Penn GSE in Kazakhstan


Nazarbayev U.

Blake Naughton (right), director of Penn GSE's Executive Doctorate Program in Higher Education Management, tours the Nazarbayev University construction site during a visit in May 2010. The university opened its doors one month later, in June 2010.


In October 2009, the Republic of Kazakhstan was struggling with  an ambitious plan to open the nation’s first research university – not just a college with professional schools, but a western-style, research-intensive English language university

The Kazakhs were by no means the first post-colonial society intent on higher education development, but President Nursultan Nazarbayev wasn’t interested in a branch campus of a western university (a model that has been widely adopted in the Middle East). The President and Prime Minister Karim Masimov wanted something organic and homegrown.

Oh, and they wanted to open for business in eight months.  

For the resource-rich country, the major obstacle wasn't funding, but know-how.  And a chance encounter introduced the Kazakh planning team to three experts at Penn GSE who could provide much of the guidance needed to master the intricacies of running a major university.

Penn GSE Lecturer Alan Ruby was consulting with the finance ministry on the human capital needs of the oil-rich economy when word came about President Nazarbayev’s plans. As Ruby recalls, “I told them that it’s not just a matter of magicking up a university. You have to think about admissions, curriculum, faculty, governance – even how you’re going to feed your students.”  

“You actually know about this,” his Kazakh associate noted.  

“Not as much as my colleagues back at Penn,” Ruby replied.

From that exchange, an ongoing relationship emerged between Penn GSE and Nazarbayev University, which did, in fact, open in June 2010.  

The months before opening day were marked by a frenzy of planning. In February, the entire Kazakh management team came to Penn for a one-week intensive program on university administration led by Penn GSE’s Chair of Higher Education Management Matt Hartley and the Executive director of GSE’s Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management, Blake Naughton. A host of other Penn experts participated as well from the budget director to the head of security.

The Kazakhs also enlisted a number of other Western institutions to help them develop academic programs, but they relied on Penn GSE to help them navigate the larger institutional issues. As Hartley explains, “We’ve been spending a lot of time talking with them about what it means to be an autonomous institution, what it means to have academic governance, academic freedom, what it means to be free of regulation.” 

As a former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan had operated under a top-down, bureaucracy-laden system of education governance since the 1920s. As a result, many of the country's educational measures are high: nearly all Kazakhs complete their secondary education, the literacy rate is 99.5%, and the country ranks in the top 10 in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).

But in many ways, the Kazakh system suffers from the legacy of Soviet rule, where no one deviated from the curriculum dictated by the Ministry of Education. The Kazakhs wanted to build an independent institution – an important objective for a nation intent on forging a strong post-Soviet identity – and that meant developing some variant of Western-style shared governance and academic freedom. “They understand that to have a first-rate institution,” Matt Hartley explains, “they need to create a measure of autonomy for the university.” 

And doing so means adopting a new ways of doing business. The American university system – where a board of trustees provides governance – was initially perplexing. Again Matt Hartley: “They just don’t have the history. So when we explained our system, they asked really interesting questions like, Why would anyone serve on a board? Do people get paid for that?” 

But the Kazakhs are quick learners: they recently passed legislation that creates a legal structure for board governance, and by 2020 all colleges and universities will be required to have boards of trustees. 

When Nazarbayev University opened last June, the first class of 500 students started in a Foundations program (created and taught by University College London faculty). Next year, they will pursue one of the specialized programs currently in development: engineering, science and technology, and humanities and the social sciences.  

The target for undergraduate enrollment is 4,000, and plans are underway to establish graduate programs in public policy and business, and medical degree. In addition, debates continue about other programs. “For example,” Alan Ruby says, “there is no program in petroleum studies or environmental science and, in a country where a third of the population works in the agricultural sector, there’s no agricultural research.” 

Whatever course they choose for the curriculum, Nazarbayev’s students will be in the vanguard. As Matt Hartley observes, “The sense of excitement about this brand-new university is palpable. They are literally the nation’s best and brightest, and they see themselves as participating in something historic.” 

This summer, Hartley and Naughton will bring a cohort of Executive Doctorate students to Kazahkstan to consult on key issues the university is facing. “The students have tremendous expertise,” explains Naughton, “and they can bring real value to the Kazakhs. But they’ll also learn a lot themselves. It’s the epitome of service-learning.”


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