The World Bank and Higher Education in Kazakhstan

A year ago, on Dec. 15, 2011,  Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire with US-supplied weapons on oil workers on strike since the preceding May for increased wages and better conditions in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen. According to the official count, 15 workers died and upwards of 70 were wounded. Unofficial accounts reported a much higher number of casualties.  

Several hundred miles to the east in the capital, Astana, business went on as usual that day for the Western faculty members and administrators at the recently built multi-billion dollar Nazarbayev University, a joint venture involving the country’s authoritarian regime, the World Bank, and a number of major, primarily US “partnering” universities. This is the second part of a three-part series (part one here), stimulated by news of the “Zhanaozen Massacre” and initial word of “global university” dealings in Kazakhstan.

Part Two

In the view the World Bank’s planners, the centerpiece of the restructuring effort of Kazakhstan’s higher education system – Nazarbayev University at Astana — would require a modern administrative structure and procedures, innovative curricula, “rules of engagement” with other universities and industry, and “twinning arrangements” with top-rate universities around the world.

The challenge, as the Bank saw it, was to make sure the new university would have an institutional structure that would “offer the dividends from a knowledge economy” and a sound “internationalization strategy.” With all that in mind and the new campus initially projected to open in fall 2009, Bank advisors arranged a JERP “Workshop for the New University” in Dec. 2008.

The two-day Astana meet-up brought together a Bank team of “knowledge economy” consultants and officials from the MOES in an effort to define the “global knowledge” needed “for the successful design and implementation of the New University” and to help develop “a clear, strong governance structure,” a “financing plan,” and a “quality assurance framework.”

The Grand Partnership Development Tour

Following the workshop, “Knowledge Bank” representatives chaperoned a delegation of high level MOES apparatchiks on a month long, around-the-world “Partnership Development Tour” (PDT) in Feb. 2009.

The trip’s prospectus promised the delegation would, “see first-hand a range of governance structures, financing mechanisms, quality assurance systems, internationalization strategies and curriculum development at established, top-ranked universities on the one hand, while gaining exposure to the recent experiences of young, emerging universities on the other.”

The objective of the visits, according to the Bank, was “to apply the lessons learned to the establishment and expansion of the new university of Astana…” and for the “host institutions to learn about the concept and strategy of the University of Astana.” The Kazakhs and their guides visited multiple institutions, most of which eventually landed a “partnering agreement” from Nazarbayev.

The PDT took the participants on a far-reaching globe trot that included visits to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cambridge University, and the University College of London. The journey also included stopovers at Qatar and Singapore, like Kazakhstan two fabulously wealthy authoritarian states.

They visited the Qatar Science and Technology Park  at “Education City” outside Doha, the home of a cluster of joint projects with US-based universities including Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Carnegie Mellon created through World Bank assistance. It was a model in some sense of things to come in Astana.

The delegation also met with higher ups at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Named after the mini-state’s long-time “benevolent dictator” and “minister mentor” (a title paralleling Kazakhstan’s “President-for-Life”) much admired by Nazarbayev, the school has been a forerunner in the establishment of “partnering relationships” with major universities in the U.S., UK, Japan, and China. It soon won a “twinning” contract to help create and run NU’s Graduate School of Public Policy, slated to become the leading research and training facility for Central Asia’s politicians, civil servants and administrators.

Cambridge was also an illustrative tour stop. While there, participants were greeted by Anne Lonsdale, at the time Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University and also chair at the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. As the NU got underway in 2010, Lonsdale briefly became the university’s Provost with oversight over the hiring process for many of the Western faculty recruited to teach at Astana. She was replaced as NU Provost in Aug. 2012 by another Westerner, Simon Jones, the former President of Abu Dhabi’s Men’s College.

Upon arriving in Astana, Lonsdalewas greeted by her other staff associate, the “Chairman of the Executive Council of the University,” Aslan Sarinzhipov. Formerly the World Bank’s in-country operations officer and an economic envoy earlier on at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington, Sarinszhipov was the interim President of the “New University of Astana” before it was renamed.

As part of the university’s initial three-member administrative “Executive Staff,” Lonsdale also worked alongside NU’s Rector (President) Shigeo Katsu, the decades-long World Bank career man, its former Regional Vice President for Europe and Central Asia.

