ASTANA - Friday, October 08, 2010 -
Parliament is expected to pass legislation soon that gives Nazarbayev University unprecedented independence in setting academic policy.
That autonomy will be a key to achieving President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s mandate that the institution that bears his name become one of the best in the world, university administrators said.
Another key to the new university achieving world-class status is selecting the right founding president – and there is a debate within the institution over whether that person should be a Westerner or a Kazakh, a source said.
The legislation granting “special status” to the university means it will be exempted from following Education Ministry regulations on programs, curriculum and other matters. University administrators hastened to note, however, that they plan to maintain a close working relationship with the ministry.
The objective of the legislation is to enable the university, whose first group of 486 students started classes this week, to adopt Western educational standards that it believes are necessary for it to become a truly international institution.
Some standards in the United States, Great Britain and other Western countries clash with Kazakhstan standards, which are rooted in the Soviet educational system.
University College of London (UCL) is already running Nazarbayev University’s first year of classes, so special status needs to come soon. UCL developed the curriculum and hired Western-educated professors as the teachers.
The university will also have other Western partners, including the University of Wisconsin, Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University, playing key roles in its academic programs.
President Nazarbayev has championed the internationalization of Kazakhstan education – both at the school level and the university level – and Kazakhstan has made rapid progress in that direction in the past decade.
“Special status” at Nazarbayev University will underscore the country’s commitment to internationalization.
Kadisha Dairova, the university’s vice president of academic policy, said Parliament’s powerful Lower House, or Majilis, has already passed the legislation – unanimously.
Senate passage, considered a formality, is expected within weeks.
Dairova said the university considers itself a partner of the education ministry, and that won’t change once it obtains special status. “We learn from them, and they learn from us,” she said.
She also said one of Nazarbayev University’s missions is to be a catalyst for educational innovation, sharing inventive ideas with other educational institutions.
The new education minister, Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov, has shown he believes in the international path that Nazarbayev University is taking.
Zhumagulov, who assumed his post two weeks ago, helped internationalize Almaty-based Kazakh National University, the country’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education.
During his two years at KazNU, he introduced programs with international components, hired several full-time foreign professors for the first time and made a number of other internationalizing moves.
Zhumagulov also organized an important national conference in Karaganda in June on Kazakhstan’s efforts to embrace the Bologna Process, a European educational reform movement that many non-European countries have adopted.
The debate within Nazarbayev University over whether the first president should be a Westerner or a Kazakh also is an internationalization issue, according to a source in the Kazakhstan educational establishment who asked not to be identified.
Those who want the university to become a force in international education believe it’s much less likely if a Kazakh becomes president, the source said.
The reason is that a Kazakh president will have grown up in a Soviet educational system that many Kazakhs – especially the younger generation – consider antiquated and ineffective, the source said.
International oil companies have long complained, for example, that the Kazakh university graduates they hire lack cutting-edge skills in geophysics, petroleum engineering and other disciplines. It takes months of on-the-job training to get them to where they should be, the executives say.
Those inside Nazarbayev University who want a Kazakh president see the issue essentially as a matter of local control over a national treasure.
One measure of local control, no matter who the president is, will be that he or she will report to a board of trustees that presumably includes several locals.
Astana has an example of what happened when a university that was supposed to become an international institution failed to hire a Western president, the educational-establishment source said.
Eurasian National University, which was founded in 1996 with Nazarbayev’s blessing, has never achieved the international status many had hoped for, the source said.
It has become a good Kazakh university, the source said – but that’s all.