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“Bolashak” Scholarship: an Attempted Breakthrough

«There has already been established an opinion in the society that the hopes placed on the “Bolashak” program had not been fulfilled. In turn, graduates of the program complain about the absence of special conditions. There is some truth in the position of each partie», – notes a philologist from Kazakhstan Aynash Mustoyapova in her article for CABAR.asia.


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Summary of the article:

  • Within the first decade of the “Bolashak” educational program, no significant contribution of graduates of the program to the reform of the country was noticed and a number of shortcomings were identified:
  • An analysis of the nearly 20-year implementation of the program showed the inexpediency of training within the bachelor’s program;
  • One cannot wait for the positive effect from the education of “Bolashak” students until real reforms in the economy and in the country begin;
  • Knowledge of “Bolashak” students would bring tangible results in teaching in the current conditions of Kazakhstan, in the absence of real reforms.

The depressing picture of deprofessionalization observed in Kazakhstan today in many areas of economy and in managerial sphere is a consequence of the ongoing personnel policy. The importance of the personnel issue is undoubtful and from the first years of the country’s independence restoration, great importance was attached to it. The creation of “Bolashak” educational program was among the measures aimed at training of the new format specialists for the country’s reforming economy.

Almost 13,000 scholarships were allocated for a significant 25-year period of the program. Photo: bolashak.gov.kz
In the light of the year of youth announced in the country, the alarming tendency for outflow of the youth from the country and also considering the fact that for a quarter of a century “Bolashak” program has been implemented in Kazakhstan, it makes sense to sum up some of the personnel policy part in which the stake was placed on youth.

“Bolashak”: Good Intentions

The goal of “Bolashak” program was to train personnel and specialists for priority sectors of the country’s economy. From 1993 to 2004, when many processes in the country were brought into line with international standards, the training of specialists in the socio-economic sphere was mainly relevant. However, after the first decade, a significant contribution of program graduates to the country reform was not observed. At the same time, a number of shortcomings in the implementation of the program were identified, including insufficiently transparent selection of fellows, the main criterion in which was not always the knowledge of applicants, as well as the fact that some program graduates, having completed or even not completing their studies, preferred not to return to the country. In addition, the issue of the graduates’ distribution, the mechanisms for working off or returning funds in case of the contract terms violation was not fully resolved.

Knowledge of “Bolashak” students would bring tangible results in teaching in the current conditions of Kazakhstan, in the absence of real reforms. Photo: bolashak.gov.kz
A single program administrator – the Center for International Programs JSC was created in 2005 to ensure a more objective selection of fellows, monitoring the process of training and employing program participants. Due to this, more stringent requirements for the return of funds for studies were introduced, in case of a student’s dismissal or his desire not to return to the country. In addition, the list of study countries was expanded from 13 to 33, which included not only Western universities, but also the best universities in China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. The number of scholarships was significantly increased in the same period.

It should be noted that during the implementation, the program itself was transformed, striving to meet the priority areas of the economy and provide it with the most demanded personnel.

In 2008–2010, conditions for preliminary language training were proposed for such categories as graduates of rural schools, civil servants, scientific and pedagogical workers.

In order to meet the economy needs in 2011-2014, the program focused on training specialists in priority areas: engineering, medical, pedagogical and creative disciplines. At the same time, a program-targeted personnel training under a trilateral agreement: a fellow – an employer – “Bolashak” program, was introduced for individual sectors of economy.

“Bolashak”: a Quarter of a Century Later

An analysis of the nearly 20-year implementation of the program showed the inexpediency of training within the bachelor’s program. There are several reasons: the age of applicants, their psychological unpreparedness for life far from the usual language environment, the likelihood of an error with the choice of profession, maturity in a different country and culture, which complicated the subsequent adaptation and inclusion in work in Kazakhstan. In this regard, in 2011-2013, the preparation of bachelors was canceled, and efforts were directed to the training of postgraduate specialists (Master’s and Doctoral Programmes), as well as the organization of research and production internships at leading companies and universities of the world.

Almost 13,000 scholarships were allocated for a significant 25-year period of the program. Program participants studied at 200 leading universities of 35 countries, 44% of them graduated from the UK and Ireland universities, 26% in the USA and Canada, 13.7% in Europe, 8.2% in Asia, and 8 1% – in Russian Federation. In the context of disciplines, the distribution is as follows: humanities – 53%, engineering and technical – 38%, medical – 7.3%, creative – 1.7%.[1]
The picture looks optimistic and encouraging at first glance. However, the “Center for International Programs” JSC voiced the shortcomings in the program implementation, which can be observed throughout its history. For example, the total debt of “Bolashak” students, who somehow violated its conditions estimated in several billion Tenge, (the media mentions the figure of 782 people, and this is 6% of the total number of fellows. This “inaccuracy” can probably be regarded as acceptable, but it turns out to be too expensive for the country). Given that there are conditions for the return of funds spent on training, the financial issue in this case is not the most important. Much more damage was caused by the fact that the country did not get specialists in a specific period of time and in specific areas of economy.

