ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Most of Kazakhstan’s 130 colleges and universities are owned either by high-level officials or their relatives, an investigation by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service has revealed.
It’s a scenario that has developed since 1993 when post-Soviet reforms in the country’s higher-education sector first allowed private schools.
Later reforms transformed most Soviet-era colleges and universities into joint-stock companies -- splitting their ownership between the state and private individuals or corporations.
One prominent example of private ownership by relatives of well-connected public officials is the family of the former Education and Science Minister Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov, who is now an influential lawmaker in the upper chamber of parliament.
As a long-time ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the 67-year-old Zhumagulov served as the acting chief of the ruling Nur Otan Party from its formation in 2006 until Nazarbaev formally took over its leadership the following year.
Zhumagulov also served as the rector of Kazakhstan’s flagship Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and was deputy chairman of the lower chamber of parliament, the Mazhilis.
When Zhumagulov was education minister from 2010 to 2013, he himself complained about vested interests blocking efforts to reduce the number of colleges and universities in the country.
“There is someone from Astana behind every higher-education institution -- lobbying interests,” Zhumagulov told journalists in 2013. “This exists among the deputy corps. It is in the government. It is in all central bodies. People are lobbying so that we do not cut these higher-education institutions.”
However, official registration documents obtained by RFE/RL list Zhumagulov’s wife, Valentina Zhumagulova, and his son, Ruslan Zhumagulov, as the owners of five colleges and universities in Kazakhstan.
Zhumagulov’s wife also is listed as the owner of the Independent Agency for Accreditation and Rating.
Headed by Zhumagulov’s daughter, Alina Zhumagulova, that accreditation agency is one of several private firms that receive government contracts to evaluate the quality of higher-education institutions.
Another notable figure with a close relative invested in Kazakhstan’s colleges and universities is Murat Zhurinov, the president of the National Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan.
Zhurinov was the education and science minister from 1995 to 1997 when there was a spike in the number of new private schools in the country.
State registration documents list his son, Galymzhan Zhurinov, as the owner of the International Humanities and Technical University that was founded in 1998 in the southern city of Shymkent.
When that school merged in February with the Mardan Saparbaev Institute, Galymzhan Zhurinov became one of the founders of the reorganized institution, the Central Asian Innovation University.
Registration documents also reveal that the owners of dozens of other higher-education institutions include former aides of Nazarbaev, former university rectors with close ties to Nazarbaev, lawmakers, and the relatives of former ministry officials.
Dubious, But Not Illegal
There is no law in Kazakhstan prohibiting the relatives of ministers or former senior officials from owning a college or university.
But Elise Ahn, an expert on higher-education institutions in Central Asia, says Kazakhstan’s system itself “creates the perception that there is a high degree of nepotism and corruption.”
“That perception can really serve to undermine the legitimacy of these institutions and the system as a whole,” says Ahn, who heads the International Projects Office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ahn says she views RFE/RL’s investigative reports on the issue in the “broader context" of Kazakh politics.
“There has been a lot of robust research demonstrating the connection between nepotism and corruption within the broader institutional landscape in Kazakhstan,” she says.
“It’s not just about a one-off case or even the entire sector,” Ahn says. “It’s really about the situation for higher education in Kazakhstan’s broader transparency landscape.”
In fact, she says, an argument can be made that ministry officials and former officials from the education sector are “familiar with the system and presumably would share the same ethics.”
On the other hand, she says, cases like the Zhumagulov family’s control over the Independent Agency for Accreditation and Rating are seen in the West as a clear conflict of interest. That is, unless the family members recuse themselves.
“If you are an accrediting body, particularly in the private sector, you’re essentially evaluating your competitors,” she explains. “There is an inherent conflict of interest there.”
Still, Kazakhstan does not have any conflict-of-interest laws that make the practice illegal.
Ahn notes that there is “a similar type of tension” in Kyrgyzstan, where there has been a “dramatic uptick in the number of accreditation agencies in the country with both former higher-education administrators as well as faculty.”
Researcher Mihaylo Milovanovitch, a founding member of the Sofia-based Center for Applied Policy, says the problem isn’t limited to academic institutions in Central Asia.
In a 2018 study published by the International Higher Education journal, Milovanovitch warned that conflict of interest becomes “problematic when officials have a financial interest in the sector that lobbies them and for which they are responsible.”
Milovanovitch noted that the education ministers in Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia, and Ukraine all were implicated in conflicts of interest in 2016.
Deputy education ministers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine, as well as some cabinet members in Armenia and Kazakhstan have also been accused of having conflicts of interest.
