For many young people in Kazakhstan, the major reason for such a “shift eastward” is the poor quality of national higher and secondary professional education. In many cases there is no or little correlation of the education with the labor market demands, leading to potential unemployment. Other reasons are high cost of education and living in cities as well as all-pervasive corruption.
Conversely, young people are attracted by the relatively low cost of university education in China, the growing international image of Chinese higher schools, chances to learn the Chinese language, the prospect of a prestigious occupation, and the higher salaries in Chinese and joint ventures. Surely, the geopolitical and geo-economic rise of China itself makes education in this geographically close country more attractive. Particularly, the higher education institutions of the neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are admitting more and more students from Kazakhstan and other countries of Central Asia. In recent years, China has become actively involved in global competition for students and promotes its universities in the world market both in South-South, and South-North directions. Its active promotion of educational programs and investment into the educational sector in Kazakhstan is considered part of China’s “soft power” policies in the Central Asian region.
Modern educational migration to China raises numerous questions regarding students’ motivation and plans for their future: to stay in China, to come back home, or to move to another country to work, and many others. The views of Kazakhstani people on the realities and prospects of obtaining education in China were studied in a 2012 representative social survey, conducted among urban citizens by the Almaty-based BRiF Central Asia Social and Marketing Research Agency, which confirms the impressive dynamics of educational migration to China.
According to the interviews, 16 percent of the respondents have had acquaintances, friends or relatives getting education in China at present or in the past. The survey also revealed a growing interest among Kazakhstanis both in obtaining education in China and specializing in Sinology in Kazakhstan. According to the interviews, 12 percent of the respondents are themselves willing to study in China, while 18 percent want such education for their children. 13 percent of the respondents would like to obtain a Sinology specialization in Kazakhstan, and 16 percent want their children to do so.
The regional profile shows that the desire to study in China is the highest in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital. Here, 27 percent of the respondents have acquaintances, friends or relatives, who study or have studied in China. 17 percent of the Almaty respondents want to study in China while 32 percent want Chinese education for their children. 27 percent of Almaty residents state that they want to specialize in Sinology in Kazakhstan and 39 percent that their children should do so.
Predictably, the share of those willing to be educated in China or specialized in Sinology is the highest among respondents aged 15-29 and among young people with complete or incomplete secondary or higher education. The national group profile shows a growing interest in Chinese education and/or specialization among Kazakh respondents, whose positive responses to these questions are 1.5-2 times higher than among respondents of Russian or other nationality.
Such educational preferences of Kazakhstani residents coincide with China’s plans to extend admission of foreign students. On June 7, 2012 during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Beijing, China declared its decision to deliver education to 1,500 specialists from SCO member-countries in Chinese universities over three years. Moreover, during the next 10 years, China will provide 30,000 state grants and will receive 10,000 students and tutors from its various international Confucius Institutes for education and advanced training. This goal was confirmed during the first official visit of PRC Chairman Xi Jinping to Kazakhstan in September 2013.
Taking into account the dynamics of student migration eastward through all channels ranging from governmental to private, the growing Kazakhstani interest in obtaining education in China as well as the PRC’s plans to extend admission of foreign students, educational migration and academic mobility from Kazakhstan to China are likely to increase. The potential outcome may be a “brain gain” since Kazakhstan’s labor market is replenished with a skilled labor force trained in China.
However there is also a risk of “brain drain” from Kazakhstan to the East, rather than to the West. Today, brain drain is manifested not only in an irrevocable intellectual emigration, but also in the transformation of temporary educational migration into permanent residence migration to the receiving country, the PRC. Dynamically developing China can provide new openings for professional and social mobility for university graduates in the country. Moreover, young people get married, creating channels of “matrimonial migration.” In sum, the eastward emigration of Kazakhstani students is inherent with great potential as well as risks.