By Albert Barro and Svante E. Cornell
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came to power, a series of reform packages focusing mainly on the political and economic sectors have been launched in Kazakhstan. But as has been seen in instances of public dissatisfaction over recent years, social issues are at the heart of the concerns of the population of Kazakhstan – a population that saw great improvements in living standards from 1992-2008, but somewhat of a stagnation since then. Having achieved middle-income status, many people in Kazakhstan now focus increasingly on the quality and accessibility of education, healthcare, and social protection. In his September 1, 2022, address to the nation, President Tokayev acknowledged this priority by focusing considerable attention to reforms in the social sector that would improve education, healthcare and social protection and in particular provide a more equitable delivery of services in these areas to the population.
In the education sector, Kazakhstan has a history of large and comparatively successful reforms. The Bolashak (future) program, launched almost immediately following independence, provided opportunities for high-achieving students to study abroad, and over ten thousand have done so. But Kazakhstan’s reforms have not focused solely on higher education. One of the most successful programs has seen the rollout of nearly universally available preschool education, and efforts to improve the status, pay, and training of teachers in primary and secondary education. Kazakhstan joined the Bologna process, and the implementation of nternational standards has done a lot to improve the education system.
Kazakhstan also invested in elite institutions – the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University, which have catered to high-achieving students. These institutions have obtained ample resources and have been highly successful – NIS scores in PISA tests, for example, are high above the average in OECD countries. Kazakhstan’s difficulty has been to replicate this success across the width of the education system. Access to education in rural and remote areas remains difficult. And whereas NIS and NU have benefited from academic and financial autonomy, the same is not the case for regular schools, whose principals have much less freedom to run their institutions the way they see fit. In other words, the rest of the public school systems suffers from state bureaucracy. And regular schools – particularly in rural and remote areas – lag far behind the NIS in standardized testing. This should come as no surprise given the disproportional part of the education budget that is allocated to the NIS and NU.
The question going forward is to what degree the NIS and NU model can be replicated in the rest of the education system – which does not benefit from having selected the best students and given them the most resources.
Human resources are a particular challenge: finding qualified teachers for the needs of Kazakhstan has proven difficult, and is made even harder by the government ambition to develop trilingualism: that not only should
Kazakh, Russian and English be taught, but that certain subject matters should be taught in these languages. While the initiative is laudable, in practice the country so far lacks teachers with language skills to be able to
teach in all three languages. This suggests that some initiatives in the education sector may have been overly ambitious; but it should be recalled that Kazakhstan has aimed high; and even if it has not quite met its own
ambitions, the initiative has nevertheless produced results as can be seen from the rapid spread of English proficiency in the country.
Healthcare reforms in Kazakhstan are in many ways similar to the education sector. Certain reforms have aimed very high and proven remarkably successful. Capabilities at the high end have been developed, including a medical school at Nazarbayev University, advanced cancer treatment and research, and the development of an indigenous pharmaceutical industry. In addition, Kazakhstan has rolled out a compulsory health insurance system that is sustainable in the long run. Just as in the education sector, however, the difficulty has been in scaling these advances up to meet the needs of society as a whole. One challenge has been to provide adequate primary healthcare services that run independently of major hospital systems. Another has been to train enough medical staff to provide adequate coverage of the population. Indeed, Kazakhstan needs to double the ratio of doctors per capita to meet the OECD average. In particular, providing adequate access to medical services in rural and remote areas has proven difficult to implement.
Still, the advances are visible. Before the pandemic, Kazakhstan saw rapidly improving life expectancy numbers, reaching 73 years, a strong improvement over numbers in the 1990s. While the pandemic was a temporary setback, the country has also learnt valuable lessons on the weaknesses of its healthcare system.
In the field of social protection, Kazakhstan has succeeded in putting in place an adequate system to protect the unemployed, the disabled, as well as mothers and children. In addition, a strong and sustainable pension system has been introduced. Still, the country faces challenges: an aging population that will complicate matters, and the continued persistence of high-level corruption and mismanagement of assets and investments.
Social reforms are intimately linked with the broader reform agenda that President Tokayev has made into a centerpiece of his presidency. The success of social reforms will depend in no small part on the development of the broader management system in the country and on the nature of Kazakhstan’s state institutions. The potential of social reforms can only be fulfilled if the political reforms aiming to change the nature and culture of state institutions, to develop a new reality where the state exists not for its own sake, but to provide services to the population of the country. Given President Tokayev’s stated commitment to seeing all of these reforms through, it remains to be seen how successful Kazakhstan will be along this path.