Academic Free Hand for Nazarbayev University
Kazakhstan’s lawmakers have decreed that the newly opened Nazarbayev University is to be given a free hand in choosing its academic policy, with no interference from the mandarins in Astana. The decision unshackles the institution from having to provide a wide range of subjects that have no relation to students’ majors, a long-time bone of contention for the country’s overburdened learners.
The university will be able to set its own curricula, distinguishing it from rivals who have to follow rigid course content guidelines from above (and which overload students with extra, irrelevant coursework).
The country’s established English-medium institutions such as the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP) and the Kazakh British Technical University might be miffed that this special treatment has not been extended to them. These universities have to include a range of extra modules for their degrees to be recognized by the Education and Science Ministry.
The ministry recently took on KIMEP, one of Nazarbayev University's main rivals, over its alleged failure to issue state-standard diplomas. KIMEP’s license was initially suspended for six months, but – no doubt to the relief of thousands of students and graduates – this decision was revoked in an October 6 court ruling.
Academic freedom may be assured, but cultivating a freethinking environment at the Nazarbayev University may prove harder to achieve. The president himself once called for Kazakhstan’s education sector to promote an "economy of the mind" based on Western-style critical thinking rather than Soviet-style rote learning – but will the students of the Nazarbayev University really be allowed to view the president in a critical light, especially given that it is now a criminal offense to insult the Leader of the Nation?
Paul Bartlett is a journalist based in Almaty.