Now, as a way to try to reduce corrupt practices in education, officials there are introducing a new system that one father told RFE/RL will make it harder for students to buy their way in. "Before, those who had less knowledge were able to gain a place at the university -- while those who were capable were not -- [by buying it]. This was what was happening in practice," he said. "This year it looks to be different. There are some obstacles [to corruption]."
The core of the plan has been to introduce a nationwide entrance examination as a way of ensuring university places are awarded on the basis of merit -- not money. The system does away with oral examinations in favor of multiple-choice testing.
After piloting the system in larger cities a year ago last year, the government this year set up testing centers across the country. As a way of making it harder for students to cheat, some 800 different versions of the test were administered.
Tahir Balyqbaev, the head of the national test center at the Ministry of Education, said the system is a key part of the fight against corruption, which many fear is fueling a decline in academic and professional standards. He said great care was taken to ensure that students did not have access to the test questions beforehand. "All the tests and examination books are made at the [national] test center," he said. "The work is under strict control. The printing operations, the distribution, everything will be under strict control of security and police guards."
Supporters are cautiously optimistic. But even with its noble goals, the new nationwide test is not without its critics. Some argue whether it is possible to maintain equal standards across 800 different sets of questions. Others say such standardized tests risk excluding students with special skills.
Gulnar Zhengiz-Qyzy, a teacher in the city of Almaty, said: "I don't think students need that test. It is not possible for a student to prove his level of knowledge through this test. I doubt many talented students will be able to enter university this year because this test creates obstacles."
Officials in neighboring Kyrgyzstan are also hoping a new standardized university-entrance examination will eliminate opportunities for corruption, but the Kyrgyz test differs from the Kazakh one in important ways. For one, because of the varying standards of schools in Kyrgyzstan, the examination does not test knowledge, but instead measures aptitude. It seeks to identify students with the best potential to succeed at the university level. And unlike the Kazakh test, the Kyrgyz exam is not offered by the state, but by an independent agency.
The project was developed with funding from the U.S. government. Todd Drummond, the director of the Kyrgyz initiative, said: "The main difference is that the Kyrgyz initiative was to create an independent nongovernmental agency which would provide high-stakes testing and assessment for university enrollment. It's the only approach in the former Soviet Union to focus on independent testing. In Kazakhstan it's still very much a government-controlled agency."
Drummond said the advantage of an independent agency is that, unlike a ministry, it has an incentive to maintain popular trust. He said if it loses this trust, it can go out of business.
This year, for the first time, the test was given to all prospective university students. About 38,000 students completed the exam in 40 locations throughout the country. Drummond said so far it's been a success, but he said he is concerned about its "political sustainability."
"Being independent is a new concept in the region. What will happen is difficult to say. It's only possible because of presidential support. Right now the prospects look quite good to continue as long as high-level support is there and also grass-root support is there," Drummond said.
Drummond said President Askar Akaev's support was crucial when the testing organization was engaged last year in a long battle with the Education Ministry, which wanted to administer the test on its own.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)