Nazarbayev’s Education Initiatives (and Australia Day)

Kazakhstan has had only one president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since the office was created following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He established the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University. There’s a naming trend here.

January 26th was Australia Day, the national day of Australia (kind of like Fourth of July in the US), marking the arrival of British ships in 1788. Some people believe it should be called Invasion Day instead. There’s a connection here. Kind of. Only in my experience.

Out of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has arguably developed the most. Although his presidency has not been without controversy or many allegations of corruption, President Nazarbayev has always emphasized the importance of education in the nation’s development.

In 1993, Kazakhstan launched the Bolashak scholarship program, which finances graduate school and living expenses for promising students at overseas universities. In return, the students are required to work in Kazakhstan following their studies. What I learned is that there often do not exist job opportunities that take advantage of the education of those students, which unfortunately consigns them to work in more menial positions. Some people work around this by creating shell companies that are then contracted to overseas companies. I even heard of some students who didn’t want to return and let the government seize their collateral, usually a house property. But hey, if the house was worth less than the education, maybe that’s a good deal.

The Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS), another initiative of President Nazarbayev’s, are a network of twenty-ish schools for talented grade school students in Kazakhstan. Students take an entrance exam to qualify. Tuition is free, and non-local students are given free boarding as well. My impression is that these schools have much better instruction and resources than the average public school. Many of the scholarship students at Haileybury used to attend NIS. (GTL placed 11 MIT students across NIS schools in five cities.) I met two NIS Astana students, Rakhat and Sayana, and they were wonderful. We visited Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest mosque in Central Asia, had delicious beshbarmak at Sayana’s house, and saw a ballet at the Astana Opera.

The Bolashek program is pretty expensive for the state, and maybe it doesn’t make sense to educate everyone abroad, so President Nazarbayev created his own university in Astana. Nazarbayev University (NU) opened in 2010. The university operates entirely in English and hires an international faculty and staff. Tuition and board are free for all students (imagine that!), and students can even receive a stipend to study there. The university has pretty expansive facilities, including new maker spaces, a technocenter, and a hub for entrepreneurship. They are also opening up a new swimming pool.

In Astana, I was hosted by Chris, Saima, and Saima’s two sons: 13-year-old Emad and 9-year-old Zayd. They had moved to Kazakhstan only three months ago to work for NU. Chris is the current (and first) Chief Information Officer, and Saima works as the Director General for IT projects. Pretty fancy. From what I understand, they are trying to move the university to use more modern systems. Saima and I talked about SAP at some point, which brought back some ehhh nostalgic memories of being ESP treasurer.

The family had previously lived in Australia for five years, which is why we were invited to a celebration of Australia Day with a bunch of Australians who currently work at NU. In attendance were Elaine, Janet, and Michelle, who all work at the Graduate School of Education. Loretta, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, was there with her husband Tim, who’s been teaching at some other local university. I also met Alex, the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, and Chit, the new Associate Provost for Graduate Studies. Some pretty high profile people were there although I didn’t realize it at the time.

I got to talk to some of them throughout the evening, which was really interesting for me. I wanted to understand what they did at the university and what drew them there. Michelle teaches inclusive education and is currently researching how clinics in Kazakhstan administer tests for autism and what is happening to the diagnosed children education-wise. Apparently a lot of the time, any child diagnosed with something “abnormal,” whether it be autism or diabetes, does not receive the standard education, if any. Alex recently published a book on hardware chips for machine learning. I think his research deals with cognitive models of machine learning and creating an intelligence that is more general, unlike the models that solve a specific instance of a problem that people throw deep learning at these days.

Loretta used to teach business but now works on the administrative side at NU. I asked her about the admissions process and how the university recruited faculty. She has been in Kazakhstan for around seven years and had many stories to share. The day before the university opened its dorms, there was a mix up with the mattresses, and the Minister of Education (or former one, or something) ended up helping move the mattress onto the beds. Everyone contributed! Several people also shared reimbursement horror stories. One faculty member left with his family during break and never came back. (Just mentioning that this isn’t common.) He didn’t return his boarding passes, which the university needed for proof of travel. Kazakhstan has a culture where the cost of a  mistake or incident is not absorbed by the organization but by the individual. The travel person involved in this situation was panicking because he would have had to pay the full cost of the tickets, which was more than a year’s salary. The passes were eventually returned in an unmarked envelope.

Mostly, I heard the story of a university being born. Of the opportunity to establish new systems and programs, to be part of the beginning of something. Throughout January, I asked several people about Kazakhstan’s issue with brain drain, and some responded by pointing to examples such as this – the opportunity to fill a sector that is still underdeveloped – as a possibility for encouraging people to stay. I wonder how things will develop in the upcoming years.


One thought on “Nazarbayev’s Education Initiatives (and Australia Day)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s