Prior to the summer of 2011, when I heard people refer to Kazakhstan, I could only recall the sports of ice hockey and Greco-Roman wrestling. This changed significantly when I travelled to this Central Asia (Eastern Europe) country to visit several leading universities in the summer of 2011. What quickly became apparent is that there is a deep commitment for Kazakhstan to be the economic powerhouse in the region. What is more impressive is that there is an equally clear commitment to achieving this objective through significant investment in its higher education system.
Under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan is investing heavily in its universities. While in the old capital of Almaty, I was fortunate to speak with leaders within the very impressive and historical Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. I also visited the more recently established Kazakh-British Technical University and the entrepreneurial Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research. Early on I realized that Kazakhstan is not on ground zero with respect to its higher education system. It has an impressive history; a foundation upon which great research, good teaching and learning can occur. Most importantly, this country has made a commitment to invest appropriately in higher education to ensure their economic and social goals are attained.
Nazarbayev University – An Impressive Institution
This reality was further reinforced when I traveled north to the new capital of Astana. What was immediately apparent upon arrival in Astana was that it was a remarkably different city than that of Almaty. The geography, the architecture, the citizenry all reflected distinct differences compared to the old capital. Without question, the most remarkable event on my visit to Kazakhstan was the time spent at Nazarbayev University (NU). This university is literally being built from the ground up. Partnering with world-class universities such as the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), University College London, Duke, Harvard and National University of Singapore, it is impressive in many ways. NU is learning from the best institutions in the world and it symbolizes the hope that the people of Kazakhstan have for their country and its people.
Human Resources – The Commodity of the 21st Century
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Kazakhstan is not related to financial or natural resources. They are blessed with both. However, it is the 21st Century commodity of human resources where Kazakhstan requires support and continued investment. Ironically, at a time where North American jurisdictions are cutting higher education budgets, Kazakh leaders are increasing investment. This is another example where North American political leaders must sit up and take notice. The world is small and there are emerging economies with the resources and the desire to not simply compete against us; but rather to learn from us in order to some day have what we have and overtake our current place in the world.
I applaud the Kazakh people for their vision and their commitment to higher education. Now it is North Americans who must have the wherewithal to see that it is only through further commitment to support public higher education that we will maintain our economic and social prosperity. While we ponder this dilemma, I predict that in a very short time, we will know of Kazakhstan for far more than their affinity towards ice hockey and wrestling. I will cheer them on in their effort to win the game of economic prosperity; yet it need not be at our expense.