Since independence, Kazakhstan has actively experimented with education reforms in order to train its own specialists for the country’s rapidly expending economy. With the establishment of the Nazarbayev University and the introduction of several legislative measures giving it a special independent status, Kazakhstan's government intends to create a globally competitive higher education institution. Opinions on the project are divided. Some believe that the establishment of a new education institution where internationally and locally recruited faculty would teach most of the subjects in English and supervise world-class research projects is a leap forward for Kazakhstan's education system. Others are quite skeptical, claiming it would be better to spend more money and time reforming the existing university system.
BACKGROUND: The establishment of the western-style Nazarbayev University in 2010, a US$ 2 billion project, reflects the rise of so-called 'Global Universities' in some developing countries, notably Abu Dhabi and Kuwait where such ambitious ‘Global Universities’ were established as host campuses of some of the most prestigious western universities. It is also a logical step in Kazakhstan’s series of reforms in the field of education. Indeed, since independence in 1991 Kazakh policy makers have employed various approaches and strategies in modernizing the national education system, improving the quality of education and attempting to raise standards to international levels. Kazakhstan was among the first in the Central Asian region to allow the establishment of private universities and colleges across the country. It was also among the first countries in the region to abandon the Soviet-style system of higher education and to join the Bologna process, introducing a western-style three-cycle education structure (bachelor’s–master’s–doctorate). In order to quickly train a large number of international-quality professionals for its public sector, Kazakhstan sent about 15,000 students abroad between 1994 and 2010 under the Bolashak (Future) program. The program provides full funding for education in foreign countries, including tuition fees and living and travel expenses. The condition for funding has been simple and clear: graduates have to return to their home country and work for the government or various government agencies for five years. Hundreds of Bolashak graduates returned to Kazakhstan bringing important know-how and expertise in crucial fields – from banking and energy to public management and engineering.
Among the innovations introduced during the last two decades was an attempt to establish western-style Research and Development (R&D) at certain national universities and to encourage international collaboration. Kazakhstan transformed its Academy of Sciences from a center of R&D into a public organization and attempted to channel all R&D funding to specialized agencies such as the National Innovation Fund, and to various universities across the country. However, these education and R&D reforms produced mixed results. On the one hand, academics undertook more research projects; especially projects funded by the state through competitive grants and initiatives, and expanded worldwide collaboration. On the other hand, many of these research projects remained on paper, failing to produce the expected impact on the innovation industries, development of indigenous know-how or new internationally competitive products, patents and ideas.
IMPLICATIONS: Education reforms and the related changes have had a huge impact on Kazakhstan's education sector and the Kazakh economy. Experts and policy makers continue to debate the merits and outcomes of the reforms and have been polarized in their views. On the one hand, these changes helped to create a dynamic labor market, in which a new generation of western-trained young professionals plays a major role. Several sectors of the national economy have been built practically from scratch, notably banking, finance, legal and some other service sectors – with young graduates, especially from leading western universities, filling most of the positions, making these sectors the most competitive in the CIS zone. For example, the KazKommertsBank, established in 1990, has been frequently cited as being among the top banks in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.
The returning graduates also brought fresh and dynamic blood into the civil service sector. At the middle management level, and in some agencies all the way to the top, these services have been staffed by young and energetic former Bolashak students (Bolashak tulekteri, as they call themselves). This change in cadre has helped to reduce red tape and inefficiencies and to improve professionalism (especially if compared to neighboring countries in the region), achieving position number 72 out of 139 in the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) 2010–2011 and 65th place in the GCI’s higher education and training section, at least 20 notches better than any of the neighboring Central Asian states.
Critics, however, highlight some negative impacts and shortcomings. First, there are significant distortions and mismatches in the labor market. Many observers and even the Bolashak students themselves complain that too many graduates have been returning back with advanced degrees in law, general management and international affairs and there are simply not enough jobs for them. A significant number of graduates have recently been assigned to do work far below their qualifications, or work at positions other than the ones they trained for.
On many occasions managers also complain that the Bolashak graduates have very strong theoretical knowledge and were trained to work in a western corporate environment, but they easily get lost in the local working environment and have difficulties adjusting to it. In addition, as the number of Bolashak students sent abroad shot from 300 to 3,000 per year, there was a significant negative impact on the prestige, quality and student demographics of the local universities. Though the Kazakh government pays full tuition fees for Kazakh students at the most prestigious and most expensive universities around the world, local Kazakh professors are still significantly underpaid and the brightest students go to foreign universities and do not bother applying locally. This erodes the prestige of the teaching profession and very few young people are currently heading to work at institutions of high learning, especially at tertiary technical colleges and lyceums.
CONCLUSIONS: In a Newsweek interview John Sexton, president of New York University, defined his vision of a “global university” as an institution linked by “global technologies” and taught by “global professors”. The establishment of the new university in an environment designed to make it globally competitive and to divert a portion of Bolashak students to study at an international level but on national soil, is a step in the right direction. Yet, education officials should also undertake some solid planning in order to incorporate the local context, local case studies and links to local institutions in order to avoid isolation from the realities of Kazakhstan's economy and labor market. The Nazarbayev University should not be a foreigner on Kazakhstan's soil; it should position itself as a national educational center and a hub where educators from around the country and from around the region can learn about pedagogical approaches, incorporation of new media and IT into the teaching process, developing critical thinking among the students and gaining educational know-how to transfer to their home institutions. In addition, the NU should not only encourage links with the best global universities and R&D centers, it should also establish strong relations with the local private sector, especially with small and medium enterprises, which crave energetic, motivated and highly organized professionals, managers and venture capitalists.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University and Hunter College (New York). He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008). He has been awarded an IREX 2010-2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for a research on the post-Soviet era intellectual discourses on political development in Kazakhstan. The author would like to express his gratitude to Dr. Kadisha Dairova of the Nazarbayev University Center of Educational Policy for assistance in preparing this article.