Wednesday, 05 October 2011


Published in Analytical Articles

By Rafis Abazov (10/5/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst)

This fall several thousand students in Kazakhstan will enter universities of a very different type – research universities.

This fall several thousand students in Kazakhstan will enter universities of a very different type – research universities. In an attempt to reform its higher education system, introduce international standards and encourage research and innovation, the Ministry of Education of Kazakhstan plans to designate 5-6 universities (out of 146), as research universities. These educational institutions – modeled after U.S. research universities such as MIT and Stanford – are envisioned as centers of research and innovation where a new generation of researchers and scholars will prepare to deal with the challenges of globalization. But will these universities deliver the intended outcomes?

BACKGROUND: Kazakhstan’s “On Science” law of spring 2011 introduced the concept of the research university in a drive to further reform the country’s higher education system. The main goals of the Ministry of Education (MoE) of Kazakhstan, which was the major force behind the law, are to integrate Kazakhstan’s universities into the global education system, to improve educational standards and to strengthen bridges between science, academia and industry. This step is part of an even more ambitious government-sponsored program, which in the words of MoE minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov has three “breakthrough” components: “breakthrough in education, breakthrough in sciences and breakthrough in innovation development.”

The country is not alone in its aspiration to reform the national higher education system and make it more competitive in the era of globalization. Many countries around the world are working on similar programs. Neighboring Russia, for example, has invested billions of dollars into its Skolkovo project, dubbed the future Silicon Valley of Russia. This trend reflects, in the words of international education expert J.G. Wissema, a global movement “towards the third generation universities,” a theory which is expounded in his influential book of the same name. He argues that the first generation universities, such as the University of Paris, were institutions which collected knowledge inherited from the Classical era of Plato, Aristotle and others, and attempted to preserve this knowledge throughout the early medieval era. Second generation universities, such as the Humboldt University of Berlin, were institutions which created science-based knowledge, focusing on pure science and not always on the application of their know-how to innovations. The third generation universities, which have emerged hand-in-hand with the rise of globalization during last few decades, merge research and education with new entrepreneurial activities, and serve as a platform for industry, private financiers (investment angels) and corporate managers to meet and work on innovation projects.

For Kazakhstan, the establishment of third generation universities is a tall order. Like in many former socialist countries around the world, higher education in Kazakhstan has for the most part been separated from applied research and has had weak links with industry. For many decades, various industrial sectors and even large enterprises maintained their own Research and Development (R&D) facilities, design bureaus and special laboratories, which inhabited their own universe and were often out of touch with discoveries in the world of “pure science” academia. Thus, neither had a platform on which to learn from each other, and it took years for new ideas to be converted into innovative projects. However, in the era of globalization and tough competition in international markets, the lifespan from research and scientific discoveries into real product must be dramatically shortened.

IMPLICATIONS: In order to achieve its objectives the MoE of Kazakhstan decided to restructure its entire higher education system by establishing a new classification system for the 146 institutions of higher learning. The anchors of the new system are two types of universities – the national research universities and research universities in various parts of the country. These research universities will receive a lion’s share of research grants on a competitive basis. It has been envisioned that the transformation under the new classification would take a few years, with the new funding structure in place already for the coming year. At this stage there are five major contenders for the status of national research university: Al Farabi Kazakh National University, Gumilev Eurasian National University, Karaganda State University, Kazakhstan National Technological University and Nazarbayev University (NU). Four of them (NU was established in 2010 and has not yet been ranked) have already introduced sweeping changes and have even managed to enter the QS World University Rankings, positioned between 450 and 600.

The new round of educational reforms has already had a significant impact on the entire academic community in the country, as 33 billion Tenge (about US$220 million) in funding for major research projects, laboratories and faculties became subject to the intense national competition. The administration at many universities felt the impact of these changes first, as the very existence of several dozen universities came under question. Therefore, some universities have already begun introducing their own structural changes, cutting a number of departments and experimenting with the introduction of corporate management, though according to Nurlan Ybyraliev of MoE, the ministry suggests a transitional period between 2011 and 2020.

This round of educational reforms has also had a serious impact on the members of the academic community. The salaries of professors at leading national universities have been significantly increased, in some places by up to 15-30 percent, though remaining relatively low compared to salaries in the private sector. Members of academia have begun adapting themselves to new realities and searching for innovative research projects and fresh ideas, in order to stay competitive.

But the students could become the biggest beneficiaries of this round of reforms, if the ideas reflected in the new law and policy statements are in fact implemented diligently. Already today many students have access to state-of-the-art laboratories such as the newly established innovation cluster at Al Farabi Kazakh National University. In addition, students at many universities also have an opportunity to choose international mentors and supervisors and – now more than ever – to access study-abroad programs at leading universities around the world.

CONCLUSIONS: Wissema suggests that modern research university management should focus on supporting what he calls “technostarters” – people with innovative and bright ideas – in order to succeed in establishing a successful creative and innovative environment. This implies that Kazakh universities must pay greater attention to capacity building by investing more heavily in training and re-training teaching and research personnel and unfolding their creative ideas. It is crucial to reduce the teaching load for professors at research universities on par with leading western schools, under the condition that they spend more time on Research. Research universities should also build human capital by attracting a young generation of innovators and develop a flexible system for retaining the most talented students at their laboratories and research facilities (according to an official report only 1 or 2 out of 100 PhD graduates accept jobs in R&D, as of 2010). And finally, the universities in cooperation with the MoE and the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies should develop a sustainable system for attracting private entrepreneurs with bright ideas, or those who are able to spot bright ideas and use the research universities as a platform for launching innovative products. There is also a need to accept that universities are not commercial entities and therefore do need to maintain some amount of theoretical research and strive for excellence in teaching methods and approaches. Policy-makers at university and government levels should also understand that the goals and objectives should be measurable and achievable and accept the inherently high failure rate of innovative projects, especially during the early stages of the reforms, as even in the Silicon Valley in the U.S., the failure rate in venture capital reaches 60 percent.

AUTHORS’ BIOS: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at Columbia University. He was a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University (summer 2011). He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), and The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007). He has been awarded an IREX 2010–2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for research on public policy reforms in Kazakhstan.
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