Kazakhstan has opened a new university in the capital, Astana, with ambitious aims of eventually offering a world-class education to 20,000 students per year and of ending the practice of sending the country’s best and brightest abroad to study.
Nazarbayev University – named after Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev – will teach only in English, and initially all of its professors will be foreigners, said Kadisha Dairova, the vice president of the school. The school is working closely to develop the programs of study with elite foreign universities, particularly American ones, including Carnegie Mellon, Duke and Harvard, aiming to derive the best from each university and combine them into a uniquely Kazakh mix.
The university “will become a national brand of Kazakhstan that will combine the advantages of the national education system and the best of international research and education practice,” said Nazarbayev at the school's opening ceremony at the end of June.
At the same time, Kazakhstan is planning to discontinue the undergraduate portion of its “Bolashak” (Future) program, which has paid for thousands of Kazakhstani students to attend universities abroad. While the graduate portion of that program will be expanded, the undergraduate element will be discontinued “within one or two years” and its mission will now be taken over by Nazarbayev University, said Dairova, who previously administered the Bolashak program in the United States and Canada.
Although the school has already officially opened, it is still rushing to get ready for the first day of classes on September 27. During a recent visit to the school, construction workers were putting the final touches on the first set of buildings on the campus, but banners reading “Nazarbayev University – Together We Will Build a Strong Kazakhstan” (in Russian and Kazakh) already adorned the facade of the main administration building. Construction has already been completed on the architectural centerpiece of the campus, a massive atrium with pools, fountains and palm trees that connects all the university's academic buildings.
Thus far, the university has accepted 130 students out of the class of roughly 500 that will attend the first year. To be admitted, students must get minimum scores on English language tests and pass the same Subject Entrance Tests (in subjects like mathematics, economics and critical thinking) as aspirants to University College, London. Among those in the first batch of applicants who did not pass the minimum requirements, most failed the critical thinking exam, Dairova said. “Our schools, like many Soviet legacy schools, are very good at teaching sciences, but not very good at teaching critical thinking,” she said. University officials are working with the Ministry of Education to help orient the country's secondary education to better prepare students, she said.
The first year of study will be a general “foundations” course, taught by faculty from the University College, London, and focusing on improving English-language skills and a general introduction to university study.
“The vision of being involved as a partner with the Kazakh government to create the Nazarbayev University, which has a vision ultimately to become an international and world-class university, is a most exciting challenge. We believe that Kazakhstan has the capacity to do this, especially through working with committed partners who have both high world rankings and experience of working globally,” said Michael Worton, UCL's vice provost. “We thus would like to build a university with which we will maintain a long-term strategic partnership, as well as developing further long-term relationships with other universities and business and industry in Kazakhstan.”
The university has posted the list of students admitted so far on its website, and they consist almost exclusively of ethnic Kazakhs. The Bolashak program also admitted a very small number of ethnic minorities (non-Kazakhs make up an estimated 37 percent of the country's population) because of a Kazakh-language proficiency requirement. But Nazarbayev University does not require knowledge of Kazakh, and Dairova said she did not know why very few minority students have been admitted. “It is hard to say now why the majority of applicants are Kazakhs and I hope that when we analyze all aspects of the admission process, we will be able to find out why most of the accepted students and applicants were Kazakhs,” she said.
Within four to five years, the university hopes to reach its target of 4,000 to 5,000 students admitted each year. Eventually, the university will have four schools: engineering, pre-medical, applied and computer sciences, and social science and the humanities. It will also include three research centers, for life sciences, energy and an “instrumentation center,” which will include state-of-the-art equipment for scientific research, Dairova said. And starting in 2012, there will be two graduate programs, in business and public policy.
The university will focus on applied sciences in most cases, Dairova said, because Kazakhstan's existing universities do a good job of teaching pure sciences and humanities, and to develop Kazakhstan's students’ more practical skills. Foreign oil companies that operate in Kazakhstan have long complained about the quality of engineers that Kazakhstan's schools produced, she said, and so oil companies are involved in developing the curriculum for the school and offering scholarships. “Industry and the university must cooperate, otherwise the universities graduate students with skills that aren't applicable. Industry must tell us what kind of students to produce and train,” she said.
The social science and humanities school, for example, will focus on public policy, international relations and economics. “There is a big need for analysts here, people who can think critically,” she said.
The business school, which will start operating in 2012, will be run by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, which will provide all the faculty, who will go to Astana on rotations of slightly less than a month, said Bill Boulding, the school's deputy dean. “What's interesting about Nazarbayev University is the scale and scope of what they are trying to do, it's an incredibly ambitious and brilliant approach to how to start a university,” Boulding said.
Through its cooperation, Duke hopes to establish relationships with a country it believes will be an important business center the future, Boulding said. “We will get to learn how business is done [in Kazakhstan], how the institutions work, who are the key people,” he said. “We get a much richer perspective about what a key region looks like from the ground.”
Critics say the university is following a pattern in Kazakhstan. “It's educational segregation: the level of education in Kazakhstan has fallen catastrophically over the last 20 years,” said Dosym Satpaev, a political analyst in Almaty. “But we have this ambitious project to build one very good university in Astana. Some lucky people will get access to a very good education, but what about everyone else? They will get a bad education and won't be able to find jobs.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.