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The realities of Kazakhstan’s youth policy  

«The main reason why the young generation leaders of the country fail is the deprivation of freedom of action by political heavyweights, who manifest themselves in constant guardianship, as well as an excessive fear of making a mistake while on the post. In addition, it is worthwhile to understand that it is impossible for one young minister to change the system that has developed over the years by 360 degrees, which leads to further disappointments and failures,» – Anuar Temirov, a young analyst from Nur-Sultan, notes in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Short overview of the article:

  • Over the years of independence, Kazakhstan has achieved certain results in the field of education by launching the “Bolashak” program and opening Nazarbayev University and intellectual schools, however, other educational institutions also need reforms through optimization or enlargement;
  • Strong psychological pressure during the preparation and subsequent passing of the Unified National Testing is one of the reasons that Kazakhstan takes the first place in the number of cases of suicide among young people in Central Asia;
  • The recommendations of the World Health Organization on the adoption of a strategy aimed at reducing the number of suicides have not been implemented in Kazakhstan;
  • The active involvement of young people in solving problematic issues in the country should acquire a systemic character.

The year of 2019 is declared as the year of youth in Kazakhstan. Today, about 18.4 million people live in the country, out of which 22 percent, or four million inhabitants, are young people[1], whose category in Kazakhstan includes young people aged 14 to 29 years.[2]

The Concept of state youth policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan until 2020, adopted in 2013, is one of the key documents that is determining the policy in relation to youth in the country.[3] One of the objectives of this Concept is the accessibility to quality education and promotion of a healthy lifestyle, which should lead to the achievement of the goal – to unlock the full potential of young Kazakhstanis. The main agenda question in the society of Kazakhstan on the issue of youth policy: is it necessary to segregate youth from the general processes within Kazakhstan?

Education factor

There are 124 universities in Kazakhstan, and in addition to this, students have the opportunity to study abroad, primarily thanks to the “Bolashak” presidential scholarship program.

The program was designed to solve the acute issue of training for skilled workers in the independent state, which badly needed qualified specialists. Gulshara Abdykalikova, while being the Secretary of State of the Republic of Kazakhstan, noted that by 2018, over 25 years of the program’s existence, about 13 thousand people received scholarships and received the so-called status of “bolashakers”.[4]

A key risk for this program is the brain drain issue. However, according to Zhanbolat Meldeshov, the former head of the Center for International Programs, who is directly responsible for the implementation of the Bolashak program, only less than one percent of scholarship holders have not fulfilled their obligations. This factor indicates that the mechanism to deter the outflow of young specialists from the country who have gained education by this program, works.[5]

At the initial stage of the country’s independence, the first modern university of the country was the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP), established by decree of President N. Nazarbayev in 1992. KIMEP was designed to provide the state with qualified experts in the field of economics. Subsequently, in all other universities, a focus was shifted towards creating an economic faculty, which was considered “prestigious” among students and their parents.

These steps also coincided with Nursultan Nazarbayev’s proclamation of the policy “economy first, then politics,” which emphasized the importance of building, first of all, a successfully functioning economic model of the country, and only then building democracy and addressing civil society issues.

In those years, the phenomenon of the “economists and lawyers” society appeared in Kazakhstan, since all parents sought to send their children to law and economics departments. The desire to get into the law faculty in most cases was justified by the desire to “get to power” and become the boss, which today negatively affects the perception of law enforcement bodies and institutes of justice by society.

The above mentioned led to the fact that the leadership of the republic decided to start distributing a larger number of quotas for applicants who wanted to study at technical faculties in universities of Kazakhstan and open a modern university that will focus on training the country’s technical personnel.

In 2010, Nazarbayev University (NU) was opened in Astana, which is by far the best university in the country. It is worth noting that Nazarbayev University is based on the principles of the American education system, which is different from the system by which students apply and study at other higher educational institutions of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

According to information from open sources, about $ 18 thousand is allocated from the state treasury to train one future specialist at NU, which is 18 times more compared to the cost of one student at a national university in Kazakhstan.[6] A little earlier, in 2008, Nazarbayev’s intellectual schools were created by presidential decree, which serve as a platform for preparing future students for the main university of Kazakhstan. These schools also have a privileged status, unlike other schools in the country, and conduct training according to their own system.

