‘Outlier’ university forges path to more autonomy for Kazakh sector

Nazarbayev University president is ready to stop being envy of post-Soviet system, where centralised governance is still the norm

September 4, 2022
Nazarbaev University
Source: Courtesy of Nazarbaev University

Many university presidents would be thrilled to be in Shigeo Katsu’s shoes. For a decade, his institution has been the envy of Kazakhstan’s higher education sector, enjoying a level of funding and autonomy unknown to most of its public institutions.

Founded in 2010 by former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev to be a “beacon” for teaching and research, the eponymous Nazarbayev University (NU) is an anomaly in the post-Soviet system, where centralised governance is still the norm. Fully autonomous, NU is also heavily subsidised, with 98 per cent of students funded by the government.

But Mr Katsu believes it’s time to change its position as an outlier. “We’re painfully aware we can’t just be isolated as one institution,” he said. “Most of the HE sector has been quite jealous, envious. They say: ‘You have all these resources.’ We try to tell them: ‘Be patient because we try to make sure that you guys are getting more of these privileges.’”

In a way, it’s a paradoxical aim. In Kazakhstan as elsewhere, public institutions are largely dependent on the government, vying for limited resources. But Mr Katsu appears unconcerned, joking that “competition is good”.

After all, reforming higher education is baked into NU’s mission. It is meant to be “inculcating and mainstreaming” a different paradigm of higher education – styled after western practice – among Kazakh universities.

Since Mr Katsu began his tenure at NU in 2010, following three decades at the World Bank, he has worked to ensure it follows international standards in its admissions and practices.

“Everything is based on merit – either you pass entrance exams or you don’t; we never had backdoor entries of students,” he said.

Unlike the majority of Kazakh institutions, NU is an English-language school, with roughly 70 per cent of its faculty coming from abroad. While the university aims to replicate the international university experience sought by domestic students looking to study abroad, he concedes it is at times limited by its geography.

“We’re now pretty confident that quality of instruction is high, but what we can’t offer is the full-immersion cultural experience – because our kids before and after classes fall back to speaking Russian or Kazakh.”

Domestically, the institution has name recognition, but he admits that’s not necessarily the case abroad.

“Our university is obviously still very, very young. We still need to make our name – we only had eight cohorts of graduates and probably only four or five cohorts have international students – so the reputational part we still have to deliver. I don’t like league tables so much, but we do accept that it comes with the territory.”

NU already has a solid foundation in its ties with a number of high-profile institutions overseas, including the universities of Cambridge and Pennsylvania. Increasingly, such partnerships have become a “two-way street” with the focus on joint research activities, Mr Katsu said.

While he welcomes such international collaboration, he is wary of Western universities expanding into Kazakhstan at the cost of local ones.

“They help us a lot in terms of our institutional development. But we always tell them, don’t try to build a branch campus…in the short run, it may be faster, but…our mandate from the very beginning was to create our own identity, to create a strong internal common culture.”

His university faces a delicate task of courting students from neighbouring countries – Russia to the north and China to the south – at a time when geopolitical tensions are high, with Western governments wary of China’s technological advances and Western universities cutting ties with Russian counterparts over the war in Ukraine. 

While he stops short of predicting any “big shift” for the HE sector, Mr Katsu believes that Kazakhstan will “probably try to make itself more attractive to students from China or other areas who maybe have a bit more difficulty getting accepted in Europe”.

Still, he concedes that his adoptive country is rarely considered an option in the minds of many Russian students and universities.

“Russia’s young students have almost been conditioned, brainwashed into thinking they do not need to look southwards when it comes to quality higher education – not just students but also institutions have a hard time digesting that we in the south and south-east can easily compete with them.”

But that may be changing. “It’s only now that we start to see outreach from Russian universities that want to cooperate with us – of course, what we’re very concerned about is not to create a backdoor type of situation whereby we might be exposed to sanction-related scrutiny,” he said.


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