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Bolashak to add short-term student experience abroad to its degree-focused repertoire

26 august 2013, 14:24
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The famed Bolashak scholars program has changed over the years to meet Kazakhstan’s evolving needs for professionals who can take it to developed-nation status.

The latest wrinkle is helping Kazakh university students obtain a short-term educational experience abroad – from a semester to two years – rather than an overseas degree.

That’s a major departure from the overseas-degree focus that’s been the main thrust of the Bolashak program since President Nursultan Nazarbayev founded it in 1993.

The good news for Kazakh students wanting to obtain a degree abroad is that the short-term overseas program will be in addition to Bolashak’s degree-focused efforts rather than a replacement for them.

Sayasat Nurbek announced the new wrinkle, which will go into effect in 2015, at the Eurasian Higher Educational Leaders Forum at Nazarbayev University in June. He heads a Ministry of Education and Science team that’s implementing what’s known as the student-mobility program.

Kadisha Dairova, NU Vice-President for Student Affairs and International Cooperation. Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Nazarbayev University

Kadisha Dairova. Photo courtesy of Nazarbayev University

Kadisha Dairova, who helped pioneer Bolashak in the 1990s, also touched on the short-term initiative during the educational leaders conference. Kadisha, now a Nazarbayev University vice president, shared memories of the challenges of starting an overseas-scholars program from scratch.

The new short-term program’s name – student mobility -- comes from a key principle of the Bologna Process, the European educational-system reform movement that Kazakhstan has embraced.   

That principle is that students should be able to cross borders to have educational experiences abroad without losing the credits they earn overseas when they return home to finish their degrees. Here’s scholar Gulnar Sarsembayeva’s  take on the advantages of embracing the Bologna Process: http://www.kafu-academic-journal.info/journal/3/52/.

Why should Bolashak finance a student experience abroad that does not lead to an overseas degree?

One reason is to give students the international experience that employers covet and that government leaders believe accelerates Kazakhstan’s modernization.

Another is that the countries that have embraced the Bologna Process -- most of which are in Western Europe – have set a student-mobility goal. That target is 20 percent of university students obtaining an educational experience overseas before graduating.

Kazakhstan, which has long taken its international commitments seriously, wants to show that it’s acting on its Bologna Process promises, not just giving them lip service. 

Sayasat discussed the evolution of the Bolashak program with me in his office recently.

Sayasat Nurbek. Photo courtesy of Sayasat Nurbek  
Sayasat Nurbek. Photo courtesy of Sayasat Nurbek  

“When we started the program 20 years ago,” he said, “there was a big need for people with degrees in certain fields. For example, Kazakhstan had no training programs for diplomats or people in international trade. That’s because that kind of training was done in Russia during Soviet times.

“So the first decade of Bolashak was spent largely in training people who were trained before in the Soviet Union.”

Later, the Bolashak program began training scientists, engineers, information-technology people and others for Kazakhstan’s Industrial and Innovation Strategy.

The program started with graduate students – master’s and Ph.D. candidates.

As it earned international acclaim for its huge commitment to developing human capital, it was expanded in 2006 to include undergraduates.  Sending students abroad for four years to obtain bachelors degrees was much costlier than sending them overseas for two years of master’s study. But Kazakhstan’s economy was humming at the time, averaging 10 percent growth a year from 2000 to 2008.

When Nazarbayev University was founded three years ago, the government decided to stop financing undergraduate degrees abroad through Bolashak. The idea was for Kazakhstan’s most talented high school graduates to go to the new Western-style university in Astana, helping to turn it into a world-class higher-educational institution.

Bolashak uses research on Kazakhstan’s changing educational and labor-force needs to re-invent itself from time to time rather than relying on its staff’s hunches about what should come next.

Two years ago it surveyed 429 employers about the kind of employees they needed.

“They said ‘We don’t need more degree programs – we need more short-term training,’” Sayasat noted.

They were referring to what the West calls adult education – the retraining of degree holders throughout their lives to obtain the latest, most relevant skills.

The idea is to “send you to a three-month executive-education program at Georgetown University or the Colorado School of Mines,” Sayasat said.

Bolashak started the non-degree, skills-updating program in 2012. So far it has sent 699 trainees abroad.

Meanwhile, Bolashak refocused its degree program to emphasize Ph.D.s rather than master’s degrees.

Sayasat pointed out that only 5 percent of Nazarbayev University’s faculty are Kazakhs with degrees from abroad, where the latest skills are taught.

“You need thousands of Ph.D.s “ to move a country forward in education, applied science, industry and other areas, he said.

The Bolashak program’s 6,000 degree-holding graduates include 67 Ph.D.s – only about 1 percent of the total, Sayasat said.

“And among those Ph.D.s, there are only a handful of applied scientists – people in biotech, nanotech and so on,” he said.

Kazakhstan’s leaders have made applied science – that is, science that leads to products – a priority for developing the economy and society in general. In fact, Nazarbayev University was founded as the country’s first applied-science university.

Sayasat has borrowed a page from China in convincing some overseas universities to take clusters of Ph.D. students from Kazakhstan. An example is five Kazakh doctorate students at Trinity College Dublin. Here is a video about the program in Kazakh and Russian:  

 

Bolashak decided to start a student-mobility program shortly after Kazakhstan embraced the Bologna Process in 2011.

Here’s the way it will work:

A  Kazakh university must first find a partner university overseas that has two things in common with it:

1.  A similar course credit system – If an overseas university has a credit system that’s a lot different from its Kazakhstan partner, it will be difficult for Kazakh students to transfer the credits they earned abroad back to their home universities.

2.  The same teaching language – Many Kazakh students take English, so an overseas university that teaches in English would be a natural partner. By the same token, a partner in Milan that teaches in Italian might not be a good fit.

When Kazakh students study at an overseas university, they must pay its tuition fee, of course. And  tuition is usually higher than what the students would pay at their home universities.

That’s where Bolashak steps in. It will cover the difference in tuition fee between what a student would pay at Al Farabi Kazakh National University and at the University of Edinburgh, for example.

It’s important to note that the Bologna Process concept of student mobility isn’t a one-way street. An overseas university will send its students to its Kazakhstan partner university as well.

That helps the Kazakh university by giving its faculty and students a connection with young people who can introduce new ideas. And it provides the visiting student with an interesting international experience in Kazakhstan.

A final note about Bolashak’s student-mobility program: Although the program was not designed to provide a Kazakh student with an overseas degree, there are circumstances under which that could happen.

If a Kazakh student took his last two years of study abroad, the overseas university might award him a  degree as well as his home university.

But those situations would be the exception, not the rule.


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