Despite some successes, Nazarbayev University and schools, as well as the functioning of “Bolashak” will not be able to solve all the problems in training of skilled workers and providing a quality education, since to solve this problem systemic reforms are needed that should apply to the remaining 123 universities and numerous schools in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that Nursultan Nazarbayev in his speech at the opening of the Year of Youth voiced the idea that in each region of Kazakhstan it is necessary to create at least one top university and bring them closer to the standards of NU. The idea seems logical because one cannot exclude the possibility of appearing talents in other educational institutions of the country, which, while maintaining the current principle of financing by the residual principle, will not be able to reveal their potential within the walls of these institutions.

In a healthy body – healthy mind?

For many years, Kazakhstan has been actively promoting a healthy lifestyle. Politicians, starting with the first president of Kazakhstan, as well as public figures, are increasingly demonstrating their sports hobbies to the public by participating in various sports events.

The state is trying to respond to challenges, such as the spread of smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction among young people, which are blocking the way to build a healthy nation. Photo: akorda.kz

All this is no coincidence, as it carries a certain message for the younger generation. The state is trying to respond to challenges, such as the spread of smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction among young people, which are blocking the way to build a healthy nation. In Kazakhstan, 18.3% of adolescents and youth aged 11 to 17, who abuse smoking.[7] For comparison, in Germany, about 11.7% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 years have this bad habit.[8]

In addition, the problem of suicide is acute in Kazakhstan, including among young people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide possesses the second place on the list of most common causes of death among the age group of 15 to 29 years.[9]

According to WHO statistics, Kazakhstan has one of the highest suicide rates per 100,000 people in the world, and in Central Asia, the country is the absolute leader in this regard. The total figure in 2016 reached 22.5 suicides per 100,000 population, but the lion’s share in it covers a small age group from 15 to 17 years (11.77).[10]

Several factors indicate the possible reasons for the suicidal trend increase among young people in the country. Firstly, single-parent families where children witnessed the divorce of their parents. In Kazakhstan, over one and a half million marriages were registered between 2008 and 2018, but one in three of them fell apart.[11] The psychological pressure experienced by children haunts and presses them for the rest of their lives, not to mention everyday stresses.

Secondly, the youth of Kazakhstan is experiencing their first serious stress due to the risk of failure in the Unified National Testing (UNT) – the final exam after 11 years of schooling, which has been introduced since 1999 in the country. After cases of suicide became more frequent due to an unassembled passing score at UNT,[12] Kazakhstan has transformed testing since 2016, making it possible to retake the main exam of applicants.[13]

The leadership of Kazakhstan is actively working on strategic programs in the field of health, one of which is the “Densaulyk” (Health) program for 2016-2019. However, this document highlights only a few lines of the suicide problem in the country.[14] The World Health Organization recommends that all countries accept strategies aimed at reducing suicides, thereby recognizing the existing problem.[15]

For example, in 2009 in Uzbekistan, a suicide prevention strategy for 2010–2020 was developed and adopted, which provides an analysis of specific situations that occurred in the country, the country’s main suicidologists are indicated — those institutions that are directly involved in suicide prevention and specific strategic objectives are also identified.[16]

Kazakhstan should follow the example of a neighboring state in order to recognize existing problems (for example, underestimating the UNT in terms of psychological impact on young people, lack of monitoring and preventive measures in schools) and reduce the younger generation’s loss of life in peacetime.

A new generation of Kazakhstani officials: unfulfilled hopes or untapped potential

Those young people, who have overcome psychological pressure and taken advantage of the opportunities created by the state to obtain a quality education, are trying to realize themselves in work by using the knowledge they have gained. Kazakhstan is on the verge when a wave of young politicians has finally swept the country, and graduates of the Bolashak program and Nazarbayev University, who are succeeding in the professional field, are already appearing on the horizon.

For example, the former akim (mayor) of Almaty, Bauyrzhan Baibek, who is a “bolashaker”, revised the approaches of previous mayors, and carried out transport reform of the city quite successfully, which was aimed at creating pedestrian zones, increasing the network of bicycle paths and giving priority to public transport.

