Graduate students’ perceptions about EMI in HEIs of Kazakhstan

Since the English language is the lingua franca of academia and research, English Medium Instruction (EMI) implementation has become a necessary requirement at secondary and tertiary education levels in many countries. Kazakhstan is no exception. The number of higher education institutions (HEIs) that have adopted EMI in their undergraduate and graduate programs has increased significantly since Kazakhstan gained its independence. However, despite an increasing emphasis on EMI, the vast majority of faculty and students in Kazakhstani HEIs face numerous challenges in academic reading and writing in English. Using an online survey of graduate students in 10 Kazakhstani universities, this study investigates the students’ perceptions about EMI and how these perceptions may correlate—if at all—with their gender, age, and previous academic degrees. This study found that participants’ perceptions of EMI and usage of local languages during EMI sessions differed based on their gender, age and degree. For example, the graduate students in the 18–26 age group considered the English language more important for their academic and future professional career than other age groups. Similarly, a statistically significant difference is found in the perceptions of Master and PhD degree holders. These results offer valuable insights into graduate students' learning process in an EMI context.


At the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s direction, the government of Kazakhstan began to establish universities and schools with English Medium Instruction (EMI). Among the first institutions which embraced EMI were the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP), Suleiman Demirel University (SDU), Nazarbayev University (NU), and Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS). The delivery of subjects in English was aligned with a cultural project, «Trinity of Languages», proposed by the President of Kazakhstan in his 2007 address to the nation, where he outlined the strategy for «Kazakhstan-2050» [1; 2], including a trilingual education policy that aims to integrate intercultural communication in Kazakhstani society and promote competitiveness of Kazakhstani youth in the international arena.

The emphasis on the English language has further increased as the government of Kazakhstan has decided to adopt the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the State Program of Education Development for 2011–2020, that aim at incorporating the national educational system with European standards as well as inserting particular amendments into a compulsory curriculum in terms of teaching subjects through the English language. Therefore, English Medium Instruction (EMI) has become popular in Kazakhstani secondary and higher education systems since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Universities in Kazakhstan have been actively introducing EMI in their academic programs, some of them using English as their sole medium of instruction. The higher educational institutions, where academic programs are delivered entirely in English, include NU, KIMEP, SDU, Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages (KUIRW), University of International Business (UIB), International Academy of Business (IAB), Kazakh-American University, and Kazakhstan-British Technical University (KBTU) [3].

Some research aimed to identify how university students perceived the delivery of subjects in English language based on their gender, previous education experience, types of university, and majors [4–9]. A quick review of international and local literature identified both positive and negative perceptions and attitudes towards EMI implementation. The theoretical review results reveal that greater attention was drawn to undergraduate students’ perceptions and experiences, and few studies can be found on graduate students’ perceptions of EMI. Similarly, not much is known about the correlations between graduate students’ perceptions and attitudes towards EMI and their education backgrounds. Thus, this study aims to identify the graduate students’ perceptions of the importance of the English language, the impact of their previous experience on their perceptions, and the challenges they face in academic reading and writing in English. In addition, the study focuses on filling the gap in research on graduate students’ perceptions of EMI and the correlation between students’ perceptions and their background characteristics, such as gender, age, and academic degrees.


As a part of a collaborative research funded by the Nazarbayev University, this study was conducted by researchers from NU, KIMEP, and SDU. All three institutions have EMI. The study was approved by the NU’s Institutional Research Ethics Committee (IREC).

Overall, ten universities voluntarily participated in this research project. These universities have graduate programs in EMI and represent both the public and private sectors, and different regions in Kazakhstan. Detailed information about the study, its purpose, ethical considerations, and expected results were shared with the universities before they agreed to participate in the study.

Research participants. The participants in this study are Master’s and PhD students studying in EMI programs. These students were invited to voluntarily participate in the study and fill in an anonymous online survey. As many as 320 students from 10 universities responded to the survey, which had both closed- and open-ended questions aligned with the following main research questions:

 What are graduate students’ perceptions about EMI?

 How do graduate students’ perceptions of EMI vary with gender?

 How do graduate students’ attitudes towards EMI vary with age?

 To what extent do prior or present educational degrees influence graduate students’ attitudes towards EMI?

