Education in Kazakhstan: Helping to transform this young country

While still a relatively young country (it celebrates its 30th anniversary of independence in December 2021), Kazakhstan impresses: it is the ninth largest country in the world, has a booming economy (the largest in Central Asia) and interesting location: Russia lies to the north, China to the east and other bordering countries Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south.

For any country’s successful development, a skilled, educated workforce is essential and, without doubt, one of the institutions producing this educated graduate base is the Nazarbayev University, the country’s flagship academic institution which has aspirations to become a global-level research university. Its President, Shigeo Katsu, shares a very good description of the country as “not land-locked but land-linked”.

Located in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, the University is notable on many counts: its campus, international academic staff, seven Schools and its range of programs from Foundation to undergraduate, Master and PhDs. It is named after and had the support of the First President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and its ambitions were undoubtedly helped by the passing, in 2011, of a law granting the University is freedom and autonomy in terms of its operations. This “social contract” has had a positive, knock-on effect as local universities have been able to benefit from the University’s development and success.

The University saw its first graduates in 2015 and by August 2021 had welcomed 6,700 students with 5,800 graduates. It has an impressive faculty body, with staff coming from 60 countries, a diversity not yet reflected in its student body which is currently 98% local. The 2% of foreign students come mostly from Nigeria, Pakistan, Latin America and China. To date, the University has only welcomed two students from the UK although one senses that may change as it re-embarks on its plans, which were curtailed by Covid, to internationalise its student body.

Students will undoubtedly be inspired by its facilities, science and medical laboratories but the University is also known for its Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS). It includes an incubator, business accelerator as well as a Digital Creativity Laboratory which, in partnership with Loughborough University, has been awarded Creative Spark funding to develop the skills of students and young entrepreneurs particularly in the creative industries. NURIS also boasts its own Technopark providing tenants with state-of-the-art coworking spaces, offices and laboratories as well as access to funding and business services.

NURIS has been a huge achievement for the University, one that has started to have country-wide impact as there was no real innovation system in Kazakhstan and very little in the way of risk taking. The University has therefore been quite transformational in terms of its impact on the business, start-up and innovation community more generally. Although President Shigeo Katsu recognises that international students might need a “little bit of an adventurous heart”, you get a sense that Nazarbayev University is an institution that will be increasingly making its mark as it plays its part in establishing Kazakhstan’s credentials and international reputation.

There are many other impressive educational initiatives within Kazakhstan focused on younger age groups. One is the Elbasy Academy, an online school for early secondary school years, which started in September 2020. Like many other countries during the pandemic, Kazakhstan decided to embrace online learning and the Academy’s early results were impressive with over 15,000 subscribers, over 2 million video screenings and 27,000 individual lessons delivered.

Kazakhstan’s education establishments all seem open to collaborations and partnerships. As a young country it has the need to, and recognises the benefits of, learning from and being open to international co-operation and this is certainly true of its education system.

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