The position of Nazarbayev University, named after Kazakhstan’s president, is unique. Established in 2010 as a “beacon” for higher education in this central Asian country, it has far more autonomy than neighbouring institutions — for whom the inherited Soviet system of centralised governance still lingers — but also far more government funding. Loretta O’Donnell, the university’s vice provost for academic affairs says that Nursultan Nazarbayev — who has led the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union 28 years ago — recognised that his university would need to be seen to have academic freedom if it was to pull its weight on the world stage.
In response, Nazarbayev has made academic integrity a central focus of its entrance policy and operates “absolute merit-based admissions”, says O’Donnell who swapped a role at the University of New South Wales’ business school for the Kazakh capital Astana in 2013. The university is consciously creating an environment in which short cuts aren’t acceptable, according to O’Donnell, who is adamant that money will not get students from the oil-rich region entry into courses. Its foundation courses, which most students complete before starting their degrees at the university, not only aim to boost students’ English language and academic writing skills, but also teach them about the importance of academic integrity, she adds.
Alongside Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Nazarbayev has been running academic integrity conferences, and the institutions are now developing a Kazakh “integrity league” together. “It’s for universities that are serious about the issue. It’s early days but it will be self-monitoring: keeping ourselves accountable and holding ourselves to really high standards. Everything we do, we try to do to international standards, to create opportunities for ‘brand Kazakhstan’ to be well known and well respected, so that graduates from our universities can really make their place in the world,” says O’Donnell.
The autonomy enjoyed by Nazarbayev is now spreading to other universities, too. While the reelection of president Nazarbayev for a fourth term in 2015 attracted criticism from foreign observers for the lack of genuine opposition candidates (the president got 97 percent of the vote), the same trend in higher education was highlighted in a book published last year by US academics who have advised Kazakhstan’s government.
“It used to be that 20 percent of the curriculum could be developed by a university and 80 percent mandated by the ministry, but those proportions are shifting,” says O’Donnell. “I’d say it’s about 40-60 now and over time, other universities will reach the same degree we have.”