Investment in our young people has been one of the guiding principles of Kazakhstan since the earliest days of independence. The Bolashak programme, set up as far back as 1993, was, for example, a powerful symbol of our new country’s confidence and belief in the power of education as well as our openness to outside ideas.
A society lacking confidence in the future would not have had the courage to send its brightest young people to be educated abroad. Kazakhstan has reaped rich rewards from the thousands of students who have returned to work here after learning at some of the world’s best universities.
At the same time, we have seen investment in our home-grown educational institutes along with the imposition of high academic standards and recruitment of top-class staff. The result is that our universities now have a fast-growing reputation and are attracting students not just from Kazakhstan but from neighbouring countries.
But as President Nursultan Nazarbayev said April 12 in his much-discussed opinion “Course towards the future: modernisation of Kazakhstan’s identity”, if education is to drive Kazakhstan’s continued success, it must also be universal. Our ambitions rest on ensuring that all our young people – indeed the entire workforce – have the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to make a positive mark on the 21st Century.
The reasons are clear. We live in an era where the world of work is faster than ever. Industries will disappear or transform. Entire professions will become redundant. Giving people the ability to find a role in the modern economy and to adapt as sectors and professions change will be essential to both individual and national prosperity.
This is one of the major challenges facing all countries not just Kazakhstan. The societies which thrive economically, socially and in terms of global influence, will be those which find and put in place the right answers. It is why the investment that Kazakhstan is making in education – among the highest globally as a share of government spending – is so important.
What was also interesting was that the President saw the solution as education in its widest form. He made clear, of course, just how essential doctors and engineers were to the country’s future. But he also stressed the importance of the humanities and promised to increase support for them in our universities.
As well as those with scientific skills, we need, he said, those “who understand modernity and the future well.” His call to translate the most influential texts in this area into Kazakh for pupils to have ready access to them also underlined the roles that schools will play in building this knowledge.
Ensuring the young generation can compete globally is also, of course, behind the new emphasis given to English in schools. And it will be helped as well by the gradual switch to the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language.
There will, the President said, be nothing sudden about this change. It will follow the evolutionary approach which has served Kazakhstan well in so many areas since independence. But he made clear that, within a decade, he wanted the change to be underway.
Along with computer literacy and knowledge of foreign languages, he put cultural openness at the heart of the Digital Kazakhstan programme. This includes an ambition for our country to be known not just for its rich natural resources and its remarkable success in the foreign policy arena but also for its cultural achievements.
He rightly pointed out the major part that Hollywood and American culture as a whole has played in growing and maintaining its influence and stature in the world. It has been a key factor in the appeal of U.S. soft power.
No country can compete, of course, with the universal attraction of American music or films. But Kazakhstan has been perhaps too shy at promoting the achievements of its artists, entrepreneurs and scientists beyond its borders. It has perhaps too often relied instead on statistics to showcase its progress internationally.
Dry data, no matter how impressive, is not, however as powerful as human stories for communication. By identifying Kazakhs whose personal stories could help give these achievements colour and life, we can more successfully promote Kazakhstan around the world. The initiative will have another benefit. It will also provide clear role models for our own young people to emulate. By raising their ambitions, it will, in turn, create more success stories and faster progress.