Minds meet in Almaty

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The QS WORLDWIDE 2019 conference will be staged in September in Kazakhstan where a rapid transformation of higher education is under way. Organising partner Al-Farabi Kazakh National University is spearheading this development. First Vice Rector, Professor Mukhambetkali Burkitbayev, is responsible for his university‘s internationalisation policy and spoke to Tony Martin about the great strides that are being taken.

In the last 25 years, changes in Kazakhstan have influenced higher education? What have been the main developments?

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan underwent major historic and political changes that have influenced the developments in its higher education. The country introduced significant changes in the regulatory and legislative framework of the higher education system. Already in 1992, the government introduced the ‘Law on Education,’ which was amended in 2007, and 2018 when it embraced the decentralisation of the education system, permitted the opening of private universities, internationalisation and a new approach to research and development.

I would like to highlight the partnership of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) with the government, as the country works on implementing the National Strategy ‘100 Concrete Steps Towards Realisation of the Five Institutional Reforms’ announced by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in May 2015. This strategy has envisioned introducing OECD standards to improve the quality of human capital. In addition, the State Program of Industrial and Innovative Development (SPAIID) has directed research grants and programs for the needs of the national economy and R&D commercialisation.

The Ministry of Education (MoE) programs on academic, and international academic, mobility have had a great impact on the internationalisation of higher education in the country. Thus, the best students have the opportunity to study abroad in more than 50 countries around the world. The MoE also initiated the visiting professors program enabling them to deliver their lectures and supervise researchers.

Signing the Bologna agreement (2010) led to a serious transformation of the higher education landscape in Kazakhstan and the integration process into the EU education space. This allowed the introduction of the threecycle system of HE: bachelor, masters and PhD, the credit system, and facilitated academic mobility and quality assurance and an accreditation system. The joint work with EU programs enabled Kazakhstan’s education professionals and scientists to cooperate with European colleagues in developing and implementing scientific and educational programs and projects.

In 1993 President Nursultan Nazarbayev initiated the ‘Bolashak’ International Scholarship Program which aimed to send the best students to study at leading foreign universities. Between 193 and 2018, more than 12,000 young people received their education under this program and most of them now hold key governmental positions.

As Kazakhstan’s longtime leading university, what are KazNU’s current ambitions in terms of further advancement?

The University looks forward to celebrating its 85th anniversary in 2019 as a ‘University of a New Formation’. To achieve this, KazNU has developed the ‘Al-Farabi University Smart City’ innovative platform. It aims at educating the younger generation with high skills in science and the understanding of moral and spiritual values according to the great philosopher Abu Nasr Al-Farabi who noted that: “Knowledge without education, without moral principles can bring harm, not good”. The importance of future global citizens’ spiritual improvement is reflected in KazNU’s ‘University 4.0’ model.

Our University actively works on international recognition and has been selected to lead the global hub of the UN Academic Impact Program (UNAI) on Sustainability. It closely works with UN organisations such as UNESCO, ISESCO, UNICEF, and UNDP. In May 2018, KazNU established the Ban Ki-moon Institute for Sustainable Development. For example, jointly with the UN Alliance of Civilizations, the University initiated the project, ‘The Formation of Citizens of a Virtuous Society: The Mission of Modern Universities’.

How has KazNU embraced international university rankings; what level has it achieved and what challenges has it faced?

KazNU has been taking part in rankings since 2010 and this work helped to introduce major changes in the structure of the University, the management system, a strategy of internationalisation, and learning from best practices of world leading universities. The University developed its own strategy of transformation into a research university through increasing international recognition, modernising its structure based on a cluster approach to optimise the efficiency of the use of internal resources. For the first time in Kazakhstan’s higher education, we launched a medical faculty at a comprehensive university.

KazNU also experimented with innovative results-based management by implementing an internal rating system for teaching staff, departments and faculties based on key indicators, and creating a competitive environment for professionals oriented to achieve the strategic aims of the university. We also began offering both traditional and massive open online courses in English. The university has established the national platform of open education that has brought together foreign and Kazakhstani partner universities.

Rankings helped to create a competitive environment and became a good motivation for excellence for our staff members. They strive to participate in different events organised by rating agencies that are an excellent platform for establishing bilateral and multilateral ties with universities, to share best experiences and practices of the academic world. The effectiveness of our strategy for university development is evidenced by the 220th position of KazNU in 2018, having advanced 400 positions, in the QS World University Rankings® in the past eight years. So, we are proud that the Executive Council of QS WORLDWIDE Conference has entrusted KazNU to organise this world forum and international exhibition of universities in September 2019. It is a great honor and huge responsibility.

What are the key strategic features of KazNU’s considerable rise in rankings?

The management of the University considers the main priorities to be to increase scholars’ publications and R&D commercialisation, making it easier to implement all five criteria of the QS World University Rankings®.

The University actively encourages our scientists to join scientific and educational projects with foreign colleagues, and write joint publications in journals with a high impact factor. KazNU has increased the number of visiting professors and has hosted such Nobel Prize laureates as John Nash, Murray Gell-Mann, Christopher Pissarides, and Roger D Kornberg.

We strive to establish sustainable alliances with national and international employers by holding job fairs for our graduates. The university implements the concept of continuous professional training of specialists. Employers are actively involved in the educational process, joining the examination boards.

