Motivation, Self-Direction, International Reach Key Factors in NU Student Life

ASTANA – In the few years since it first opened in 2010, Nazarbayev University (NU) in Astana has turned into arguably the most attractive school for prospective students nationwide.


The Astana Times asked NU’s Vice President for Student Affairs and International Cooperation Khadisha Dairova a few questions about student life at NU and about what draws the nation’s brightest students to the university.

Could you give us an introduction to student life in the Nazarbayev University and the institution in general?

Actually, the main idea of the university, the whole concept of creating this university, was to start a university of international standards in Kazakhstan and provide talented students with an education complying with the best international practices. After five years, we are able to say that we are on the right track. We are proud of the systems – selection and others – that have been created in this university. This means that the admissions process is very transparent, clean and honest. We are proud to select the best students in the country; annually, we get about 4,000 applicants to the foundation programme. Just three years ago, we started accepting students directly to undergraduate programmes, but most of them first come to the foundation course, which is a kind of pre-university bridging programme.

Since the secondary education system in Kazakhstan takes 11 years and our system adheres to the international standard, we need students that have had 12 or 13 years of prior education, such as international baccalaureate or A-level programmes in the U.S. or the U.K. This means our students now lack a whole year that would have served as a transit between school and university. Knowing this, we started the university in 2010 and the idea was favoured by the President of Kazakhstan [Nursultan Nazarbayev], who initiated the establishment of our university.

We are quite proud of our student community, membership in which is based on intellectual competence, but we also do our best to provide them with facilities to induce creativity.

What kinds of facilities are provided for students at Nazarbayev University?

When I talk about the conditions for supporting students, I mean two things: first, infrastructure, i.e. classrooms and technology. We probably have the best dormitories in all of Kazakhstan, if not in the whole region or even the former Soviet Union.

The other is the students themselves: they arrive as the best of their schools, bringing their own traditions and culture, and are very active in social and extracurricular activities in their schools. There is a total of 45 clubs at Nazarbayev University. Besides that, we have the Career and Advice Centre, which prepares students for their future careers, and we have all kinds of professional development workshops. Now we are focusing on the fourth-year students who will graduate on May 30, as this is our first graduation.

Four hundred students are expected to receive their degrees. Around three quarters of them have already filed applications to graduate programmes elsewhere, mainly in the U.K. and the U.S. I have also received the good news that the National Commission of the Bolashak [Presidential Scholarship] programme has supported plans to provide NU students a chance to continue their educations at the master’s degree and doctoral levels, which is very positive news for us.

In addition, we have sports widely represented in our extracurricular activities.

The student government is also a core element of student life at NU. In the beginning, the student affairs department, that group of young professionals, was leading the work related to student affairs, but now the student government as well as student clubs have taken over this role. We are glad that no one is imposing events on them and everything is done on their own initiative.

Regarding the workshops, we have a professional chapter for each school. Professional chapters are bodies that help students apply their theoretical knowledge to real-life situations. For example, in the School of Engineering there are the Institution of Engineering and Technology Student Chapter and the Society of Petroleum Engineering Students chapter. This means that our students participate in all kinds of workshops and internships abroad, since they are often the best in the country, and it is not surprising that they win all kinds of scholarships and grants from various sponsors and that more than one third of our students actively partake in study-abroad programmes. Besides, we send students (about 90 each year) to summer programmes at partner universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California at Berkeley (with the latter starting next year). It does not mean that all of our students go there; only the best 30 students from each school.

Could you describe the relationship between Nazarbayev University and the numerous Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools?

When our university just started out, very few of our students came from the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NISs) because there was only one school in Astana, but in a span of four years, 13 NISs have opened and those plus Kazakh-Turkish Lyceums (KTL), National Physics-Mathematics schools (NPMS) and Daryn Schools are the major feeder schools for Nazarbayev University.

They compete with each other and the NPMS, despite us getting only 50-60 students from them each year, KTL students are at the top of our ranking system because they come in with the highest entering scores and maintain their high-level performance. Maybe because they were trained to be hard-working and diligent, they have a deep understanding of the subjects they study or are just exceptional people, I cannot tell why, but they are the best. Usually they enter the school of engineering because the school of engineering is the most selective school; they accept only the best students from the foundation.

Currently, we still get most of our students from KTLs; for example, this year we have accepted 180 students from KTLs and 150 from NISs; this means that the number of students in NISs is growing. Unfortunately, Nazarbayev University will not be able to accommodate all the graduates from NISs. Something should be done to provide these quite bright students with further education either inside or outside the country.

What is the situation like concerning the introduction of admission based on tuition fees?

This university enjoys unprecedented financial and political support, thanks to our President, in order for us to stand on our feet and to get recognition. However, we understand it will not last for long, because in order to become self-sustainable in the future, we must introduce the option of paid education. It does not mean we will lower our standards. Anywhere in the world, no matter how much money one has, you cannot enter a top university if you don’t meet the requirements.

How will introducing tuition fees affect those who already study in Nazarbayev University?

We will still keep accepting students on government funded scholarships, about 500-600 students per year, but we are going to increase the number of students by 50 each year. We are planning to introduce tuition fees mainly for the international students: in order to be an international school we must have at least 10 percent of our students from abroad and globally the highest percentage of international schools in the world is 25 percent.

We understand that the economic crisis is really giving universities a hard time in this respect, but in the past it was no more than 10 percent and we aim to have that many more international students in five years’ time. Already, we have accepted a few students who are not citizens of Kazakhstan (and thus ineligible for Kazakh government scholarships). We try to find ways for them to find sponsors to pay for their education but at the moment they are among the best students that study at Nazarbayev University.

What is the actual amount of work a student is expected to do?

Let me tell you that the current foundation programme is run by the University College London (UCL), but our five year contract will expire soon and we decided to launch a new foundation programme with the University of Warwick, well known in the U.K. and globally. Usually students start studying at 8:30 a.m. and finish at 4-5 p.m. with a break for lunch and so on. In the foundation programme, the afternoons are filled with tutorial sessions – students meet their tutors and teachers and work with them individually. This happens five days per week. The undergraduate students have to get 120 credit-hours in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. This means that every semester they will have five classes to take, which is extremely difficult.

In the beginning, some students thought that with their talent and intellect, they could afford to skip some classes. Unfortunately, those students failed. Out of 185 students admitted in 2010, 111 stayed. As I said, they were among the best students in the country but they still failed because of laziness or the inability to adjust to the new academic culture of university life.

To conclude: self-discipline and self-motivation are the core elements of student life in Nazarbayev University.

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