How to build an international university in under 5 years

“We do not and we will never stop learning.” – Kadisha Dairova, VP of Nazarbayev

At the start of June, we met an inspiring group of people who are, in this particular case, not the exception, but rather part of a large, thriving community built on hard work, ambition and vision. These educators work at Nazarbayev University (NU), an exceptional international university being built from scratch in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Kadisha Dairova, the Vice-President of NU, is a determined leader and passionate educator. She was welcoming and approachable with a down-to-earth sense of humour. None of that diminished the sense though that she clearly knew her goals, and she left little doubt that she was going to achieve them.

Before her work at NU, Dr Dairova served as the Second Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kazakhstan and later as the Third Secretary at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington.

Perhaps it is something in the air in Astana, but Dr Dairova and her colleagues left us with the impression that grit is a foundational part of the culture at Nazarbayev University.

For the first time ever, the Kazakh government issued a directive — and sufficient funds – to set up a university with English as the medium of instruction. It was a unique opportunity for Dr Dairova and other founding members to make a real contribution to their country. The Government has been incredibly supportive so far, and we get the sense that the people of NU do not take this for granted. They work very hard to remain academically relevant and refuse to rest on their laurels.

We met the Head of International Partnerships, Arman Zhumazhanov, and Head of Admissions, Dariga Tukayeva. Mr Zhumazhanov has helped guide NU’s partnerships through the early years, and Ms Tukayeva has established and now runs a transparent but uncompromisingly thorough admissions  process. This transparency and the shared commitment to a meritocracy within the university is clearly a cause for pride. In the emerging markets, this level of regulation in the admissions process is an achievement.

NU is focused on achieving recognition as a world-class academic destination, and they are going about this systematically.

For a snapshot of what the vision looked like at the start of this impressive five-year journey, here is former President Shigeo Katsu’s point of view.

NU has enlisted the help of several universities around the world, recognising and seeking their expertise to as they set up various departments across the campus. They have one caveat – the NU partnership model. Dr Dairova emphasised the significance of maintaining a uniquely Kazakh University rather than becoming merely a helipad for foreign universities.

These partner Universities—UCL, Duke, Cambridge, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin-Madison, UPenn, and the National University of Singapore—bring professional development to Nazarbayev’s jointly created departments. They have set up programmes to share teaching methodologies and exchange staff and students. After 5 years, NU continues to receive fresh teaching assistants, research assistants, administrators, professors and directors of departments from these partners. Many of these professionals now want to stay.

Dr Dairova talks about “establishing a knowledge and business hub”, having cracked the secret of successful partnerships. Seeing the world as we do at GAJobs, I nod gladly in agreement as she concludes: “There is no way to establish (ongoing and fruitful) conversations without a partnership.”

The team at Nazarbayev are focused on high-level international academic collaboration with departments and universities that are serious about establishing quality course structures, promoting student engagement and emphasising career development. For example, UCL’s structure for a Foundation programme has proven to be a transplantable model for Nazarbayev’s School of Medicine. For rising academic and administrative staff from UCL, this is highly valuable international experience. Indeed, this is a unique selling point for Nazarbayev.                

Nazarbayev’s student admissions invite only the best. It has two tracks for student admissions: the typical Foundation programme and the direct route. Students with a sufficient cut-off grade in their school leaving exam take an entrance examination in their chosen University subject as well as an English language test, specifically designed by the British Council for Nazarbayev’s admissions process. Each individual applicant’s file goes through several levels of scrutiny, including an examination of extra-curricular achievements and interests, not unlike the Ivy League process. Finally, all candidates are interviewed to test their aptitude and skill in person.

Most Kazakh candidates go through the foundation year to prepare them for a University education that is comparable to global standards. In 2012, NU decided to allow candidates to pass directly into their chosen University degree programme after the English Language Test, if their subject scores were sufficiently high.

The team explain that the mission of NU is as much to transform the region as it is to better equip Kazakshtan’s best students. Nazarbayev’s role in reforming secondary education and building a way to compete in the global Higher Education arena is key to Kazakhstan’s wider economic and international strategies. This is part of the reason the government regards NU as a valuable resource. “(Nazarbayev was) designed as a model for other local institutions to follow, a tool to inform the educational system in Kazakhstan. These other schools were set up after the fall of the Soviet Union as an agreement between Turkey and Kazakhstan,” says Dr Dairova.

Some of their obvious feeder schools include the Republican Physics and Mathematics schools in Kazakhstan where attrition is lower and scores are higher. But Nazarbayev’s people also reach out to the under-performing schools, advising them on how to prepare students for higher education, global competency, and for NU’s entrance exams. They also advise students on Further Education options. The aim is to equip the students for global careers.

There is real substance to the socio-economic strength that Nazarbayev University is bringing to Astana and to the region. For example, NU recently inherited a national medical holding with six clinics. Nazarbayev have now revived this facility and integrated it with the medical school and research centres to provide functional healthcare as well as carry out cutting-edge research, similar to many of the top medical schools in the West.

In 1993, the Kazakh government instituted the Bolashak programme, which provided full-ride scholarships abroad to high-achieving Kazakh students on the condition that they return with their considerably enriched skills and remain in the country for at least 5 years. Since then, 11,000 bright young minds have returned to Kazakhstan, and many of them have chosen to stay. Nazarbayev University is the largest employer of Bolashak scholars. The government is a close second.

Kazakhstan is doing something right in its human development. It’s working. Its plan is ambitious and Nazarbayev is a huge, if not the biggest, cog in the machine.

Nazarbayev is an exciting place for academics, especially those who want the challenge of crafting an international career. If you want a staid, taken-for-granted academic structure, then NU is not for you.

According to Dr Dairova, it is Nazarbayev. “It is the international academic environment in Kazakhstan that they value. And the international academic environment will only come with quality international faculty and administrators.”Kazakh professors who left the country more than 20 years ago are now interested in returning to their homeland. But it is not just Kazakhstan that draws them back.

VP Dairova tells us, “There are new policies in place for professional development and promotion.” NU is keen on maintaining a healthy ratio of international and local faculty. They work surprisingly hard behind the scenes to maintain a team spirit amongst the faculty and staff. Dr Dairova, Mr Zhumazhanov and Ms Tukayeva made it a point to discuss their efforts to help the various cultures among their faculty both fuse and maintain their distinctiveness in a way that will enrich student learning and the staff experience at NU.

This is what it takes to build an international university from the ground up in just under five years:  vision, ambition and an incredible team spirit.

Nazarbayev are now ready to expand their young global academic community.

They want to take on your ideas and passion.

NU has not only managed to become a full-fledged University but also to become a high-level competitor in the Global Academy in those five years. It has been called ‘the Oxford of Kazakhstan’.

As we finish our meeting, Dr Dairova tells a story which encapsulates what it was about the Nazarbayev spirit that has so encouraged us at GAJobs:

“Once in response to a comparison with the development of Oxford and Cambridge during a convocation speech, President Nazarbayev replied: “But I don’t have 800 years!” 

Subiksha Krishniah-Davies interviewed Vice-President Dairova and her colleagues in Nazarbayev University. Contact her to find out more about how we work with NU and other institutions in the region.

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