 What are graduate students’ expectations about the level and type of support they need in their EMI program?

Data collection and analysis. The study applied a mixed-methods design, which includes a quantitative survey and qualitative interviews. However, the data used in this paper came from the anonymous online survey only. The online survey had both closed-ended and open-ended questions to capture the participants’ perceptions and attitudes towards EMI [10; 11]. The survey questionnaire contained 44 closed-ended and six open-ended questions. The survey questionnaire was sent to 50 % of Master’s and 75 % of PhD students in the 10 selected universities. The students represented both science and humanities subjects. As many as 320 students participated in the online survey, however, in the process of data cleaning, we could retrieve about 269 responses. Due to voluntary participation in the survey, some closed-ended and open-ended questions were not answered by some respondents. As the study mainly focuses on the correlation of graduate students’ perceptions and their backgrounds, the following perceptions variables emerged: the importance of the English language, the experience of learning the English language (students’ overall perceptions about learning English language), the impact of previous academic experience on their reading and writing skills, instruction in English and local languages, and confidence during oral presentations in English.

The closed-ended questions were processed using a Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software. One-way between-groups ANOVA and independent samples t-test analyses were run to compare groups of participants. In addition, descriptive statistics was applied to examine participants' percentages and mean scores. The open-ended questions were analyzed via the grounded theory method. In particular, open, axial, and selective coding were used to identify specific categories, commonalities, and subcategories among participants' responses.

Ethical considerations. Before administering the anonymous online survey, invitation letters and informed consent forms were sent universities. After the gatekeepers of the universities agreed to take part in the study, graduate students enrolled at the participating universities were sent an invitation along with an anonymous link to the online survey. The invitation letters and consent forms provided the participants with detailed information about the research project, its purpose, and the measures used to ensure their anonymity and confidentiality. The first page of the online survey contained the informed consent form. Students had the choice to agree or decline to participate. By pressing the button «I agree to take the survey», they confirmed their participation. They also had the right to withdraw from the survey at any time.

Literature review

The theoretical overview of the literature revealed the following themes related to students’ EMI perceptions: the importance of the English language, the experience of learning the English language, the impact of previous academic experience on their academic reading and writing skills, instruction in English and L1, and confidence during oral presentations in English.

Importance of English language. The studies conducted among undergraduate and graduate students revealed overall positive reactions about EMI teaching and the importance of the English language for various aspects. Students reported various benefits from teaching subjects through the English language, including better career opportunities, prestigious and well-paid jobs, higher positions, further education abroad, and broader access to world scientific databases. The research studies on Kazakhstani students reported students' conviction that EMI practice extends their chances of getting further education overseas and working in big cities in Kazakhstan or abroad [12–14]. Students’ perception of the English language as a global language of science and academia coincides with the opinion of faculty members and other educational representatives. In general, students of EMI consider English language proficiency as access to wider scientific resources, ability to publish in world-class journals since the English language is a predominant language for science and terminology [12–14].

EMI and the English language learning experience. Some studies claim that students' EMI experience may impact their everyday life communication and their performance in studies and other social contexts. For instance, researchers define such notions as code-switching and «translanguaging» [4; 15]. Moreover, since the teaching and learning process in the EMI context differs in some ways from such processes in other languages, including ways of presenting materials, writing styles, and text structures, some students borrow EMI strategies for their real-life situations. For instance, the research study conducted by researchers at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education identified that the students’ successful transitions of their academic skills into their work settings, such as using concise writing styles, oral presentations, clear structure for texts in Kazakh and Russian languages [15].

The impact of previous academic experience. Both undergraduate and graduate students perceive academic reading and writing in EMI sessions differently from reading and writing in their L1 medium. The main reasons were cultural differences and peculiarities in medium instructions in different countries. For instance, international studies have reported that even if a student is excellent at the English language according to the standards of their country, the writing standards and styles of EMI may differ substantially from what students are used to [16]. In addition, students' previous experience in academic writing in secondary school is different from the one necessary for EMI sessions [17]. Similarly, students’ previous expectations about academic reading might not relate to academic reading in EMI classes. Some studies showed that students lack computer skills, including searching online suitable sources while reviewing literature [18].