These ranged from having an active "for-profit affiliation" to expectations of going through the “revolving door” into a salaried or shareholder position at a university after leaving government posts, the study said.
Milovanovitch found that for-profit affiliations with universities also were common among lower-level heads of departments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Russia, and Serbia -- as well as among education-focused lawmakers in Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine.
Transformed Soviet Legacy
Before the Soviet era, there were no colleges or universities in what is now the territory of Kazakhstan.
Soviet planners changed that in the mid-1920s by setting up five public institutions to kick-start a mass-education program aimed at preparing teachers and specialists.
The first one created was Kirov Kazakh State University in Almaty, now known as Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.
For decades it was the only “classical” university in Kazakhstan with multiple faculties and departments. It remains the largest university in the country and, like a handful of other Soviet-legacy schools with “national” status, is still owned by the state.
The goal of Soviet-era planners was to prepare students who could help sustain the U.S.S.R’s objectives -- including goals such as universal literacy while also instilling a commitment to Communist Party ideology.
From 1927 to 1932, central planners set up another 15 higher education institutions in Kazakhstan that expanded the focus of instruction to include medicine and agriculture.
Soviet administrators continued to establish new schools into the 1970s with the aim of producing specialists to work in Kazakhstan’s developing industries, such as the oil and gas sector.
When Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991, there were a total of 55 state-owned, higher-education institutions in the country ranging from trade schools and colleges to universities.
But those schools were disadvantaged by their Soviet legacy. Their emphasis on political ideology left them isolated from international trends in education.
Most suffered from poor financing and had narrow specializations such as preparing students to become engineers or teachers.
Nazarbaev argued that education was the key to transforming post-Soviet Kazakhstan into a globally competitive market economy.
He and the government launched ambitious reforms they said would raise the quality of higher education to international standards -- starting with a regulatory framework.
The Higher Education Law, passed in 1993, allowed private colleges and universities to operate in the country, though they still had to work under the control that the Education Ministry inherited from the Soviet era.
By the 1996-1997 school year, 32 more colleges and universities had opened in Kazakhstan. Most were privately owned.
At the end of 1990s, there were 114 higher education institutions in the country.
The next major reform came in 2000 when legislation allowed the partial privatization of state-owned schools that had been founded during the Soviet era.
That scheme transformed most of those schools -- with the exception of those deemed as “national” institutions -- into joint-stock companies.
While the state retained partial ownership under the joint-stock reform, private individuals or companies picked up the remaining shares.
In many cases, the prices paid by private interests for their shares have never been made public.
The joint-stock reform led to an explosion of partially privatized schools in the early 2000s.
Along with new private schools, the number of higher-education institutions jumped to about 160.
But Ahn says the lack of emphasis on transparency and governance of schools brought new problems.
Some schools were seen as nothing more than “diploma mills” that “only existed to take in tuition revenue” and didn’t even offer actual classes, she says.
“People were essentially just paying for degrees” at both the undergraduate and graduate level, Ahn says.
“The Education Ministry started looking at this dramatic increase in the number of institutions and realized that it was counterproductive to have so much competition with little-to-minimal quality assurance,” she says.
“So in the 2010s we saw a contraction of the number of institutions operating in Kazakhstan,” she explains. “At one point, there was a 20 percent decrease in the number of institutions operating as these different types of entities.”
Recently, under President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, the trend appears to be reversing again toward the creation of more schools.
In November 2020, Toqaev announced that his administration wanted to open at least 20 new institutions with a focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and digital technology.
“Toqaev has made the opening of new [educational] institutions a priority of his administration,” Ahn says, adding that a similar expansion is under way in Uzbekistan as President Shavkat Mirziyoev diversifies the higher-education system there.
But Ahn says the reforms Kazakhstan really needs to implement to bring higher education more in line with international norms is to “introduce structures emphasizing things like transparency and governance that permeate throughout all levels of the institutions.”
“There are a lot of shell companies or [unknown] people, and a lack of information” about the owners of some private Kazakh schools, she says. “There is large-scale corruption, certainly, related to how money does and does not travel -- particularly through joint-stock companies where the finances of institutions aren’t quite transparent.”
With joint-stock companies, she says, there aren’t clear rules regarding governance -- rules about “who can be on the board [of trustees] and conflicts of interest,” she concludes. “That adds another layer of complexity about trying to develop a better understanding of finances” and in whose interest decisions are being made.
Meanwhile, on a micro level, smaller strides are being made in Kazakhstan to establish norms on ethical practices in teaching and learning.
One example is a network formed by prominent universities around academic standards -- known as the Consortia on Academic Integrity.