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Kazakhstan steps in: engage in “emerging Asian market”, says minister

Kazakhstan is appealing to international higher education institutions to become part of an “emerging education market” in central Asia.

Narxoz University has three active agreements, including with Penn State in the US, while De Montfort has a campus in Almaty. Photo: Pexels

The country is continuing to attract institutions from Turkey, Germany, Canada, America, China, South Korea

In an interview with The PIE News at the Bett Conference in London, the country’s minister of science and higher education said the country’s location makes it prime to take advantage of the region’s “demographic explosion”.

“We are positioning Kazakhstan as academic mobility hub for the region by building a strong brand name – Study in Kazakhstan,” Sayasat Nurbek told The PIE.

While European and North American countries are seen by prospective students as unwelcoming, Kazakhstan has liberalised its immigration legislation, he suggested.

“We allow our foreign students not only get a student visa, but also to have a work visa for about two years so they can stay and work if they find suitable employment positions,” he said.

Kazakhstan is also seeking to pick up students who may have previously gone to Russia.

Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its subsequent exit from the Bologna process, Nurbek said students from countries such as Pakistan and India – which have had long ties with Kazakhstan when it was still part of the Soviet Union – will favour other options.

“[These prospective students have] concerns that if they get Russian diplomas, they might get problems of getting a postgraduate education later,” he said.

“A potential applicant looks and says, ‘okay, I prefer not to go to Russia anymore because of the sanctions and the reforms. Where do I go in the region? Boom. Kazakhstan’.”

He pointed to the long-standing quality of education in the country as another reason more students are choosing to study there.

“We’re not thankful to [the] Soviet Union for many things, but [we are] thankful for the education system. We had 119 universities in Kazakhstan, quite a large number for a small country, population wise. Some of these public universities are quite solid.”

And according to the minister, the country is continuing to attract institutions from Turkey, Germany, Canada, America, China, South Korea, all with the aim of raising education quality.

“We just signed a deal with Ministry of Universities and Research of Italy so there will be two Italian universities coming to Kazakhstan.”

Inviting universities to Kazakhstan is part of a strategy to internationalise the country, including to attract international companies. Huawei and Samsung are some of the tech companies that have already set up regional headquarters in Kazakhstan, he said.

“As a part of this strategy, we are inviting foreign universities to come to Kazakhstan”

“There are bigger employment opportunities. We are reshuffling our curricular programs. We are opening up a lot of English-based bachelor’s degrees and as a part of this strategy, we are inviting foreign universities to come to Kazakhstan.

“In the last two years, we’ve opened eight large branches or campuses.”

The ministry is engaging with the New England Commission on Higher Education and the UK’s QAA to give a clear signal that Kazakhstan is serious about quality, he added.

Special government decrees are issued to ensure any incoming institutions maintain their autonomies.

“Basically, they don’t have to comply with local regulatory standards. We give them maximum freedom and maximum flexibility to operate in the region,” the minister said.

Further international engagement will also lead to better training of Kazakh university faculty, as well as contributing to the country’s “education diplomacy”.

“Through exchanges, we are building academic mobility programs. We are inviting foreign professors to come to Kazakhstan,” he said.

As Russia has become more disengaged with universities in the west, Kazakhstan is seeking to fill the void.

While in the UK, the minister signed an agreement with Oxford University to start a Kazakh language program, which includes an exchange program for staff.

“Because of Russia’s sanctions, the second best country for all these Eurasian studies, Russian studies, Slavic studies, the second best country to learn Russian in, is Kazakhstan,” he said.

“We grasped that to get as much as possible from that situation, to position Kazakhstan, build those new partnerships.

“We don’t have resources like some Arabic [countries]. We don’t have billions to invest in education. We don’t have long lasting academic traditions like European countries or North American universities. Our only option is to leapfrog, to be bold, to experiment, to try new things. So we are piloting interesting innovation.”

Speaking at a session during the edtech conference, Nurbek detailed the country’s ambition to make sure every graduate has a “very solid AI background”.

It is the first country to partner with Coursera to offer courses as part of the national curriculum, in addition to launching a blockchain engineering and compliance degrees with Binance, establishing 50 digital labs with Huawei and designing a course with Google on AI literacy.

As well as being good to attract talent, international education is also good for profit economically, the minister concluded.

“Education is a non elastic good. Even if price changes a lot of people would strive to get the best education possible, especially in our part of the world. The Asian mentality is very much focused on education. In our region, it’s an Asian mentality. In India, in China and in Central Asia, families are ready to sacrifice everything to get their kid the best education possible.

“We are trying to tap into this market – and we are calling upon British and European universities to come and become part of an emerging education market.”

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