One of the most discussed appointments of the head of state, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, was the appearance of Askhat Aymagambetov as Minister of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Although, the new minister is not a graduate of “Bolashak”, he is actively introducing new approaches to openness in the Kazakh ministry, for example, building a direct dialogue with young scientists from Kazakhstan. With the advent of the young minister, active work began to increase honesty and openness when applying to Maters and Ph.D. studies, which should increase the level of confidence in the Kazakhstan postgraduate education.

Head of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan Askhat Aymagambetov. Photo: egemen.kz

However, there is a tendency in the state apparatus that young ministers, fail their work or are not remembered at their posts by any creative and fresh ideas that are required and expected from them. The failures of social policy related to the protests of mothers with many children in February 2019, led to the resignation of “Bolashak” graduate Madina Abylkasymova from the post of Minister of Labor and Social Protection and the arrival of an experienced national policy veteran Berdybek Saparbayev in her place.

The 10-year sentence of imprisonment for ex-Minister of National Economy Kuandyk Bishimbayev in the case of major embezzlement in the “Baiterek” holding, which also studied in the United States on this scholarship program, dealt a serious blow to the “bolashakers”. However, in place of the out-of-favor ex-minister came another “Bolashak” scholarship holder Timur Suleimenov, who had recently been replaced by Ruslan Dalenov. This suggests that the credit of trust in the fellows of the program has not yet been exhausted.

The main reason why the young generation leaders of the country fail is the deprivation of freedom of action by political heavyweights, who manifest themselves in constant guardianship, as well as an excessive fear of making a mistake while on the post. In addition, it is worthwhile to understand that it is impossible for one young minister to change the system that has developed over the years by 360 degrees, which leads to further disappointments and failures.

The depth of the problem lies in the broken connection between the period when young leaders who took the burden of responsibility got the right to make decisions and the time when they did not even have the right to make proposals on existing programs in the country, because everything was decided without their participation.

It is hoped that the decision of the current head of state, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to create a presidential personnel reserve, which will consist of 300 young managers, will become a new social elevator and a foothold for potential ministers and heads of regions to realize their potential and successfully fulfill all the tasks assigned to them. However, the question remains open: is it worth further segregation of youth policy from the general processes taking place in society, or is it necessary to take steps for early integration and socialization of youth not only in politics, but in all other dimensions?

European experience with youth policy: what is the difference?

In the European Union (EU), as well as in Kazakhstan, strategic documents on youth policy are being developed, however, an important difference is that European youth are very actively involved in the program development process and, most importantly, in further evaluation of the program’s results.

There are both long-term and short-term programs and initiatives. For example, the “European Union Youth Dialogue” forum works on a certain problem for the period 18 months, under the chairmanship of three states in the EU itself, further there is a rotation and, accordingly, the cycle is replaced by another.[17]

Adopted by the EU Youth Strategy for 2019-2027, priority is given to providing equal opportunities to all and actively pursuing inclusive policies in the member countries of the Union.[18]

These opportunities push young people to declare loudly their requirements, which are aimed at positive changes, and not at destabilization in societies and countries. A striking example is Greta Tunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who, with her calls for a revision of climate change policy, inspired thousands of young people across Europe to make their call through peaceful protests. Echoes of her demands are already heard during the discussions in parliaments of European countries that more attention should be paid to the problem of climate change.[19]

The Kazakhstan concept of equal rights is mentioned only once, affecting the issue of providing opportunities for people with disabilities. This fact is not surprising, because in the built-up system even such important projects as Nazarbayev University or Bolashak already create inequality in society, depriving attention of other universities and projects.

Conclusions and recommendations

The whole world has already realized that youth is the engine of progress today. Any field of activity is subject to the process of inevitable rejuvenation by personnel, who should boldly and clearly convey their ideas and thoughts on improving all vital processes in the state.

Based on this, it is necessary to understand that the youth policy of Kazakhstan should become part of a nationwide strategy in the full sense of the word. This can only be achieved through an active dialogue with young people and providing the young generation with a chance to vote on all issues of the country’s socio-political life. Separation of youth from all the processes occurring in the state will only create a gap between generations, which can become a threat to the irreversible process of a complete misunderstanding of the demands of society by the state, which are mostly formed by youth. By realizing the above mentioned faster, the society of Kazakhstan will have a chance that the future may come very soon.