First Partnership Signed with University College London

 In April 2009, JERP organizers brought “key potential partners” including representatives from Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Cambridge, the University College of London, Singapore’s National University and others to Astana for a “Partnership Development Forum.” They visited the NU campus, still under construction, and met with Kazakh officials and Bank go-betweens in order to finalize “partnering agreements.”

One of the first to sign was the University College of London (UCL), “London’s Global University.” The College already had a deal, sowed up in 2006, to accept Kazakh students supported through the Nazarbayev government’s ‘Bolashak’ (“The Future”) Program that sent some 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students abroad for all-expense paid study between 1994 and 2010.

With the regime now transitioning away from its “study abroad” program for undergraduates and NU replacing it, the UCL took charge of an intensive one-year “foundation program” designed to prepare incoming in academic and technical English.

Penn’s Part

Personnel from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) became involved early on in planning of NU after the dust cleared from the PDT. Its experts helped develop the university’s governance structure and policies, and introduced Kazakh planners to the concept of a Board of Trustees.

According to the GSE’s account, a “chance encounter” led to the Penn-NU partnership. As the story goes, in Oct. 2009 Alan Ruby, at the time a guest lecturer on global education at the GSE, happened to be working as a consultant with the Kazakhstan finance ministry (consulting on exactly what, remains unclear) “when word came about President Nazarbayev’s plans.”

Telling his Kazakhstani associates that it was “not just a matter of magicking up a university,” he informed them that they had to think about admissions, curriculum, faculty, governance and “even how you’re going to feed your students.” When asked if he knew how to do such things, he informed his Astana colleagues that he just happened to know people back at Penn who had the needed expertise.

At the time, Ruby was working as a private consultant for the World Bank, his former employer.

As an operative with “a longstanding interest in education reform, globalization, alliances between unions and governments, and the role of education in developing economies,” Ruby earlier had led programs in education, health, and social insurance in countries including China, Vietnam and Indonesia as director of the Bank’s East Asia “Human Development Sector.”

As a result of Ruby’s “chance encounter,” NU’s Kazakh planning team went to Penn in Feb. 2010 for a one-week crash course on university administration led by the heads of the GSE’s higher education management division and other Penn experts, ranging from the budget director to the chief of university security.

While the Kazakh planners also enlisted help with academic programs from other institutions, the Penn advisors assisted with larger institutional issues. As a result of GSE involvement, Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament passed legislation requiring all the nation’s colleges and universities to develop Boards of Trustees by 2020. The Penn team, according to Ruby, also assisted in the recruitment of NU’s Rector, the former World Bank career man, Shigeo Katsu.

Continuing on as both a Bank consultant and a NU advisor, Ruby helped develop the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, a national network of University-linked charter schools created to prepare the country’s elite students for technocratic and managerial career track programs at NU. He also has played an ongoing role in restructuring the country’s education system through its “National Education Development Program.”

English Only

NU received its first matriculating class of nearly 500 students in Sept. 2010. A largely non-Kazakh faculty greeted that freshman crop of elite state-sponsored undergraduates as they entered classes taught entirely in English, an entrance requirement for all students.

The country’s entire academic curriculum had previously been taught in Russian or Kazakh. But according to official accounts, Nazarbayev followed the advice of his fellow autocrat, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and determined to make English the primary language of the Kazakh academy, viewed as the lingua franca for scientific, technical and business success and international competitiveness.

Alongside Kazakh counterparts increasingly mindful of the Anglo-American comparative advantage in higher education, the Knowledge Bank’s advisors have promoted an “English only” curriculum.

Some critics have described such requirements as a form of “linguistic imperialism,” a means of tethering client states and institutions to U.S. corporate and strategic interests. English currently is being mandated and taught at all levels in the Kazakh system, beginning with pre-school.


Toward the start of 2011, both houses of Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament unanimously passed and President Nazarbayev signed a new law entitled, “On the status of Nazarbayev University, Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev Fund.” The enactment granted NU and the “intellectual schools” “autonomy,” a range of “special status” exemptions from Education Ministry regulations and mandates

The intent of the law was to allow NU administrators to set academic and governance practices in line with “Western educational standards.” It also called for the “integration of education, science and industry – the inseparability of educational process from scientific and practical activities in [the] University and…[the] provision of strategic partnerships with science and business organizations.”

One line in the new law defined the “principle of academic freedom” as “independence of the University… in defining and selection of educational programs, forms and methods of implementation of education activities, and the directions of conducting scientific research.”

