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New Education Minister has the talent to keep reform on track

06 september 2013, 14:19
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Four years ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev called on a 35-year-old rising star in government administration to form a team to start a new Western-style university in Astana.

That university had to be world-class, the president told Aslan Sarinzhipov, whose credentials included management positions in the Foreign Ministry and World Bank.

One reason it had to be world-class: Kazakhstan needed an elite international university to help it achieve its goal of becoming one of the world’s 30 most developed countries by 2050. Another reason was more personal for the president: The university would bear his name – so it HAD to be good.

The team that Sarinzhipov assembled did such an amazing job of starting Nazarbayev University that this week President Nazarbayev named him Education Minister.

New Kazakhstan Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov. Photo courtesy of megapolis.kz

New Kazakhstan Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov. Photo courtesy of megapolis.kz

Sarinzhipov replaced Bakytzhan Zhumagulov, who in his three years at the ministry presided over the most sweeping changes in Kazakhstan’s educational history.

Sarinzhipov’s mandate is to continue, and expand on, the educational reforms that Zhumagulov kicked off.

In that sense, Sarinzhipov will have a tough act to follow. The hard-charging Zhumagulov’s   accomplishments have included:

-  Having Kazakhstan embrace the European educational reform movement known as the Bologna Process – a huge shift from the former Soviet model.

-  Adding a twelfth year of school to Kazakhstan’s kindergarten-to-11th-grade system to make it compatible with Western educational models.  That compatibility is crucial since Kazakhstan’s new higher-education model is Western.

-  Providing Nazarbayev University with the financial resources required to become world-class.

Rejuvenating Kazakhstan’s longtime flagship university – Kazakh National University in Almaty – by making it more international, by starting a new construction program there and by ordering millions of dollars of cutting-edge equipment for the university.

Giving Kazakhstan’s universities the autonomy to determine their academic programs, choose their top managers and make other decisions that used to be the prerogative of the Education Ministry.

-  Greatly expanding Kazakhstan’s preschool and kindergarten programs.

-  Presiding over major changes in the Bolashak program that sends Kazakhs to educational institutions abroad. One of the new wrinkles is a greater emphasis on producing Western-trained Ph.D.s to help Kazakhstan advance faster.

I was impressed with the job that Zhumagulov did. Many of the reforms were tough to accomplish. It didn’t help that a number of university presidents and other top managers, who had achieved success under the Soviet educational system, wanted to drag their feet on reform.

I was also amazed at the sheer pace of reform under Zhumagulov, a longtime Nazarbayev confidante who once headed the president’s Nur-Otan Party. He changed program after program after program. In fact, he made so many changes that it was hard for me to keep up with them – and I’ve been a longtime observer of Kazakhstan’s educational scene.

Bakytzhan Zhumagulov. Photo courtesy of primeminister.kz

Bakytzhan Zhumagulov. Photo courtesy of primeminister.kz

President Nazarbayev was so pleased with Zhumagulov’s efforts that he kept him in the Education Minister’s position almost three years – three times longer than most cabinet ministers serve.

Meanwhile, Sarinzhipov was doing an equally masterful job at Nazarbayev University.

Starting a university from scratch is a daunting task. I’ve watched it happen in the United States and other countries, and in my mind Sarinzhipov’s team did a better job than all of the founding teams I’d seen.

Nazarbayev University now has undergraduate programs in Engineering, Science and Technology, and Social Sciences and Humanities.

This year it started graduate programs in Business, Education and Public Policy. It plans a Medical School and a School of Mines in the next few years.

The university’s enrollment has reached 2,100, including its first 100 graduate students.

As part of its emphasis on world-class research, it has opened several research centers, including ones dealing with energy and life sciences.

Nazarbayev University. Photo courtesy of azattyq.org

Nazarbayev University. Photo courtesy of azattyq.org

Until Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katzu took the reins from Sarinzhipov’s founding team this year, the team presided over the design and construction of the university, the hiring of its top managers, the selection of its academic programs and the enrollment of its students.

It was a massive challenge – and Sarinzhipov’s team had to accomplish it with the added pressure of being in a fishbowl: Not only was President Nazarbayev’s team watching the university’s progress closely, but so were educational leaders across the country and the Kazakh public.

Sarinzhipov has drawn universal praise for a masterful job. The university opened on time, its students are the best in Kazakhstan and its programs excellent. 

And no one doubts that Nazarbayev University’s graduates, the first of whom will get their diplomas in 2015, will play a huge role in the country’s progress in years to come.

I think one of Sarinzhipov’s top accomplishments was the partnerships his team forged between Nazarbayev University and some of the world’s elite educational institutions. They include University College of London in Engineering, the University of Wisconsin in Social Sciences and Humanities, the Carngie-Mellon affiliate iCarnegie in Science and Technology, Duke University in the Graduate Business Program, the University of Pennsylvania and Cambridge University in the Graduation Education Program, and Singapore University in the Graduate Public Policy Program. 

Another major Sarinzhipov accomplishment was having Nazarbayev University begin sponsoring an annual Eurasian Higher Educational Leaders Conference two years ago.

Its aim is to bring together educational leaders from Kazakhstan, the region and the world to share ideas on improving education to better meet society’s needs.

Speakers at the first two conferences included educational experts and reformers from across the globe.

Personal qualities that I think will serve Sarinzhipov well as Education Minister include a keen intellect, an ability to grasp problems and potential solutions quickly, an ability to work well with others and a friendly and laid-back style.

As I watched Zhumagulov chalk up a long list of accomplishments, I wondered if there were any successor out there who could have the impact he did in reforming Kazakhstan’s educational system.

I think President Nazarbayev got it right when he selected Aslan Sarinzhipov to continue the reform.   


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