The following recommendations should be taken into account:

  • Kazakhstan is ready for systemic reforms in which young people can actively participate. It is only necessary to encourage initiatives to improve legislation, develop programs and strategies among all young people, without making preferences for educational institutions where they studied or study, or their place of residence (city, village);
  • The Kazakhstani political establishment should recognize the problem of suicide in the country among young people through the development of a specific strategy, which will spell out the ways of its implementation and the adoption of which will be widely covered in the media;
  • The current strategies in the field of youth policy should be seriously revised, a real assessment of the implementation of the current concept should be given, and an active process of discussing the new strategy with the maximum involvement of youth in the process should be launched;
  • The school exam system should be seriously revised. The UNT format, which clearly does not reflect all the knowledge of future applicants, but is only aimed at memorizing factual material, should be reviewed even more seriously. It is worthwhile to carefully study international experience in this matter. It is necessary to get feedback from the graduates themselves, which testing format is most acceptable for them, reflecting the fullness of their knowledge.
  • The concept of privileged higher education institutions should be reviewed. It is necessary to create all conditions for the appearance of talents in all universities of the country. To do this, it is worthwhile to consider in detail a plan for enlarging (merging) some universities, implementing the project of Nursultan Nazarbayev on the creation of top universities in all regions of the country, which will seriously focus on training qualified personnel.

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] The number of youth in Kazakhstan is 4 million people // https://inbusiness.kz/ru/last/chislennost-molodezhi-v-kazahstane-sostavlyaet-4-mln-chelov

[2] Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan dated July 7, 2004 No. 581-II On State Youth Policy in the Republic of Kazakhstan // https://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=1049268#pos=5;-245

[3] Concepts of the state youth policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan until 2020 “Kazakhstan 2020: the path to the future” https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/hozyaystvennaya_deyatelnost/id-P1300000191/

[4] “Bolashak” scholarships will be 25 years old https://www.kt.kz/rus/education/stipendii_bolashak_ispolnjaetsja_25_let_1153665074.html

[5] How much Kazakhstan spends on bolashakers and are they valuable workers, TengriNews.kzhttps: https://tengrinews.kz/article/1110/

[6] State educational order for the training of specialists with higher education in educational institutions funded from the republican budget for the academic year 2018 – 2019 https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/obpazovanie/id-P1800000199/

[7] About 20% of Kazakhstan’s children are addicted to smoking, Kazakhstanskaya Pravda https://www.kazpravda.kz/news/obshchestvo/okolo-20-detei-kazahstana-zavisimi-ot-kureniya

[8] Sharp decline in smoking rate among German teens https://www.dw.com/en/sharp-decline-in-smoking-rate-among-german-teens/a-15735573

[9] Suicide: Facts and Figures, World Health Organization https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/infographic/en/

[10] Statistics Committee of the Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan http://stat.gov.kz/getImg?id=ESTAT241373

[11] The number of divorces in Kazakhstan is increasing every year, the Information Bureau https://informburo.kz/novosti/chislo-razvodov-v-kazahstane-uvelichivaetsya-s-kazhdym-godom.html

[12] The most high-profile suicides due to UNT in Kazakhstan, Media portal Caravan https://www.caravan.kz/news/samye-gromkie-samoubijjstva-izza-ent-v-kazakhstane-393660/

[13] Repeated submission of UNT will allow relieving social stress this year – MES RK, Official Website of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan https://primeminister.kz/ru/news/11/povtornaja-sdacha-ent-pozvolit-snjat-v-etom-godu-sotsialnyj-stress-mon-rk-

[14] On approval of the State Health Development Program of the Republic of Kazakhstan “Densaulyқ” for 2016 – 2019 http://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/U1600000176     

[15] National suicide prevention strategies: progress, examples and indicators, Health Organization https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/national_strategies_2019/en/    

[16] Strategy for the Prevention of Suicide in the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2010-2020, WHO MiNDbank http://www.mindbank.info/item/6763

[17] EU Youth Dialogue, Official website of the European Comission https://ec.europa.eu/youth/policy/youth-strategy/euyouthdialogue_en

[18] Engaging, Connecting and Empowering young people: a new EU Youth Strategy https://ec.europa.eu/youth/sites/youth/files/youth_com_269_1_en_act_part1_v9.pdf    

[19] The Greta Thunberg effect: at last, MPs focus on climate change, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/23/greta-thunberg

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