
- 21 training centers for adults who received no certificate from a secondary high school.
During the Soviet years, Kazakhstan had no private educational institutions; they all belonged to, and were run by, the government. When Kazakhstan was granted independence however, the constitution allowed individuals, public organizations, and churches to open private educational institutions. The amount of non-state educational institutions in the early 1990s increased, but over time, student enrollment decreased.
The private initiative was on the rise and many new entrepreneurs wanted to open schools; however, the quality of teaching in state-owned schools remained better. The public and the parents who experienced enthusiasm about private education at the beginning of the 1990s became disappointed about the low quality of instruction. The entrepreneurs were more interested in the number of students and less in the quality of teaching. The parents started withdrawing their children from private schools and sent them back to public schools. The picture was different in non-state vocational secondary schools. In 1991, there were no non-state vocational secondary schools, as compared to 99 in 1999. The enrollment of students increased from zero in 1991 to 33,000 in 1999.
As more young people desired to make money and capitalist incentives became stronger, attendance in vocational schools became significantly higher. This is also because of the desire of some parents for their children to be financially independent in the wake of growing poverty.
The aim of the governing body, the Ministry of Education and Science, is to implement Kazakhstan’s state policy in the field of education and science, as well as general scientific and methodical guidance over all educational and scientific institutions.
To improve its education system, the government has begun to close poorly performing universities, including 36 higher education institutions that were not meeting national standards. In addition, Kazakhstan has committed to the Bologna Process, which aims to harmonize European education standards, and is planning to seek international accreditation of higher education institutions. Over 30 million tenge of budget funds has been allocated for five universities to work towards international accreditation each year.
The growth of non-state institutions of higher learning was on a constant rise in the country from zero in 1991 to 106 in 1999. Kazakhstan's Association of Educational Institutions was established in 1996 in order to accomplish the following:
- Develop the nongovernmental sector of education
- Improve the quality and range of services
- Democratize and ensure wholesome competition.
In 2000, the Association included 71 private universities and 45 colleges. It actively participated in developing the legal base for the institutions of different levels.
The educational policies, facilities, and efforts, such as those previously discussed, have created a substantial educated human capital in the twentieth century, leading Kazakhstan to become more industrialized than other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Reforming the educational system by training highly qualified professionals is always the key to making a society more progressive and democratic. Some historical examples of success stories include:
- Post World War II Japan
- Hong Kong
These nations have built economically and politically viable states through pursuing an active policy of learning from the most advanced educational systems in the world.
In 1991, Kazakhstan was faced with a myriad of difficulties inherited by the Soviet Union, including:
- Economic turmoil
- Social inefficiency
- A legacy of environmental disasters
- A huge stockpile of nuclear weapons.
At that point, Kazakhstan had a choice: empowerment through force and dictatorship, or prosperity through disarmament and democracy. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev chose the latter, and today Kazakhstan is emerging as a new player in the global economy, and a key component to regional and world stability.
In 1993, Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian country to launch a presidential scholarship program, Bolashak, meaning "The Future" in Kazakh. This program highlights the importance of educating and training Kazakhstan’s most talented youth at the world’s best universities. On November 9, 1993, President Nazarbayev decreed, "In Kazakhstan's transition toward a market economy and the expansion of international contacts, there is an acute need for cadres with advanced western education, and so, it is now necessary to send the most qualified youth to study in leading educational institutions in foreign countries."
Consequently, Bolashak scholars are trained in the following fields:
- International relations
Upon completion of their programs, recipients return to Kazakhstan and engage in governmental work for a period of five years. The rigorous criteria for selecting Bolashak scholars assures that only the best and most promising students, regardless of ethnicity, are named Bolashak Scholars.
This program, fully funded by the Government of Kazakhstan and overseen by the Ministry of Education and Science, has been a top priority for President Nazarbayev. In keeping with the goal to develop and modernize society, this initiative is one of many bold educational reforms designed to foster democracy.
The desire to have students study the democratic system of government is one of the reasons that most are sent to the United States. "We are learning from the positive example of American democracy," President Nazarbayev stated, “and the government of Kazakhstan wants them to come back and implant into the Kazakh soil not only the updated professional knowledge obtained at the best US universities but also seeds of democracy and civic education.” The government of Kazakhstan is confident that democracy can be sustained through:
- Updating education
- Strengthening skills
- Fostering the intellectual elite.
Currently, 50 Bolashak Scholars are studying at leading American universities and have proven themselves to be among some of the top students in their respective classes.
Since 1994, hundreds of Bolashak scholars have graduated from top American universities, such as:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Carnegie Mellon
- Indiana University
These same academics are currently working or have worked in various Kazakhstan government and international organizations, while contributing to the democratic transformation of their country. Fomer Bolashak Scholar and Emory University Goizueta Business School graduate, Rustam Nabirov, stated, "The Bolashak Scholarship Program provided me with an extremely valuable and unforgettable experience and a great exposure in the intense atmosphere of a top-notch business school. It not only gave me an opportunity to obtain that high-quality business education but also influenced my life. Being a Bolashak will always be my most precious asset and I will always be proud to call myself a Bolashak Scholar.”
In his 2000 speech to Eurasia Economic Summit participants, President Nazarbayev explained his thoughts on the vital importance of improving educational systems within the Central Asian region,
"Our common agenda must begin with education. First and foremost, we must transform our population which is already educated and motivated into a work force for the future: 21st century training for the 21st century jobs The battle for the future will be determined not by armies but by education, not by tanks but by technology, not by cannons but by computers. It is vital that we insure that Central Asia is on the right side of history in all respects politically, economically and technologically.”