Nazarbayev University
Graduate School of Education

Graduate School of Education

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The diploma disease in Central Asia: students’ views about purpose of university education in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan

Your article has an attention-grabbing title. What is ‘diploma disease’, what are the causes and why it is an issue?

The concept of ‘diploma disease’ was originally developed by a British sociologist Ronald Dore. Dore refers to ‘diploma disease’ as a disease of societies, characterised by a trend for individuals to increasingly attain educational qualifications. Diploma disease derives from modern bureaucratic organisations that rationalise their recruitment processes through a heavy reliance on educational credentials to identify suitable candidates. One negative consequence is that individuals may acquire jobs that do not necessarily require the credentials possessed. The phonemena is more pronounced in countries in late stages of development, where job opportunities are limited and competition in securing a job is so fierce that individuals attempt to earn more degrees to differentiate themselves from other applicants. 

While using qualification as a proxy for screening job candidates is rational for employers, the problem is that it makes educational qualifications  a ‘positional good’- a situation that scholars argue is not based on intrinsic value but rather on how many other people have it. The consequences of ‘diploma disease’ are ‘qualification escalation’ - an increase in qualifications required for a particular job, and ‘qualification inflation’ – a fall in the job-getting value of any particular qualification. This suggests that a particular job today, relative to 20 years ago, may require extra credentials even though the nature and scope of the position may not have changed. If employers are selecting purely based on extra qualifications, and because educational qualifications are used only as a sorting device, then additional credentials can be considered as a drain in resources for both individuals and the state, with negative influence on the motives for learning. In other words, the concern is when an individual seeks qualifications for ‘learning to get a job’ rather than for the sake of learning for its own sake, or for learning to do a job. My research indicates that both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are currently the victims of a ‘diploma disease’. 

In your article you focus on two Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the perspective of you research subject, which similarities and differences have you observed?

Both countries are currently experiencing a ‘diploma disease’; however, in Tajikistan it is more widespread, specifically because of its slower economic development and weaker labour market. In general, due to limited job opportunities, individuals are forced to earn more degrees to differentiate themselves from others in order to secure employment. The oversupply of graduates in both countries, particularly in the fields of social sciences has led to a situation where employers are hiring those with more educational qualifications and degrees. And this is not always because those jobs needs someone with a Master Degree or a PhD, or require certain advanced skills, but because employers are easing their recruitment process and hiring those that they assume are brighter, more persistent or may be from a better social class; or simply because they use these qualifications as an easy sorting device. Today we if look at many organisations in bothcountries, receptionists, administrators, assistants and clerks have a Master degree, a qualification that they may not necessarily require in undertaking their daily tasks. Even many drivers and security guards hold university degree, because working as a security guard at a UN agency or an international development organisation would help them earn a higher salary than a teacher. Such graduates are often overqualified for their job and unable to utilise their skills; thereby leading to low productivity as a result of lack of motivation.   

Which research methods did you use for this study?

A qualitative research method was used to gather information from university students in the two countries. Students were selected from four universities in each of the two countries. In total I conducted focus group interviews with 85 students in Kazakhstan and 87 in Tajikistan. 

According to your research, what are some of the key reasons for students to pursue higher education in Central Asia?

Despite differences in education systems, economies and employment opportunities, the purpose of university was largely viewed in a similar vein by both Kazakh and Tajik students. Economic incentives for attending university came out very strongly, yet many students also highlighted non-economic (social) incentives for the pursuit of university education. The majority of respondents stated preparation for future employment as one key purpose of university education. They saw university as an avenue to obtain new knowledge, skills and to specialize in an area and for better preparation towards a future career. And this is no different from students in other countries. 

Although non-economic benefits of university education were mentioned less frequently, it was clear that students were aware of such benefits. They considered university as a place that helps them grow as individuals who can eventually contribute to society and help other people. However, the social benefits of university education like contributions to political stability and democratic outcomes, and global engagement were hardly discussed. On the one hand, a strong emphasis of students on the economic purposes of university in these countries may be influenced by the rhetoric of policy-makers about the purpose of university. On the other hand, students may be more aware of the wider purposes of university, but focus predominantly on the economic benefits given current social and economic pressures faced by youth in these countries such as unemployment, fierce competition for jobs, low-income jobs, increasing cost of living, access to housing et cetera.

Based on your research, what recommendations will you offer to decision-makers in higher education?

My first key recommendation for policy makers is to shift the focus away from a sole concentration on the supply side of higher education, (provision of skills and knowledge) and pay equal attention to the demand side of higher education. The government must invest in education, yet effective benefits are likely to materialize only when there is an enabling environment for the graduates to effectively utilise their knowledge and skills, secure a decent job, thrive and advance in their field, as well as have the necessary support systems to be able to contribute to various spheres of social and economic sectors. My second recommendation is to create a strong alternative for higher education which is currently absent in both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and in in the wider region of Central Asia. One alternative is to strengthen the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system that can also develop skills demanded in the market. At present in both countries, many specialists in vocational areas are brought from outside of the region. For instance, a lot of the construction projects in both countries, particularly in Kazakhstan, are managed by Turkish companies which are most likely paid five times more than a local company. Why spend this money on international companies when such specialists can be trained within a local VET system? And perhaps if the pay would be increased for specialists with vocational education, we would not end up with so many university graduates who are unemployed or working in the service sector and menial jobs, with more individuals considering vocational education. Sure, there is the prestige aspect of higher education that has been there since the Soviet time and which drives many to obtain university education, however, in my opinion if quality of vocational education would enhance, and vocational skills are rewarded with a decent pay, we may avoid such a widespread oversupply of higher education graduates. 

You had an article published recently in Forbes Kazakhstan. It focuses on challenges of research on education in Central Asia. Can you please outline key outtakes?

The article discusses the key methodological and ethical dilemmas researchers face in the three Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These are challenges related to gaining access to participants and sites, obtaining ethics approval, research culture, use of secondary data, language issues, building trust with participants and dissemination of research. Most challenges were similar across the three Central Asian countries with some differences as well.  The article can be read on Forbes Kazakhstan website (https://forbes.kz//process/education/obrazovanie_1/?) , therefore, I will not dwell on the details mentioned there but I would like to highlight some of our key recommendations which include the need to: (i) develop a strong research culture and strengthen the research capacity at universities, (ii) integrate research results into policies formulation, (iii) integrate and apply research results into practice. One of the major issues with research in the region is that it largely stays on paper and as described by one of my participants ‘on the shelves collecting dust’. Of course not every piece of research can be easily applied; nevertheless, those that are conducted with specific focus on identifying strategies for reforms or improvement of practices are expected to be taken into consideration when specific strategies and reforms are developed. Overall, but for Kazakhstan in particular, good progress is being made in terms of building a research culture and capacity with much more funding available for research, and deeper collaborations developed locally and internationally. Yet, improvements are still needed in removing bureaucratic  systems and practices that sometimes hinder research.