The meaning of the “academic freedom,” usually understood as an implicit, if not always explicit right of faculty and students to write and speak freely without fear of repercussion inside and outside the walls of academia, has been nuanced by NU. The “guiding principle” dealing with “Autonomy and Academic Freedom,” states that the University will (emphasis ours),

[E]nsure independence and collegiality in management and decision making based on democratic principles and personal responsibility of each individual involved; guarantee academic freedom of teachers and researchers within their research, and educational activities.

While the new law enshrined “autonomy” and “academic freedom,” it also granted ultimate authority over the University, its feeder Instructional Schools and its specially created endowment fund to a “Supreme Board of Trustees” comprised entirely of Nazarbayev loyalists and personally chaired by the “Leader for Life”.

The Nazarbayev Fund

The new autonomy law formalized the establishment of the “Nazarbayev Fund,” designed to emulate self-sustaining university endowments in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Like much else associated with the University, the World Bank assisted in setting up the Fund. International investments for the Fund are managed by Cambridge Associates, a multinational leader in the handling of major university endowments. Lacking a pool wealthy alumni donors, money for the fund came initially from “some of Kazakhstan’s world-class companies, such as its petroleum and mining giants.”

The fund immediately became a repository for wealthy donors close to the regime. According to its 2011 Annual Report, the Kazakh-based mining multinational, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), gave $98 million to the Fund. The total endowment contained an estimated $370 million by the middle of that year.

ENRC is largely controlled by three billionaire mining magnates and associates of Nazarbayev pejoratively known as “The Trio” — Patokh Chodiev,Alexander Machkevich andAlijan Ibragimov — all three of whom are listed in the Forbes 500.

Heavily invested in mineral mines in Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, the firm has been subject to a number of investigations surrounding allegations of corrupt investment practices involving “insider trading” in a number of places.

Industrial Knowledge

The remodeling of Kazakhstan’s education system, with Nazarbayev University at its center, has had nothing to do with the values of liberal democracy or academic freedom. Except, of course, in some of the self-serving rhetoric of those signing contracts with the regime or perhaps some academics who somehow believe their presence as the bearers of “Western values” will induce a positive change “over time.”

That restructuring, still underway, has had everything to do, in reality, with servicing corporate demands for an upgrading of the nation’s research and development capacities and “applied science” geared to industrial needs and the “commercialization” of any and all intellectual property and discoveries.

Fully operational, the finely tuned system will systematically turn out a technocratic and scientific “elite of the future,”– a corps of technicians, administrators and bureaucrats in service to an authoritarian state and its corporate partners at home and abroad.

Member of the NU’s administrative Executive Council, Kadisha Dairova — the former staffer at Kazakhstan’s Washington embassy who administered the state’s “study abroad” Bolashak Program — stated it clearly.

“Industry and the university must cooperate, otherwise the universities graduate students with skills that aren’t applicable. Industry must tell us what kind of students to produce and train.” she said.

In that vein, the University has set up its own advisory Industrial Board comprised of executives from a number of firms to assure “education-research-industry integration.”

Dairova candidly revealed an additional role of NU as a model for the rest of Eurasia’s authoritarian states to follow.

“The University is a unique project that was from the outset created as a testing ground for new innovative educational and research projects in order to share the accumulated experience and results with other universities and, of course, to help further develop the education system,” Dairova explained in a story appearing in Kazakhstan’s state media. “The Nazarbayev University is a kind of educational and scientific hub of Kazakhstan and in the future will be one for Central Asia and the entire post-Soviet space.”

While some conservative academics and ideologues have long claimed that the “free market” and democracy are inextricably tied together, the program developers and planners at the World Bank have long understood that authoritarian states and dictatorial regimes can also be quite efficient in propelling economic growth and industrial development. So too has the Kazakh leadership, despite its public relations lip service to “democracy,” “autonomy,” and “academic freedom, encoded in the law but violated in practice.

The 2012 Freedom House country report framed it well, stating “Kazakhstan has used the rhetoric of reform and democratization to appease the West without demonstrating a genuine commitment to these processes in practice.”

But that apparently has not been a concern as nary a dissenting word has come from those universities working in partnership with the regime and World Bank operatives playing their high stakes “Great Game” cards in the country. Business as usual must go on, after all.

Stay tuned for more on the “men behind the curtain” at Nazarbayev University in the forthcoming Part Three

Allen Ruff is a US historian and an independent writer on foreign policy issues. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

 Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog.