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Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan – how a “big, bold gamble” has paid off in Central Asia

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There’s no doubt that Nazarbayev University, located in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, is impressive on many counts: its buildings, campus, academic staff, seven Schools and its range of programs from Foundation through to undergraduate, Master and PhD programs.

The University is headed by President Shigeo Katsu who understands the challenges of establishing a world-class University from scratch. It had the support of the First President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who very much gave the team a free hand to achieve the ambition of making it the best university possible, an aim which was undoubtedly helped by the passing, in 2011, of a law granting the University academic freedom and autonomy.  This “social contract” has had a positive, knock-on effect within Kazakhstan as more academic freedom has since been granted to other local universities.

It was agreed that there would be no legacy admission – all students admissions were merit based – and the University saw its first graduates in 2015 and by August 2021 had welcomed 6,700 students with 5,800 graduates.  It has an impressive faculty body, not least in terms of its geographies, with staff coming from 60 countries. 

This diversity is not yet reflected in its student body which is currently 98% from Kazakhstan.  The 2% of foreign students come from, for example, Nigeria and Pakistan, Latin America and from China.  To date the University has only welcomed two students from the UK although one senses that may change as the University resurrects its thinking about the internationalisation of its student body which was curtailed by Covid. 

Students will undoubtedly be impressed by its facilities; it boasts some world class laboratories and says that “young scientists will be surprised by what they find” with science and medical laboratories unrivalled by those in the US for example. 

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In terms of its appeal to the UK, whether students or partners, one of its attractions must be its location, which the President describes not as “land-locked but land-linked”. Central Asia is still largely misunderstood, and Kazakhstan sits at the heart of this Eurasian continent.  Describing Kazakhstan as an “oasis of stability”, the University points out that it has a great location advantage, bordered as it is by both China and Russia, which provides a natural benefit for a social scientist to be based there.  Indeed, the Provost, lesanmi Adesida, believes that “what is good for Kazakhstan is good for the world”. 

Inside Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan

The University is also known for its Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS), which includes an incubator and business accelerator as well as, for example, a Digital Creativity Laboratory.  NURIS also boasts its own Technopark providing tenants with state-of-the-art coworking spaces, offices and laboratories as well as access to funding and business services such as patent searches.   

NURIS has been a huge achievement for the University, one that has started to have wider impact.  There was no real innovation system in Kazakhstan before the Innovation Cluster and very little in the way of risk-taking so the University has been quite transformational in terms of its impact on the business, startup and innovation community more generally.

Although the President recognises that international students might need a “little bit of an adventurous heart” to choose the University, you get a sense that Nazarbayev University is an institution that will be increasingly making its mark in the coming years as it plays its part in establishing Kazakhstan’s credentials and international reputation.

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