Kazakhstan to Become New Regional Academic Hub, Says Minister of Science and Higher Education

ASTANA – Kazakhstan can seize an opportunity to emerge as a thriving academic hub. However, building a brand requires substantial investment and resources, said Minister of Science and Higher Education Sayasat Nurbek in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times. 

Minister of Science and Higher Education Sayasat Nurbek. Photo credit: The Astana Times.

In the Q&A below, the minister shared his thoughts on trends shaping higher education in Asia, as well as the main priorities of Kazakhstan in the near future. 

In his keynote speech at the first meeting of the National Council of Science and Technology in Astana President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev highlighted the importance of opening branches of leading foreign universities in Kazakhstan. What results have been achieved so far, what are the plans for the near future?

The idea to open five branches of leading foreign universities in Kazakhstan by 2025 was initially proposed by the President at the end of 2022. There are several reasons behind this initiative, mainly deriving from regional dynamics.

First, it’s a demography. We are already witnessing the effects of demographic explosion in the different parts of Eurasia. Unprecedented population growth in Central and South Asia, coupled with same trends in Africa and Middle East spurred international academic mobility, thus bringing demand for high-quality education service.

Photo credit: The Astana Times.

On top of this, recent geopolitical events in Ukraine have dramatically reshaped the education landscape in Eurasia, which consequently, created strategic opportunities for countries like Kazakhstan. Today students from India, Pakistan, African countries, and Middle Eastern countries are looking for options to continue their studies. 

That is where Kazakhstan has a chance to become a new academic hub. 

However, becoming a new regional education center requires significant capital investments in infrastructure to boost our capacity to absorb a big number of international students. 

It is equally important to put up and execute thorough, fine-tuned information campaigns aimed to promote the “Study in Kazakhstan” brand on the international arena. 

Last year, we opened four university branches in Kazakhstan. British De Montfort University became the first comer that invested more than $15 million to open a separate, full-scale campus in Almaty. 

Next was Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, which partnered with Al-Farabi University in Almaty followed by other leading Russian institution, Gubkin Oil and Gas University, which set up collaboration with Atyrau Oil and Gas University. The fourth one is the University of Arizona that is currently collaborating with Kozybayev University in Petropavlovsk. 

This year we set up more ambitious targets. Our plan is to open another six high-profile international campuses.

For instance, Heriot-Watt University will open its campus at Zhubanov Aktobe Regional University. Aktobe will become one of the four global destinations of Heriot-Watt campuses alongside withEdinburgh, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur. 

Next one is the Seoul National University of Science and Technology. The school will partner with Kyzylorda Korkyt-Ata Regional University. 

The German Engineering Institute will open its campus at Yessenov University in Aktau, and Tianjin University will establish its branch at Serikbayev East Kazakhstan Technical University. We will also have plans to establish branches of Ghazi University and Hacettepe University from Turkey. 

To sum up, in five years, we will have approximately 12 branch campuses. 

It seems that you are intentionally selecting universities from the countries that are close partners of Kazakhstan. What are the main selection criteria?

There are three main considerations. 

First, our intention is to support foreign policy of our country. By actively pursuing so-called academic diplomacy, we want to create new opportunities for cooperation with our international partners.

The second criteria is global rankings. We mainly focus on the top 200 global-ranking universities that can offer best academic practice and knowledge.

Finally, yet importantly, curricula of foreign universities have to correspond to specific demands of our each region. Specifically, we want foreign universities to help our regional economies to grow. For example, our partner from Heriot-Watt University will launch geo-engineering, computer science, and electrical engineering programs that are currently in high demand in the Aktobe Region. In the North Kazakhstan region, the focus is on agriculture and medical programs.

Eight Kazakh universities are already included in the QS Rating. What kind of improvements our universities have to make to get stronger positions in the world rankings?

International rankings are an important methodological tool that allows comparison of universities according to strict criteria, both domestically and internationally. They also help institutions build global brand visibility, thus creating more opportunities to forge strategic partnerships and recruit international students.

The most common examples are QS and Times Higher Education. Our universities have been equally present in both of them since 2012. Since then 16 universities have been included in these rankings. 

Last year was a real breakthrough for us. Some 32 Kazakh universities were listed in QS Asia ranking. Al-Farabi University was the only Kazakh University that entered the top 200. Last year, it was ranked 150. 

We also have established contact with Times Higher Education, and 30 Kazakh universities submitted their bids to be included in their ranking. The first preliminary results will be available by July. By September-October, the official ranking will be out. In September, a team from Times Higher Education will come to Kazakhstan.

What can our universities do to improve their rankings? The answer is research activity. Rankings put particular stress on research capacity of universities, particularly, number of publications, the citation impact, the strength and the quality of those publications and other requirements. 

That is why our top priority is to relaunch the science governance model of our country. Specifically, we will focus on boosting university science in Kazakhstan. 

For instance, 92% of Kazakh students currently pursuing undergraduate degrees, about 8% are master-level students, and less than 1% PhD students. Most of our universities concentrate on teaching; they do not perform significant R&D activity. That will be our focus for the next seven years – to help our universities to become full-scale research institutions.

Could you tell us more about bringing digital education technologies to Kazakhstan?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all witnessed a vast majority of day-to-day interactions taking place virtually. Education was no exception. The crisis had exposed many inadequacies in our education system – from access to the broadband internet needed for online learning, and supportive infrastructure and environment, up to lack of digital skill and literacy of faculty members.

We learned our lesson the hard way.

That is why We have designed a seven-year plan, stressing particularly digital transformation of all business processes in education. We will be focusing on three things. 

First is digital infrastructure. Our ministry is actively  collaborating with top IT companies like HP, Huawei, and Microsoft on the pilot project of a Digital University in Kazakhstan. 

Our second priority is content. U.S.-based open online course provider Coursera became our main partner in this direction. After successful talks with our partners from Coursera, we managed to provide open access to Coursera courses for the majority of Kazakh students. Nearly 25,000 students are taking courses on this platform. We are translating some 654 online courses into the Kazakh language in order to increase the quality of digital education content.

Perhaps most importantly, we are starting to teach our faculty members to generate high-quality content that can be uploaded to the Coursera platform.  The idea is to help our teachers to take full advantage of opportunities provided by Coursera. This is an amazing opportunity for local professors to become part of a thriving market that gives them a chance to monetize their skills and increase their visibility on a global scale. 

Our third priority is working with data to create the data-driven, smart Digital University. 

In 2022, the ministry announced plans to launch blockchain technology training with the assistance of Binance Corporation. How did this become possible and at what stage is this project now? 

Binance Corporation, which operates the largest cryptocurrency exchange, will invest in creating master-level and executive courses where blockchain technology would be taught as a formal academic course. It will be the first academic degree in the world.

Bagdat Mussin, the Minister of Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry, and Zhaslan Madiyev, the head of Binance Kazakhstan, helped us to come up with this initiative. It includes two stages. One is to teach the instructors. There are about 42 universities involved. Now nearly 300 teachers and faculty members are being upskilled, having some certificate courses, which are to be finished by July. 

Next year, we will launch courses on Bitcoin technology; after that, we plan to transform them into a formal degree program curriculum. 

Kazakhstan will host the Astana International Forum on June 8-9. The event’s agenda includes a discussion of the most important challenges of our time. How will the development of the education system and science be incorporated into the agenda of the forum?

We will host a separate panel session on education. We seek to showcase what has already been done in Kazakhstan and promote an idea of a regional academic hub. There will be a session on digital transformation of education with Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. Session will focus on how to link education and the job market, strategies to incorporate new technologies, such as AI or Chat GPT, into the academic landscape of our country. 

To sum up our discussion, are you optimistic on the development of higher education in our country?

Last 30 years, the development of higher education has been hampered by low investment in academic and research infrastructure. During the first years of independence, many outstanding researchers left the education sector due to chronic financial problems. This poses significant challenges for technological and innovation development of Kazakhstan.

Generally speaking, in terms of technology development, countries can be broadly divided into three categories. First group is global leaders that are able to create cutting-edge technologies, like AI, advanced chip-making etc.

The second category includes countries with sufficient intellectual and engineering capacity that enables them to produce basic technologies. The third category consists of countries that lack intellectual or engineering capacity and have to rely heavily on foreign technologies and ideas. 

Kazakhstan is balancing between the third and second categories. 

However, with the right strategy, proper resources, and the support of the government, in the next decade we can strengthen our positions in the second category, facilitating our move towards the first category of technologically advanced countries.

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