The problem is not only in so-called “defectors”, but also in the fact that a significant part of the program graduates seeks to work in megacities, in every way detaching themselves from the place of work specified in the trilateral agreement. As a result, a small number of program graduates work in the country regions.

The five-year period of working off also raises the following questions. Is it a sufficient period during which a young specialist, having started his labor activity, would not only get into the swing of the work, but would also have time to bring significant benefits commensurable with the budget funds spent on his training? Can we talk about a contribution to the country’s economy if, after the 5-year term expiration, a “Bolashak” student either leaves the country or goes into his own business?

Even though the major part of “Bolashak” students work in the country, no significant effect from their activities is observed. This is because the number of specialists trained under “Bolashak” program is generally small.  In average 520 people per year for the long 25 years.  Neither 10 years after the start of program implementation, nor 25 years later visible results were not observed.

There has already been established an opinion in the society that the hopes placed on the “Bolashak” program had not been fulfilled. In turn, graduates of the program complain about the absence of special conditions. There is some truth in the position of each partie.
The first reason is their distribution: 47.2% – quasi-public sector; 12% – state agencies; 32% – private companies; 6.9% – foreign companies; 0.9% – public associations; 0.1% – diplomatic and international organizations.[2] Such an approach in the distribution of “Bolashak” students who received an expensive education at the state budget expense is an indefensible waste.

The listed areas are not those that can be an engine of economy and breakthrough projects. Giving a third of graduates to private companies is an absolutely inexplicable decision. Even 12.1% of graduates working in state agencies are a puzzle; how such an expensive specialist training is justified for such work, which is undoubtedly important, but not directly related to the approximation of economy, science and education to the best international standards. A bit less than half of all program graduates are in quasi-public sector, in fact it leads the program to help in implementing private interests and plans of its fellows. The personal success of “Bolashak” students, which is emphasized by the program representatives, are neither objectives nor the tasks of “Bolashak” program.

The second, more sound and the main reason of the low program efficiency is the absence of the reformed economy, for which the specialists were trained in leading universities of the world. One cannot wait for the positive effect from the education of “Bolashak” students until real reforms in the economy and in the country begin. Their quantity will not develop into quality. For long decades having merged in small batches into domestic economy, they will dissolve in the total mass, without being able to influence development or make significant changes in its one or another sphere.

South Korea: a Success Story

Why has a similar program in South Korea that was a model for us, turned out to be effective, giving significant results 10 years after the start of its implementation? It is not because the Korean youth studied better or worked more effectively. The point is that the country was rapidly restructured, and young people with Western education, taking direct part in many of the ongoing economic and educational reforms were in demand. It should be emphasized that South Korea, in comparison with Kazakhstan, was in incomparably more difficult starting conditions. After the Korean War, an education reform was held, and after this a process called “Westernization” began. During this period, only 20% of the population had secondary education, and 1% had higher education (see V.I. Ilyin. “Everyday life is being modernized in Korea”).

In 1950-1960s, many future members of the South Korean government, businessmen and scientists got higher education abroad, mainly in the United States, a smaller part in China, Europe and Australia. This first wave of Western-educated Koreans played a significant role in choosing the course of country development and in carrying out necessary economic reforms.

It goes without saying that at the beginning this broad educational program was a part of American economic support for South Korea in the post-war period. Then the government began to increase its own investment in education. Pak Jong Hee put forward the slogan: “The strength of the state in education. Education determines the fate of the country. ” And the country began to develop education.

The “South Korean miracle” is associated with the name of President Park Jong-Hee, who governed the country for almost twenty years. Photo: persons -journal.com
But this process did not go separately, in isolation from reforms in other areas of economy. While there was training in foreign universities, the government focused on the development of light industry, which did not require significant investments and highly qualified specialists. Hundreds of clothes factories have been launched in the country. Factories were built and technologies were purchased abroad.

Did South Korea have problems with the employment of new specialists, their return from the USA and Europe to their homeland, to the poor and underdeveloped country at that time? Of course, South Korean government faced these problems.

Already 10-15 years after the start of training abroad, there was an excess of them. Some specialists found a use in the education system, and the country received a quick and visible result in the form of a school education rise, a mastery of Korean schoolchildren in English. Most of the first doctors of science who have received scientific degrees abroad raised the domestic higher education. By the way, if in 1952 only 34 thousand students studied at Korean universities, in 1975 their number already became 296 thousand people. In 1990 it exceeded 1 million students.[3] Today, South Korean universities and, Korean education in general, are quite highly popular in the world.