The student to faculty ratio is an important benchmark for our university. We integrated 10 research institutes of the Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan, strengthening our research base and leading scholars into teaching activities. One of our weakest rankings indicators is the ratio of teaching staff to publications. Even though our scientists publish more than 5,000 articles and monographs annually, an indivisible part of them are in the SCOPUS database since most of their publications are written in the Kazakh or Russian language. The university, jointly with the MoE, works on attracting prominent overseas scholars as visiting professors to deliver lectures and supervise PhD dissertations. Meanwhile, the share of foreign students in our university is growing each year and we create the necessary conditions for attracting foreign youth to our university including large numbers from China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and many other countries.

To be a top university in the current era, requires strong global recognition and international partnerships. What steps has KazNU taken to be known and respected worldwide by both academic peers and students?

The internationalisation of all activities is one of the key components of the university development strategy. One of the most important aspects is the introduction of best practice from global top universities, such as offering training in English in more than 70% of university programs and introducing new teaching approaches, such as the practice-oriented MDP Global Classroom Program in cooperation with the Earth Institute of Columbia University.

Second is the cooperation with international partners in transforming KazNU into a modern research university. We cooperate with more than 500 universities worldwide and with many international networks and alliances including: the International Association of Universities (IAU), European University Association (EUA), CIS Network University, University of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (USCO), University Alliance of the Silk Road (UASR), Silk Road University Network (SUN), University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) , and COMSATS. KazNU has received a grant from the government of China for a supercomputer and started establishing an International IT-Technopark of the UASR.

Thirdly, accreditation by international accreditation agencies means that KazNU actively implements double degree, student and faculty exchange programs and joint summer schools with leading foreign and partner universities.

Fourth is our work with the world’s major innovative high-tech corporations. We have created 16 scientific and educational centers including «HewlettPackard», «Cisco», «Koniсa Minolta», «Fujitsu», «Samsung», «Alcatel», «Microsoft», «Intel», «Kaspersky Lab» and «Huawei. The Microsoft Corporation has filmed a video about the successful implementation of the model of the digital university in KazNU. In 2017, we took an active part in the international exhibition EXPO-2017 Future Energy, presenting R&D in green technologies and renewable energy sources. KazNU established a Green Zone through the practical implementation of renewable energy sources, environmentally friendly technologies and sustainable development principles of Almaty.

Fifth is advancing scientific and innovative activities corresponding to advanced world analogues and consisting of research institutes, engineering cluster and high technologies, business incubator, a commercialisation office and small innovative enterprises. For example, the University launched the first Kazakh ‘Al-Farabi-1’ nano-satellite, developed within the framework of the UNIFORM international project, and plans to launch more satellites.

Sixth are extracurricular activities; KazNU is an undisputed leader in student sports including the core of Kazakhstan national teams and winners at the Olympic Games, World Universiade, World Championships and Asian Games. The ‘Model UN – New Silk Road’ program organised by our university with the support of the UN and the US Embassy in Kazakhstan has become very popular with both national and international students.

How does the Kazakh government support KazNU’s growth and development?

It was the government of Kazakhstan that developed the concept of Industry 4.0, which is related to the digitisation and development of alternative energy sources and the green economy, and prioritised the development of education and science for the development of the knowledge-based economy. Thus, KazNU has received the status of ‘National University’ which allows us to develop our own educational programs. This step facilitates the increase of international competitiveness of our university.

On April 25, 2018, the Majilis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan approved the Law that extends the academic, managerial and financial freedom of national universities. This law allows universities to independently implement their own policies and operate in the conditions of the marketoriented economy. Universities get the financial freedom to use budgetary and extra-budgetary funds, as well as upgrading university technical and social facilities.

MDP students discuss the SDGs during a seminar at the Global Classroom

What message have you for university leaders around the world to encourage them to engage with KazNU and Kazakh higher education?

At the heart of KazNU’s internationalisation strategy lies deepening international cooperation and strengthening joint academic and research programs. KazNU has a policy of trilingual education (in English, Kazakh and Russian), and, at the same time, offers more than a dozen languages, including Chinese, French and Japanese. In addition, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, as the flagship of higher education in Kazakhstan, implements the University 4.0 model and strives for perfection based on the harmony of spiritual heritage and high technology, fostering in its students high spiritual and moral values for the formation of Global Citizenship. When we proudly host the QS WORLDWIDE 2019 Forum in Almaty, the scientific, educational and cultural center of Kazakhstan, and a beautiful city of flowers and gardens, located at the foot of the snow-capped Ile Alatau Mountains, the guests of QS WORLDWIDE 2019 will learn not only about KazNU, but also about our multinational and multi-confessional country at the Great Steppe, about our education system and the dialogue of religions, cultures and civilizations in Central Asia.

Professor Mukhambetkali Burkitbayev is the first vice rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. With a PhD in chemistry, he has produced more than 300 research publications in the fields of inorganic chemistry and radiation ecology, as well as four monographs and textbooks, and has supervised more than 10 PhD students. He has been awarded the NATO Science for Peace Partnership Prize. Professor Burkitbayev is responsible for KazNU’s internationalisation policy. Under his leadership, the university has demonstrated considerable results in university activities, strengthened international ties and improved its international recognition.