Joshua Kucera

Can a homegrown university in authoritarian Kazakhstan incubate reform?

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on Kazakhstan focusing on issues of national identity. The first installment explored Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia.

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — This vast Central Asian country is no stranger to schemes that are, depending on your perspective, either visionary or megalomaniacal. It has created a gleaming new capital in one of the most punishing climates in the world. It built a shopping mall in the form of the world’s largest tent and has set out to transform itself from a former Soviet backwater into one of the world’s 30 most developed nations by 2050.

But even by Kazakhstan’s standards, four-year-old Nazarbayev University stands out for its audacity. The oil-rich authoritarian government created the school from scratch on a windy steppe and directed it to give the country’s most promising youth a world-class education. It brought in foreign faculty and administrators, mainly from the United States, and wooed the country’s best students with full scholarships and stipends and an alternative to the Soviet-style, stodgy, corrupt higher education still prevalent in the country.

At Nazarbayev University, students are asked to “think and discuss and express ideas rather than memorize knowledge that is given to them,” says Aslan Sarinshipov, Kazakhstan’s minister of education, who also teaches here. “This is something we want to cultivate not just here but in other universities — this exchange of ideas, new ideas, critical thinking ... The role of Nazarbayev University is to show that this approach works.”

As in other authoritarian states with Western universities, the inevitable question is this: Is it possible to have a freethinking university in a dictatorship? President Nursultan Nazarbayev, for whom the institution was named, is a holdover from the Soviet Union who brooks no dissent and won his last election with 96 percent of the vote. But even as he steadily cracks down on free expression in the rest of the country, he has promised not only that his university will encourage critical thought but also that it will be an incubator where liberal reforms are nurtured until the rest of the country is ready for them.

“N.U. is a sort of a controlled experiment on the sort of reforms that the country itself is going to have to go through — academic freedom, free speech and the whole notion of a transparent, merit-based institution,” says Dennis de Tray, an American who was once the top World Bank official in Central Asia and is now an adviser to the university’s president. “These are all being experimented with within the confines of N.U. in a very smart way, and as they succeed — and I’m sure they’ll succeed — the president can then roll them out to the rest of the country, to institutions in the government and outside the government.”

A controlled experiment?

Nazarbayev University graduates its first students next year.
Joshua Kucera

With its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan inherited a university system in which corruption was ubiquitous and the curriculum focused on memorization rather than critical thinking. Its first solution was to use the country’s growing oil and gas revenues to pay for promising students to study abroad, particularly in the United States, after which they were required to return to work in Kazakhstan. The program, called Bolashak (“future” in Kazakh), has given scholarships to 10,000 students, who now form the core of the country’s young elite.

But Nazarbayev wanted a homegrown university where students would be educated in a Kazakh environment. Rather than attracting an American university to open a local branch (as New York University has done in the United Arab Emirates and Yale in Singapore), Kazakhstan decided to enlist foreign partners in setting up the school but to make it a Kazakhstan-owned enterprise.

The university “will become a national brand of Kazakhstan that will combine the advantages of the national education system and the best of international research and education practice,” Nazarbayev said at the school’s 2010 opening ceremony at the campus on the outskirts of the capital, Astana.

“The president is fully aware that this is a much more expensive proposition than continuing the Bolashak program,” de Tray says. “But he also understood that he didn’t want students that were clones of Western institutions. He wanted Kazakhs who could compete in a global world.”

Built around a vast atrium featuring marble floors, palm trees, fountains and a massive flag of Kazakhstan, the school admitted its first students in the fall of 2010. One of its first challenges was operating a competitive admissions process in a country rife with nepotism and corruption. “There was a lot of pressure, especially on my Kazakh colleagues, but I also had to explain why their sons or daughters couldn’t get in,” says Shigeo Katsu, the university’s president, in an interview in his office, where two portraits of Nazarbayev hang.

The school will graduate its first class of roughly 420 undergraduates in the spring of 2015. There are three schools for undergraduates — engineering, science and technology, and humanities and social sciences — and graduate programs in business, education and public policy, with plans for schools of mining and medicine. Asked what the school’s budget is, Katsu declined to comment, saying, “It’s a sensitive topic.”

We decided to bring some Western values and see how they can work and if our population and our intellectual circles are ready to accept them.

Yerbol Orynbayev

assistant to President Nursultan Nazarbayev

A model of the university’s expansion plans in the capital, Astana, which is itself a new creation.
Joshua Kucera

The government’s original vision for the school aimed to create a new technocratic elite by focusing on science and engineering. But pressure from the foreign partners convinced Nazarbayev to include the school of humanities and social sciences, which is where things get difficult for a country that insists on controlling the public narrative.

Students are required to take a course called the History of Kazakhstan. It uses primary source documents to teach from a critical perspective rather than the government-approved version of history designed to promote patriotism more than stimulate thought. For example, one of the seminal events of the founding of modern Kazakhstan was a wave of protests in 1986, when Kazakhs opposed the Kremlin’s appointment of an ethnic Russian as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The event is now portrayed as the awakening of a Kazakh political identity. But at the time, Nazarbayev, then the second-ranking official in Kazakhstan, publicly condemned the protests, a fact that is glossed over in official hagiographies.

