The Transformation of University Management in the Context of Triple Helix: Perspectives from Kazakhstan



Kazakhstan puts the modernization of the higher education system at the heart of its economic development strategy pursuing the ambition to cultivate the human capital in the country with strong competences and skills relevant to the current trends of “knowledge economy” and “industry 4.0” having an ambition to make a leap towards intensified R&D that could drive the national innovation system.  With the national economy heavily skewed towards resource based industries, the government strives to stimulate a shift towards socio-economic developments boosting innovation processes.  That innovation transforms the entire nature of collaboration between public institutions, businesses, civil society, science and education and makes it crucial for universities to steer towards quality transformation processes.  It is recommended that universities should enhance their capacity and increase their role through best international practices, such as managing HEIs like business enterprises.


  1. Introduction

Dependence on its commodities exports exposes Kazakhstan to external shocks and threatens long-term economic development plans.  Another challenge for the industrial pillars of the country is the growing attention on green technologies and public pressure on using environment friendly sources of energy (OECD, 2017 a).  These factors taken together mean that Kazakhstan can choose to absorb the world’s best practices applying them in the national context and leaping into the cohort of the countries with an innovation index that allow for economy efficiency.  Or risks lagging behind trying to catch up with never-stopping shocks that are caused by global interconnectedness.

The world economy is always seeking for the balance, it would be shortsighted to say that the imbalance came since 2008; cyclical shocks in the economy were conceptualized by Kondratiyev (Grinin, Korotayev and Tausch, 2016).  More than this, Schumpeter sent a clear message to the twenty-first century: be prepared to start from zero, do not thrive on old achievements as disruptive innovations can reduce to nothing all your past achievements (Schumpeter, 2011).  The Government of Kazakhstan hopes to boost its national innovation system (NIS) by means of developing regional innovation systems (RIS).  The country has long term plans to start nourishing its budget getting benefits from innovation-based economic activities (OECD, 2017 b).

Kazakhstani universities are not only the participants of triple helix interactions within the country, but like other countries’ HEIs, they are the transnational stakeholders of an internationalized world economy thanks to the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services which made higher education services a tradable commodity.

Being exposed to both societal challenges and global interconnectedness, universities in Kazakhstan adopt internationalization policies that suggest ready to use toolkits as the measure to tackle immediate challenges.  Catching up with international education trends, local HEIs have chances to benefit from “knowledge immersion” irrespective of physical borders safeguarded by law.  Academic institutions can naturally play a key role in achieving competitiveness and solving societal challenges through adequate research and supply of properly skilled human capital.  However, to do this, organizational and institutional innovations are required to reconsider the ways universities are run (Asheim, 2017).


  1. Government Hopes and Aspirations: National Policy Vectors

According to public policy in Kazakhstan regional cluster development is supposed to supplement sector development for economic growth and increase competitiveness of regions.  The government understands that the foundation for cluster policy is the triple helix principle and that the top down approach cannot stimulate innovation, it happens in the synergy of cluster participants where large enterprises are not necessarily the change agents in innovation development.  In 2004 the Diversification of Kazakhstan’s Economy through Cluster Development in Non-Extraction Sectors project was launched.  The development strategy was supposed to be implemented by promoting seven clusters identified to form the drivers of economic growth: tourism, metallurgy, textiles, construction, agriculture and food processing, oil and gas machinery, logistics and transportation.

Another governmental incentive formulated the territorial (regional) development of the country up to 2020.  It aims at nurturing centers of economic growth in five cities of Kazakhstan (Nur-Sultan (former Astana), Almaty, Shymkent, Aktobe, Aktau) that can be integrated with regional and international markets.  The State Program of Industry and Innovation Development (SPIID) 2015-2019, following the State Program on Accelerated Industry and Innovation Development (STAIID) 2010-2014, with the budget of 878.3 bln tenge (appr. 2.3 bln US dollars) is also based on the cluster approach and is a part of the industrial development policy of the country.

