Quality of Education Is Government’s Top Goal

The first two years of the State Programme for Education Development for 2011-2020 have been completed and it’s time to assess its first challenges and achievements.

1365703184All the initiatives we are launching have the goal of achieving a new quality in national education, to fulfill the goal set out by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in his most recent address to the nation. The most important of them, in my opinion, are e-learning, per capita funding, quality control at the national level, an entirely new teacher training system based on the Cambridge University programme, and the independent certification of college and university graduates.

We are also working to raise the quality of higher education through upgrading the curricula, academic mobility, inviting more than 1,000 of the best foreign professors every year and improving interuniversity networking.

E-learning brings the most fundamental change to the learning process at all levels from elementary school to university. It is no longer a rarity worldwide, but an integral part of everyday life, especially among young people. Not only are students able to read books from computers, tablets and other appliances, but – and more important – a textbook turns into an interactive learning system that can pose questions and explain what is unclear to them. This is complemented by modern multi-media opportunities offering lectures and tutorials by the best lecturers and scientists, assisted by graphics, and video.

All this expertise makes learning much more enjoyable and fruitful: in developed nations making widespread use of e-learning, academic performance is improving by 15 percent to 20 percent. As a result, students enter independent life with far greater stocks of knowledge.

In 2011, we launched a pilot project in 44 educational institutions. Since then, about 600 schools and colleges have joined it, and their number is growing constantly. In three or five years, the vast majority of schools will implement this programme. That will improve knowledge and bridge the gap in education quality regionally, and between urban and rural areas. Regardless of where students live and study, e-learning will provide them with educational materials of the highest quality.

We have already introduced more than 7,500 digital educational resources including e-textbooks and manuals, video tutorials, other e-books. They already account for about a third of our secondary education content.

A teacher’s role is not reduced by the new teaching aids. It grows through the effective use of the new learning tools in combination with traditional ones.

With the onrush of information provided by the Internet and global communications technologies, a student has far more data to digest. Therefore, the role of a teacher changes in quality, making him or her the conductor of a huge orchestra of knowledge presented to young minds. Teachers not only have to teach their subjects, now they also have to research their own information unassisted, find what’s important and filter out useless and even harmful information.

E-learning in Kazakhstan is in many ways different from other countries. It includes two more levels: management of the learning process and of educational institutions. Teachers get automated tools for academic planning: They can prepare their scheduling, lesson planning, monitoring of the learning progress, and school administration tasks online.

The Ministry of Education and Science server at Kazakhtelecom and regional servers will store overall information and teach-ware, offering a selection of the world’s best educational resources. They will also filter online access to harmful and distracting resources. The advantages of this approach are obvious, and the state is prepared to spend any expense on this system.

From September 1, we will launch a pilot project for the per-capita financing of 50 schools in four regions. Eventually the programme will be universally implemented. The project has two aims: first, to equalize conditions for quality education throughout the country; second, to raise its quality.

At present, costs per student differ in various regions by up to 250 percent. Thus, even though we can guarantee free secondary school education everywhere, we cannot yet guarantee that it will be equally effective everywhere. With a per capita normative figure set for each student, equal funds will be allocated that will remove dependence of education quality on the place of study.

Teachers’ wages will be differentiated, too. We will create a new special fund to motivate them to be more effective and more motivated.

Per capita funding will lead to real competition among schools. As President Nazarbayev said, “Money should follow the student.” This means that if a student and his or her parents are not satisfied with the teaching quality of a school, they are entitled to choose a better one, along with the expenses due to them. That will motivate schools to improve if they want to survive.

The schools will move to the economic management mode and will have supervisory boards. These boards will not be mere figureheads with only nominal functions like parent committees. They will be vested with considerable financial responsibilities and with the power to appoint the school’s administration.

Per capita funding is already being successfully applied in pre-school education.

In technical and vocational education, we have very few professional trainers, and they are underpaid: We therefore propose to budget 1.6 billion tenge ($10.6 million) to recruit 1,620 trainers to our vocational schools. But this is only half the story. This training must be tailored to the real requirements of employers, for our graduates to be in demand on the labour market.

We are, in fact, building a completely new qualification system, for which the international experience has been studied and which responds to the real requirements of employers.

The verification of vocational graduates’ qualifications will be carried out, not by schools, but by the employers hiring them. To serve this need, three independent qualification centers have been established.

A dual education system has been created in which students learn most of the skills they need not in college, but on the job. Local governments are also responsible for graduates’ employment.

The state education savings system has been designed to expand access to education, and to help families save for their children’s university and college education. In addition to the interest paid on deposits, we are planning to add a state bonus of 5 percent per year and in some categories of 7 percent per year. I think it is a good incentive to expand educational opportunities for children, even in families with only moderate incomes.

Another innovation we are introducing in higher education is diversification in the funding to it. Today, the main source of funding for students attending domestic universities is student fees, and in private universities they are the sole source of income.

However, international practice shows that universities with diversified funding sources do better. Their main income does not come from tuition fees, but from central and local government bodies, businesses, endowments, foundations, philanthropists and other outside organisations. Their students get a more expensive and sound education compared to the mount of expenditure spent on them. This would be a good model for us to follow as well.

Therefore, public investment in higher education is being increased, first through government grants. Three or four years ago, they covered the tuition costs of 20 percent of students. Today, they cover the costs of nearly 33 percent of them.

In addition, our new education savings system over seven years will cover 15 percent to 20 percent of tuition costs, and another 20 percent to 25 percent. That will leave 60 percent of tuition costs for students and their families to pay. This is a direct benefit to citizens and a real diversification of financing for higher education through increasing the share of the state in shouldering these costs, whether they are for state or private universities.

Kazakhstan universities are rapidly improving in quality. Their focus is on improving their quality of training and response to the economic demand from state companies and the private sector. Universities with a strong teaching faculty, modern facilities and teach-ware and effective contacts with the labour market are able to provide sound training. Finland provides us with an example of a country with a system from which we are learning much.

Unfortunately, many private universities still function deplorably short of modern standards, mostly in terms of their logistical base and their faculties. They filled the niche of being least expensive institutions, offering only majors with theoretical knowledge, but still charging high tuition fees. In such colleges, often the emphasis is not on full-time education but on a less costly extramural experience. We all know that the quality of such training is poor and in fact those institutions are just “diploma factories” where the level of knowledge is questionable.

Today, their total volume of annual graduates outnumbers graduates from more prestigious and reputable establishments. The continuation of this trend is very dangerous.

Another problem is that our universities are oriented to the population’s demands. They often emphasize courses for the so-called “prestigious” professions such as lawyers and economists, and forget about the main consumer they need to serve: the national labour market.

Therefore we need to introduce serious improvements into the system.

We need to carry out a process of merging smaller universities, strengthening their human resources capacity and orienting their courses to the real needs of the labour market.

Already, the number of universities has been reduced from 149 to 136. This process will continue: It will include a detailed analysis of facilities and teach-ware, faculties and the demand for specialists. We will continue to upgrade the quality of state universities as President Nazarbayev instructed. The total number of students in the system will not be cut; all of them will have an opportunity for further studies.

The author is Minister of Education and Science of Kazakhstan.

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