However, in the 1960s, the use of specialists with a foreign diploma in the education system did not solve the problem of employment, and this provoked a short period of unemployment. The number of trained engineers significantly exceeded the demand. But a solution was found, and the construction of modern plants and factories in the country began. The process of the country industrialization predetermined the demand for high-level specialists, and first of all, these were engineers.

Ten years later, in the 1970s, it was no longer enough just to have highly qualified engineers; the country had needed scientists who were able to develop technologies. The rise of the industry demanded innovative ideas that would be competitive in the world. And then the South Korean government faced the task of providing the country with scientists and innovators. A number of measures were taken to increase the country’s investment in new technologies and, most importantly, to combat the “brain drain”, for which it was necessary to return those Koreans who were engaged in science abroad to the country.

The first research institute of the country – the Korean Institute of Science and Technology was established for this. The scientists began returning to their homeland. This resulted in the real industrial revolution. The number of people engaged in science increased by 2 times within 5 years (from 1975 to 1980). In the 1980s, the world began to talk about South Korea as a serious competitor, and former partners began to keep innovative developments secret from Korean scientists. In response, South Korea increased investment in research and development from 0.8% to 2.8% of the budget.

As we see, the competent implementation of the staff training program abroad has become both the starting point and the basis for effective implementation of a number of economic reforms in the country. As a result, the development of education, economic reforms, investment in technology and a value of human capital became the key to the success of South Korea, and allowed it to show an economic miracle to the world.

Let me remind you that 30 years have passed since the start of the educational program implementation in South Korea in the 1950s, until the country entered the world stage in the 1980s.

Recommendations: Escape From Nosedive

Domestic educational program “Bolashak” is being implemented for the 26th year. Can we state that “In fact, for two decades, a powerful stratum of society has been formed — specialists who have received world-class education? Does each of them in his place contribute to bringing the economy, social sphere, science and education closer to the best international standards?”[4] Unfortunately no.

As I see it, knowledge of “Bolashak” students would bring tangible results in teaching in the current conditions of Kazakhstan, in the absence of real reforms. On average, 10 thousand “Bolashak” students per 100 universities of the country would give each of them 100 instructors who have passed the foreign education system. This is where multiple effects would be expected. By the time reforms begin (they should be sooner or later), the country will have a significant number of specialists who are integrated into the format of modern Western or advanced Asian education, new knowledge, skills and approaches. Instead of uniting into one-class club of elite, “Bolashak” students through teaching could widely popularize democratic standard of behavior, modern values, and languages among young people. Thus, the significant results of “Bolashak” activity would exist in at least one area – education that affects all spheres of economy and forms the communication norms, approaches to study and work.

The effect of the program can be expected if we prepare a large number (60-70 thousand) of masters in a short time, for example in 3-4 years. Then you can expect that even due to their significant quantitative presence, they will be able to change the approaches, decisions, implementation culture and behavioral standard in many areas.

Taking to account the budget deficit, it makes sense to consider another option; to invite foreign teachers with a third of the disciplines of the current course (for example, applied) to all universities, for 3-4 courses students in all disciplines and organize a large number of summer schools for undergraduate and Master’s degree students.

But economic reform is at the forefront. Any good intentions are doomed to failure without a real change in the country. The reforms will make in demand the open-minded specialists with a good education. Then the youth will also have the opportunity to achieve their capacity, implement innovative ideas and make bold decisions. It means that they will not look for alternatives abroad. The young people will hear the call that the country needs them; the government is ready to create conditions for their successful work and application of their talents, only after the rapid begin of reforms.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

[1] “Bolashak” contributes to the formation of a cohort of highly skilled professionals. DKN. https://dknews.kz/citaite-v-nomere/zanbolat-meldesov-bolasak-sposobstvuet-formirovaniu-kogorty-vysokoklassnyh

[2] “Bolashak”: you cannot cancel and leave. Kursiv.kz. https://kursiv.kz/news/tendencii-i-issledovaniya/2019-02/bolashak-otmenit-nelzya-ostavit

[3] Industrialization: South Korean Experience. Kazpravda.kz. https://www.kazpravda.kz/fresh/view/industrializatsiya-uzhnokoreiskii-opit/?Print=yes

[4] “Bolashak” program has become a model for states seeking to develop human capital. Bolashak.kz. https://www.bolashak.gov.kz/kz/k-20-letiyu-programmy-bolashak/mneniya-expertov/313-aslan-s-rinzhipov-programma-bolashak-stala-modelyu-dlya-gosudarstv.html


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