EMI challenges. In terms of EMI instruction, the main impediments along the process are a lack of human resources and a low level of English language proficiency for both faculty members and students [19– 21]. The major hindrance in teaching through EMI is low English language proficiency, which causes such issues as switching into the first language (L1) and lower quality of content delivery. In the context of Kazakhstani higher education, some faculty and other academic staff are from Soviet times and are not proficient in foreign languages, especially English [21]. As a result, there was a controversial view of the usage of L1 during EMI sessions. Chinese and Kazakhstani students had negative perceptions of the usage of L1 during EMI sessions, such as code-switching technique, and believed that EMI sessions should be delivered fully in English [22; 8; 23]. However, there was an alternative view on English as a medium of instruction. For instance, Korean undergraduate students preferred to use the L1 in some complicated disciplines during EMI sessions, as they considered their L1 as a medium of instruction that might facilitate content comprehension [16]. The research study conducted by Batyrkhanova [5] identified that some graduate students reported that the quality of English language teaching in rural area was not high, and they had to develop their own strategies and learnt English on their own. On the contrary, students who studied in NIS schools were able to improve their English language skills, and that experience helped them a lot in the future.

Students’ background characteristics and EMI perceptions. There are not many research studies on graduate students’ EMI perceptions in correlation with their backgrounds. Some international studies identified the impact of gender on English language skills development. Overall, male students were more confident in presenting oral materials and oral communication with peers and in front of the class [24; 25]. The age factor also impacts students’ perception of the importance of the English language. Some studies indicated that senior undergraduate students and Master’s students were inclined to believe in the greater importance of the English language for their career and study compared to their junior counterparts [25]. In the current study, we emphasize gender, age, and degrees of students in correlation with their EMI perceptions.


The current study aimed to identify graduate students’ perceptions about EMI, the influence of background factors such as gender, age and degree (Master or PhD) on these students’ perceptions and attitudes towards EMI, and the kind of support they expect from university services. The online survey included the following items in order to indicate the graduate students’ perceptions about EMI: experience; importance of English language; influence of previous experience on academic reading and writing skills; confidence during oral presentations; instruction in English language, and instruction in L1. Based on the analysis of the survey data, a number of findings emerged. These findings answer the main research questions that guided this study. In this paper, we discuss some of the key findings including, the correlations between the participants’ EMI perceptions and such backgrounds as gender, age, academic degrees, and participants’ expected support from universities.

The correlation between students’ EMI perceptions and their gender. An independent sample t-test was run to analyze the participants' means across gender factors. The analysis revealed statistically significant difference for such items as Instructions in English language t(257)= -2.417, p=0.016 and Instructions in L1 t(257)= -3.526, p=0.000, where the p-value was p<.05 (Table 1).

Table 1

Independent samples t-test for Perceptions of EMI differentiated by gender


Male M (SD)

Female M (SD)

T (stat)


p (two tailed)


3.54 (0.50)

3.62 (0.51)





3.86 (0.47)

3.84 (0.38)





2.18 (0.75)

2.07 (0.68)




Instruction in English

3.57 (0.70)

3.28 (0.83)




Instruction in L1

1.65 (0.92)

2.16 (0.99)




Previous Experience

2.60 (0.69)

2.74 (0.61)




M =Mean score; SD= Standard Deviation. Instruction in English p<.05; Instruction in L1 p<.05.

These results represent that the participants’ perceptions and views about EMI varied based on gender. For instance, male students (M=3.57) agreed that instruction in the English language was always used during their EMI classes, or most of the time, the score for female students (M=3.28) was a bit lower. In the same fashion, male participants (M=1.65) asserted that their instructors almost never used L1 in EMI sessions, whereas their female counterparts (M=2.16) confessed that L1 was sometimes used during their classes.

The independent samples t-test revealed that overall gender does not impact such perceptions of EMI as Experience, Importance, and Confidence. It has been identified that generally, female participants considered English language experience more enjoyable compared to male ones. Similarly, women were convinced that their previous experience helped them in improving academic reading and writing skills. That finding is aligned with the previous study among Turkish university students, where female students felt more confident about their progress in English language [7].

Both genders agreed that the English language was necessary for their academic and professional life with the moderate difference that the mean scores for male participants were slightly higher than that of females (Male M=3.86; Female M=3.84). Remarkably, the mean scores indicated that male participants (M=2.18) felt slightly more confident when presenting in English than their female counterparts (M=2.07). The previous studies also support the conviction that men might feel more confident during speaking sessions and in oral presentation as compared to women [24; 25].

