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NUR-SULTAN – Just ten years ago, the idea of having a world-class university in the middle of the steppes seemed almost impossible, but it is now becoming a reality – since its establishment in 2010, Nazarbayev University (NU ) pioneered educational reforms, academic freedom, merit-based admission and progression, and academic integrity that set an example for many universities across the country. In an interview with The Astana Times, NU President Shigeo Katsu spoke about the achievements of those years, reforms in Kazakhstan and the role of young people.
NU opened its doors to students in 2010. The NU Status Act 2011 gave the university full autonomy in promoting its values of academic freedom, academic integrity and transparency. The university has about 6,000 graduates with another 1,600 expected to graduate in June.
The success, however, was not immediate. Katsu said the university faced a lot of skepticism at first.
“I think people never thought that it would be possible to create another type of university. And so I think the first realization is that we were able to show that something that maybe existed on paper is actually reality. The university is very merit-based, where we can say without reservation that everyone enters through the front door, they must all meet all the admission requirements. There are no undeclared payments or enrollment through logins,” said Katsu, who has led the university since its inception.
He explained that the commitment to academic integrity and transparency stems from the university’s original mission to nurture future leaders, but also from its aspiration to become a world-class research university.
From idea to implementation, building research has been a key priority for the university. Although it takes time, the innovation systems of a growing number of countries are built on the foundation of university research which can then lead to new technologies and new products, and to the development of new industries – all of this to support the sustainable development of the country’s economy. .
For every research-intensive university, a process of integrating learning and research is among the key indicators of success. Since 2011, NU scientists and students have published more than 5,600 scientific papers, and 14.1% of them have appeared in the world’s 10 most-cited journals, boosting NU’s international status and credibility.
“Leading education reform has been our mandate. We were therefore expected to share all our experiences, good and bad, with the rest of Kazakhstan’s higher education system. And we have been doing it almost from the beginning by organizing trainings and courses for leaders from other universities,” Katsu said.
It took several years before the university system began to be understood. “I think the sharing of our experience and this one-way initial training has more recently given way to building a larger professional community in various fields that meet their respective specific needs,” Katsu said.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning processes globally and NU was no exception, but it was overall better positioned than most universities in Kazakhstan for this “sharp change”, according to Katsu.
“It was hard for the students. (…) It was only during this spring semester that we started moving to a mixture of online and offline. The students are mostly back and very happy. What online courses cannot replace is human contact, the weaving of social networks and the building of a community. The social fabric has been weakened during the pandemic,” he said, noting that the implications of COVID-19 could be felt for years.
Talking about the reforms in the country’s education sector, he said they come as the country sees the impact of the baby boom since the turn of the century.
“In the 1990s, the birth rate went down because of the so-called transition recession. And then in the 2000s, birth rates started to rise and the economy started to take off. And now these early 2000s baby boomers are starting to graduate from high school, ready to enter the workforce or go on to college. And this will continue for many years. And as you know, that has huge implications for higher education,” Katsu said.
He stressed that a country does not need too many universities, but rather enough resources to equip them. There are more than 120 higher education institutions in Kazakhstan. Katsu said that for a country the size of Kazakhstan, 40 would be enough.
“The data shows that there are five times more university graduates each year than can be meaningfully absorbed by the job market,” he said. “Employers have difficulty finding graduates who meet their expectations, both in terms of disciplinary skills, and in particular, so-called non-technical skills, such as time management, questioning, critical thinking and hard work. as a team.
The education system needs a “fundamental overhaul”, Katsu said, noting that technical and vocational education and training (TVET) still remains neglected.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited the UNU campus on May 4, where he got acquainted with teaching, research and development activities and development strategy.
“He understands that what we are trying to do through our education and research that translates into our graduates, our research and our innovation results, are the things he envisions for New Kazakhstan. He encourages all of us to be really more ambitious and to be even more active,” Katsu said.
And supporting the younger generation will serve the country’s goal of building a new Kazakhstan, where young people will be agents of change.
“While young people have to lead the change, I think they also have to be quite diplomatic and respectful of the accomplishments of the elders. There is always a reason why the existing structures exist. You have to show them respect and to a certain framework, trying to introduce changes that the older generation understands. No need to fight them, because it creates unnecessary friction and antibodies to change,” Katsu said.
He also considers that maintaining the links between students and graduates is a very important task for the future.
“In the United States, alumni associations are extremely important, especially for fundraising. And we obviously want to create very strong links between our graduates and ourselves. We want our graduates to serve as examples for our current students so that they see them as role models,” he said.
Ties between graduates and the university should promote lifelong learning, Katsu noted, saying that a rapidly changing world with new trends and technologies requires constant upgrading of skills.
“In today’s world, what you learn in school or in our classrooms may be obsolete five to ten years from now. Especially in data science, but also in engineering and biomedicine, the progress is so rapid,” he added, saying that alumni reunions in the future could include conferences where graduates could get a boost on some of the latest knowledge and ideas.