Porter’s paradigm of economic development frames the Strategy where it writes that the country strives to implement a transfer from economy driven by a resource factor to the economy driven by innovation.  The program targets the stimulation of manufacturing industry enabling the growth of labor productivity and higher rates of processed goods export volumes.  The government hopes to build a flexible and adaptable economy by generating a critical mass of industrial entrepreneurship by supporting eight priority industry businesses (non-ferrous industry, iron and steel making industry, agronomical chemistry, crude oil refining, petrochemical industry, automobile manufacturing, foodstuff manufacturing, electric equipment manufacturing).  In fulfilling the Program objectives, some policies are followed in higher education and industry sectors (Irsaliyev et al, 2017):

  • specific country approach in international cooperation – attracting investment from China, Russian Federation, Iran, Turkey;
  • realization of strategic research in Astana Business Campus and Nazarbayev University prototyping national laboratories in the USA;
  • bringing together R&D centers, HEIs, and businesses for joint projects;
  • commercialization focus – transfer of HEIs research results at the expense of public-private partnership;
  • enhancing language competences among academic staff, industry employees, students and contributing to exchange programs;
  • creation of new growth areas and realization of sector-specific projects;
  • nurturing the critical mass of businesses with high index of innovation activity.


In the framework of the SPIID focus, HEIs are regionally selected to be preparing students with proper competencies and skills.  HEIs are expected to nourish the labor market which needs around 46000 skilled graduates in such fields as petrochemicals, metallurgy, electro energy, light and food industry, agriculture, automobile manufacturing, space, and IT for 257 regional and republican industrial projects.  Notably, the selected universities enjoy special financial schemes.

As an example, in 2015-2016 10 bln tenge (appr 263 mln US dollars) was allocated to equipping focus HEIs with updated laboratories.  One of the approaches actively being revamped in SPIID regional HEIs is dual education or blended learning when, for example, thirty percent of study time is spent on an industrial site (Vaida, 2017).  Selected regional HEIs are supposed to help economy diversification with extensive applied research.  This, in turn, should stimulate commercialization of research results in the manufacturing sector.

Another applied practice on the way to modernizing the economy is technology brokering, which is developed at the platform of Alliance of Technology Commercialization Professionals which helps with consultations on commercialization of projects.  Notably, this organization was established as an outcome of the Ministry of Education of Kazakhstan and World Bank cooperation.  Within this platform, partnerships with international experts such as the International Science and Commercialization Board, for instance, are developed.  As a measure of financial stimulation of Alliance activities, 110 US bln dollars were injected through World Bank funding projects on productive innovation.

In recent years a number of institutions appear that build the foundation for national innovation system.  The notable participants of the maturing triple helix system in Kazakhstan are the National Managing Holding “Baiterek” and its branch organization – KazTech Ventures, “Atameken” – the Olga Sudibor <*email address protected*> Chamber of National Entrepreneurs, Astana Hub – International Hub for IT Startups, the network of special free economic zones, Astana International Financial Center, Almaty Tech Garden.

A brief overview of public policy reveals that national vectors of triple helix development encompass the internationalization factor.  Be it a theoretical framework or financial aspect, there is obviously reliance on existing international methods and measures on revitalizing relations between national innovation system participants.


  1. Transformation Challenges of Kazakhstani Universities

The landscape of higher education area in Kazakhstan is shaped by ten national HEIs having special status, thirty-two state (publicly run) HEIs, fourteen non-civil HEIs, one HEI with special autonomous status (Nazarbayev University), seventeen HEIs with share capital and corporate governance (joint stock), fifty-five private for profit and not for profit HEIs.  By 2019, universities of Kazakhstan have set up twenty-seven commercialization offices, twelve techno parks, and thirty-three business incubators, and 130 laboratories during the years of reform targeted at a greater merger of the higher education sector with triple helix participants (RK Government, 2018).  The European higher education dimension penetrated into the modernization agenda of Kazakhstan in 2010 with the application of Bologna principles in tertiary education development and contributed to large-scale internationalization.  This especially concerns such area as but not limited to as institutional autonomy (managerial, financial, pedagogical and research autonomy) that triggers quality transformation of universities into effective participants of the triple helix interactions.

Despite the extensive reform agenda in higher education, true autonomy has not been vested into universities because of traditionalism in managerial approaches when centrality of the government has been predetermining for decades the “right way” through guidelines and regulation.  Thus, there has not been proper room available for nurturing institutional higher education management accountability practices.  One of the conclusions of the Diagnostic Report by Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education (NU GSE, 2014) is that Kazakhstani HEIs got used to expect a centralized quality control and show compliance, rather than develop a culture of quality assurance and self-evaluation at the institutional level.

Among the challenges faced by Kazakhstani universities are “inadequate integration of education, research, and industry, lack of commercialization infrastructure with innovation managers and cultivating entrepreneurship culture” (NU GSE, 2014, p.110).

What proves that HEIs development is lagging behind public policy expectations is the appearance of a new version of the State Program on Education and Science development 2016-2019 published in 2018.  The following problems were formulated as the stumbling blocks hindering the progress of reforms (RK Government (2018):

  • academic programs do not meet expectations of employers as academic preparation does not cultivate sufficient competences and skill levels;
  • the graduates of technical/engineering programs reveal a low level of preparation;
  • corporate governance is not substantially developed in HEIs;
  • a lack of accountability mechanism;
  • attractiveness of higher education for international students is roughly 3.5 lower than the average in OECD countries.

The revised program puts more accent on the necessity to improve the management and monitoring of higher and post higher education, to increase the contribution of science into economic development.  The status of a researcher in the country and his potential to carry out the research, R&D infrastructure modernization are also in focus.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor held a survey in Kazakhstan which in a way discloses the success and pitfalls in undertaken reforms (GEM, 2017).  The surveyed experts are concerned with the process “knowledge transfer from universities and public research institutions to new and growing firms” (ibid p47) which seems to be ineffective.  More than this, experts are quite negative in evaluating the capacity of science and technology in Kazakhstan to facilitate creation of world-class ventures.  R&D transfer has the lowest scores in evaluating the situation in Kazakhstan compared to other indicators, which reveals that there is a structural weakness in the communication channels between those who create things (universities) and those who commercialize them (businesses).


Table 1

Evaluation of Entrepreneurship System in Kazakhstan

Category Average
Physical infrastructure 6
Commercial and legal infrastructure 5.21
Government policies: support and relevance 5.27
Entrepreneurial finance 4.9
Government entrepreneurship programs 4.64
Internal market dynamics 4.73
Entrepreneurship education: post-school stage 5.2
R&D transfer 3.1

GEM Kazakhstan National Report, 2017


To help the reforms in universities, the lower Chamber of Kazakhstan Parliament – Majilis – has approved the law which came in force in 2019 (Law of RK (2018).  The prerogative of the new law gives HEIs an opportunity to have their academic profile licensed (economic, medical, engineering, agricultural etc. specialization of the institution) instead of separate programs being licensed.  This should speed up the reactions of HEIS to labor market demands in preparing the programs with updated content without the necessity each time to apply to national agencies for licensing procedures.  The new law clears up the legal status of public HEIs in Kazakhstan: until now, public HEIs are regulated by the law on public assets which at times contradicts their basic mission.  Public universities are expected to be transformed into not for profit joint stock companies with 100% public ownership.  This measure should cultivate entrepreneurial incentives in managerial approaches that are used to run universities as well as provide a chance for stimulating commercial activities that can make the budget of the universities.  The government anticipates greater social responsibility from universities for outcomes, quality of graduates, and cultivation of a new type of thinking within academic society and students.

The change management at universities has started since the transition period in 1991.  However, it seems that it was a goal in itself without a clear future vision that HEIs management is to be aligned with the achievement of broader national goals.  Importantly, when the policy rhetoric outlined the role of academia in building national innovation capacity, it appeared that HEIs are not prepared to support the ambitions of the government.


  1. Lessons to be Learned

Triple helix interactions have always been dependent on the capability of the stakeholders of national innovation systems to harness tacit knowledge and turn it into the instrument of technological advancement.  This task has recently become more complicated.  The flows of data across the countries are 45 times higher compared to this trend a decade ago.  The dematerialized realm of knowledge started to produce a higher impact on the economy than flows of manufactured goods.  The rise of knowledge societies has brought the shift in the value structure: from physical to intellectual (Delloite, 2017).  Thus, the universities become a very specific element of utmost importance in the value chain of knowledge creation and knowledge transmission.  Local universities have to learn to manage knowledge effectively to bring more benefits to the national economy.

What becomes clear is that universities should learn to act like independent business organizations.  Current trends in higher education presuppose that academic institutions are in the same competition as firms or multinationals.  Traditionalism, inertia in university management should be eliminated or reduced to a minimum.  Popular policy clichés that universities should become more financially independent through crowd funding, attracting commercial projects etc. are easy to claim than do.

To help this process it becomes crucial to empower university boards with professional managers who can formulate adequate goals and seek workable solutions with given infrastructure, human capital, brand value, network etc.  Being void of business incentives, universities are unlikely to learn to be entrepreneurial organizations, the former hard to practice without a certain culture of learning organization.

To acquire such a culture that will breed the generations of entrepreneurial academics, universities should just realize how they can serve their local society, admit their weaknesses and build a management plan at all units on how they can jointly change the vectors of their development.  The recipe is easy – learn from international organizational management how to flatten the organization and decision making process, which stimulates personal innovation and speeds up the processes of internal and external communication.

It is quite difficult to stimulate local businesses for closer interactions with universities.  Neither the rankings of top universities nor international database of highly cited academic works prove there is a solid capacity within the universities to serve national innovation system.  At the same time a tiny minority of Kazakhstan firms can be classified as innovative.  For this reason, mobilization of national forces can be exercised through foresight activities which can stimulate fragmented efforts into more coordinated work among all participants of the triple helix system.  The ambitions of businesses and their commercial incentives can trigger new research approaches and experiments in academic laboratories.  Furthermore, the public sector can translate the legislature into an actionable guide for the university-industry interactions creating as favorable conditions as for foreign investors.  Nurturing nascent entrepreneurs since university time, contributing to open innovations penetration into businesses via knowledge transfer, providing preferential terms for venture entrepreneurs and business angels who support academia start-ups is about the concentrated and scrupulous cooperation of university, government and business.

What adds to the complexity of university management to help for effective interactions in triple helix is the globalization agenda with its threats and benefits.  The latter develops in parallel with internationalization which is believed to be a link to innovation (de Wit, 2015).  Hence, university management nowadays is about how to develop national triple helix vibrancy through the interactions with global triple helix system. Indeed, skills and competencies in future graduates are cultivated through academic mobility schemes and international internships.  Scientists create networks and apply for funding to international organizations proving the worthiness of their applications by joint research results.  Governments encourage international consortiums of universities and businesses to cooperate towards open innovations.  Internationalization seems to be the adequate response to how universities in Kazakhstan and in developing countries can increase their absorption capacity and build effective knowledge transfer processes learning from international counterparts.


  1. Conclusion

The basic assumption of this work is that more entrepreneurial and innovative universities have strategies, policies and organizational management that help them transform their organizations in accordance to both endogenous and exogenous factors that challenge their development.  Such universities align their policies with national interests as they are the inseparable part of the national innovation system, pursue their corporate interests and at the same time strive to establish trans-border cooperation to have access to international knowledge hubs.  Universities in Kazakhstan should be more empowered with substantial autonomy that will naturally prompt managerial approaches, processes, and practices enabling them to become efficient participants of the national and global triple helix system and, thus, contribute to the national economy competitiveness.



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Published by the Triple Helix Association  –  ISSN 2281-4515


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