The correlation between students’ EMI perceptions and their age. One one-way between-groups ANOVA was employed to examine the impact of age on graduate students' EMI perceptions. In general, the participants of four age groups were compared: 18–25; 26–35; 36–45; 46–55. According to ANOVA analysis, there were statistically significant differences in the items Importance F (3.255) = 4.720, p=0.003 and Instruction in L1 F (3.256) = 3.025, p = 0.030 (Table 2). Therefore, graduate students might differ from each other in their EMI perceptions (Importance and Instruction in L1) according to their age. The descriptive analysis shows that the participants in the age group 26–35 (M=3.95) considered the importance of the English language for their academic and professional life greater compared to participants of other age groups. Regarding the EMI sessions, students in the age group 18–26 (M=2.26) confessed that they were exposed to

Importance p<.05; Instruction in L1 p<.05.




P (Sig.)













Instruction in English




Instruction in L1




Previous Experience




instructions in L1 more often than other groups. There were no statistically significant differences for such items as Experience; Confidence; Instruction in English; and Previous Experience.

Table 2

One-way between groups ANOVA for Perceptions of EMI differentiated by Age.


The correlation between students’ EMI perceptions and their degrees. The independent samples t-test showed the statistical significance for Importance (t (117.920) = -2.901, p=0.004) and Previous experience (t (83.831) = -2.427, p=0.017) items, p-value is less than.05. For instance, participants' mean scores indicated that the PhD students (M=3.95) perceived the importance of the English language much higher than the Master’s students (3.82). The same result was for the previous experience item, where the PhD students (M=2.87) believed that their previous academic experience improved their reading and writing skills more than the Master’s students’ experience did (M=2.68).

Students’ support expectations. Although closed-ended questions show that graduates are satisfied with their learning in English, the responses from open-ended questions revealed that students hold expectations of their universities to provide more effective and timely English language support. Since the survey was on a voluntary basis, some open-ended questions were not answered by participants. Therefore, survey question related to the English support was answered by 66 % (178 out of 269) of participants only, while 34 % (91) left the questions unanswered. Out of this 66 %, 40 % of respondents expect help from their university and school, 36 % expect help from English language instructors, 15 % from thesis supervisors, and 9 % from faculty teaching content-based courses (see Figure 1).

In Figure 1, graduate students expect more English language support from their universities. Furthermore, these students’ responses to the open-ended questions in the survey revealed that they expect more comprehensive, constructive, and timely feedback related to the content of their work and academic language. Some students’ responses reveal dissatisfaction with the quality of feedback they receive. A significant proportion of students in each subcategory referred to having additional courses on academic reading and writing in English. In addition, students wanted some support in developing their critical reading and writing skills throughout their studies. Finally, providing individual consultation and guiding tasks were also requested.

Серия «Педагогика». № 4(104)/2021


Experience of English language learning. The results of the present study showed that almost all graduate students perceived their experience in learning English language as positive (99,2 %: Somewhat enjoyable — 38,2 %; Very enjoyable — 61,0 %), and merely 0,8 % of participants had negative perceptions about such experience. Similarly, most students (73,1 %) considered that their previous academic experience helped them to improve their academic writing and reading skills in English. However, some previous studies emphasized such aspects in students’ experience as low quality at secondary schools [5; 6]. Some graduate students confessed that the quality of English language teaching in rural area was not high, and they had to develop their own strategies and learnt English on their own. Desides, students who studied in NIS schools were able to improve their English language skills and that experience helped them a lot in their further studies [5].

Languages of instructions. The current study identified that 84,5 % of all graduate students confirmed that the course instructors, professors almost always used English language during their sessions in EMI universities (Most of the time 32,4 %; Always 52,1 %). Only 25,2 % of participants admitted that their professors used Kazakh or Russian language during their classes. The previous qualitative study conducted among Kazakhstani EMI undergraduate STEM students also showed that most students confirmed that although the medium of instruction was English, their teachers sometimes used Kazakh and Russian in the classes mainly for better explaining the concepts and meanings, effective communication, during informal discussions with peers, and for better comprehension of the content [4; 8]. However, often students as well as university teachers had negative perceptions about the use of Kazakh or Russian language during EMI sessions, the so- called code-switching technique, only in rare cases [22; 8; 23].

Students’ background. The present research study also examined such backgrounds of graduate students as gender, age and academic degree. In general, there was no statistical significance in the gender factor. However, it has been identified that generally, female participants considered English language experience more enjoyable compared to male ones. Similarly, women were convinced that their previous experience helped them in improving academic reading and writing skills. That finding is aligned with the previous study among Turkish university students, where female students felt more confident about their progress in English language [7]. On the other hand, men were more confident at oral presentations and overall, more satisfied with their academic English language proficiency. Previous study conducted among students in Hong Kong universities also revealed that male students might feel more confident during the oral material presentations compared to female students [24].

The one way between groups ANOVA showed that graduate students might perceive the importance of English language and instructions in local languages differently according to their age. For instance, people in the age group 26–35 considered English language for their career and study as much more important than older people. In the same fashion, younger participants (age group 18–25) felt more concerned about the usage of Kazakh and Russian languages during the EMI sessions compared to older groups. The recent research study conducted by Yuksel [26] revealed that self-efficacy in the second academic language (English) can be elaborated over time. For instance, he discovered in his research that graduate students were more satisfied with their study in EMI sessions compared to undergraduate students in their first or second years. Most studies revealed that the age factor in itself does not impact the EMI perceptions of students. However, some factors such as year of study, students’ previous experience which also depend on the age may correlate with students’ proficiency at EMI classes [25; 27].

Degree and EMI. The survey data in this study revealed that the students’ academic degree (Master or Ph.D.) does have some impact on the way they perceived the importance of English language for their academic and professional life. The data shows a quite significant difference between Master’s and PhD students’ perceptions about how their previous experience as learners helped them improve their academic reading and writing skills in the English language. As a result, the PhD students’ scores on the items in the survey questionnaire such as the ‘importance of English language’ and ‘previous experience’ were higher than the scores given by the Master’s students to the same items. Regarding other items, PhD students indicated more confidence in presentations in the English language as compared to Master’s students. On the other hand, Master’s students were more certain that their instructors always used English language during EMI sessions. Kym and Kym [28] found that additional background such as students’ years spent in English speaking countries and English language courses might influence their English language ability more than other factors such as major or previous degrees. Also, the previous research identified that generally undergraduate senior students and Master’s students were more supportive of the importance of English language for their current and future career compared to their junior counterparts [25].

English Language Support. Analysis of the open-ended questions in the survey revealed that the participants suggested having more courses on the development of academic reading and writing skills in English, as well as more substantial, timely, and effective feedback and guidelines from faculty and English language instructors. This finding is supported by Myrzakulova [14] who has recommended that universities should organize preparatory courses on English for academic purposes. She also proposes that EMI universities may launch a zero-year study program for Master’s and PhD students to help them improve their academic reading and writing in English before they start their regular semesters. Another research study conducted among Korean graduate students of EMI underlined such aspects as organization of preparatory courses adjusted for the requirements of the particular field of study, and improvement of support services from university departments and advisors [29].


Overall, the graduate students, who participated in this study, have positive views about the implementation of English medium instruction in Kazakhstani universities. They see more benefits in learning English and are aware of the opportunities English language can offer for their future careers. However, the study also found that gender might impact how students perceived code-switching into L1 during EMI sessions. Female participants were more sensitive towards the use of other languages during the EMI classes than their male counterparts. On the other hand, men were more confident during oral presentations in the English language than women.

Similarly, the study found that students' perceptions might differ based on their age and academic degrees. An interesting finding is that, as compared to other age groups, the graduate students in the age group of 18–26 perceived learning English language as more important and useful. Similarly, the PhD students attached more importance to the English language than the Master’s students did. Despite the overall positive attitude towards EMI, graduate students felt dissatisfied with the quality of English language support and feedback they receive at their universities. The participants suggested that the universities may offer more courses in EMI programs, and more comprehensive, timely and effective support to develop their academic reading and writing skills.


The research study is funded by Nazarbayev University Collaborative Research Program, 021220CRP1322.


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Year: 2021
City: Karaganda
Category: Pedagogy