Zbigniew Wojnowski, a Polish-born, British-educated professor who teaches the course, wrote about one student’s reaction to this revelation in an academic association newsletter, “She did not altogether reject what she had believed before, and she refrained from drawing binary distinctions into ‘Western’ and ‘Kazakh’ views on the past. Still, she was visibly excited to learn something new. ‘You know, I have never worked with primary sources before, and I assumed it had all been very simple: People strove for independence, and then they won. That’s what we were taught at school, but now I’m just not sure what to think.’”

By hiring professors accustomed to academic freedom, the authorities have begun a process they can’t control, says Alima Bissenova, an anthropology professor who grew up in Kazakhstan and earned a Ph.D. at Cornell. “You can’t control people, and if you try to control them, they’ll leave. If they started to tell me what to teach, I’ll leave,” she says. While the university does not use the tenure system, the law regulating the university guarantees academic freedom, and so far, “the authorities have fully respected that,” Katsu says.

Bissenova compared Nazarbayev University to the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, the Russian imperial high school, which in the 19th century brought in French and German teachers to educate the children of the elite and ended up producing liberal rebels like Alexander Pushkin. “So academics are sowing the seeds of liberal education on foreign soil without knowing what will grow out of it,” she says. “And nobody completely controls this process — not academics themselves, not the administration of N.U., not Nazarbayev. Nobody knows what will grow and how these seeds will adapt and what kind of hybrids will emerge. Some people, from all sides, might not like what will grow.”

But this, at least in part, is the idea. “We decided to bring some Western values and see how they can work and if our population and our intellectual circles are ready to accept them,” says Yerbol Orynbayev, an assistant to President Nazarbayev who has been closely involved in the development of the university.

The government has not shown much interest in adopting liberal values, however, at least in the short term. The parliament contains no opposition members, and the country has systematically closed down independent newspapers and jailed opposition activists on spurious charges. Even small protests are quickly shut down and their participants arrested. Kazakhstan’s ratings on political and civic freedom are lower than when it gained independence, according to Washington-based human rights organization Freedom House, which labels the country “not free.”

At the same time, always mindful of its image abroad, Kazakhstan has paid millions to lobbyists, PR companies and think tanks in Washington and European capitals to promote an image of a progressive, modernizing country. Nazarbayev University — whether or not it turns out to be a truly liberalizing force — neatly dovetails with those efforts. And some critics, when the university was set up, noted that a side benefit of educating the country’s youth at home rather than overseas was that it would limit their exposure to possibly dangerously liberal ideas from abroad.

A great number of the students are reliant on the stipends and the support that they receive from what they understand as either the university or the government. Many are thus scared to jeopardize what they have already earned.

Sam Hirst

former history professor at Nazarbayev University

For the time being, Nazarbayev University is in little danger of creating radicals. While some students’ eyes are opened by reading critical materials, that’s not always the case. One professor who taught the History of Kazakhstan course says that in class, students presented Nazarbayev’s statements today as evidence of what happened in the 1980s. “I asked them afterward, on the class forum, about the reliability of Nazarbayev’s recollections as a historical source, and they were quite offended. ‘We have to trust the president,’ was the answer they gave me. I tried to push them to think about inherent biases, et cetera, but they were unwilling to engage,” says the professor, who asked not to be identified.

One student interviewed on condition of anonymity says that there isn’t a lot of discussion in the student body about how the country should be run. “Students are less concerned about politics than on their studies,” the student says. The country’s political system has an unfair reputation. “We discussed this with our professors, and they said that the fact that we can talk about this means that human rights are respected here,” adding that at a university-organized meeting with a human rights officer from the U.S. embassy, the diplomat told students that the reports by international human rights organizations are “often exaggerated” and that “the situation isn’t as bad as they describe.”

Most N.U. students are “acquiescent but not apathetic,” says Sam Hirst, a history professor who left N.U. in 2013, in an email interview. “A great number of the students are reliant on the stipends and the support that they receive from what they understand as either the university or the government. Many are thus scared to jeopardize what they have already earned.” And while few are blind to Kazakhstan’s problems, most “turn their eyes in other directions, usually toward their textbooks, to earn the money necessary either to secure themselves a place in the system they are dependent upon or to leave it.”

Hirst, who also taught the History of Kazakhstan course, notes that it can be difficult for students to navigate attending a school where critical thinking is encouraged while living in a country where it’s not. “When I talked to the students about their reticence, I found that many of them were struggling to code-switch as fast as we were asking them to,” he says.

School officials say they’re confident that students will be able to manage this balancing act. “I’m sure that, along the way, our students will have different views on societal organization and so on. And I do hope that they aren’t just buying propaganda, that they are thinking for themselves,” says Katsu. “But one thing that stands out to me at the same time is that our students are very patriotic. They are proud of this country.”

Katsu calls President Nazarbayev’s decision to set up the school “a calculated risk.” “If you were afraid,” he says, “you wouldn’t create Nazarbayev University.”

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