The essential ingredients to building a world-class university

Universities in Asia continue to gain global prestige and make solid progress in the various global university rankings. The region now boasts some of the strongest academic brands and is transforming the global knowledge economy.

As Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at Times Higher Education, explained at the World Economic Forum last year, “The data doesn’t lie: In back-to-back editions of the annual THE World University Rankings, Western nations have lost ground while the East has risen.”

Results of THE World Reputation Rankings 2022, released last week, include for the first time two Asian universities in the top ten in the world – Tsinghua University and the University of Tokyo, while US News’ recently published 2022-23 Best Global University Rankings surfaced more Universities in the rankings from China than from the US

But while the universities of China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea dominate the regional rankings, the rest of Asia is also on the rise. The QS Asia University Ranking 2023 is the largest yet with 760 institutions from across the continent. And in Central Asia, one country in particular is emerging as a major source of college graduates and academic excellence – Kazakhstan.

Four times the size of Texas, Kazakhstan is home to the world’s largest space launch complex. Kazakhstan is fast becoming the dynamic heart of Central Asia. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a country of breathtaking beauty and rich in natural energy resources has also focused on human resource development, most recently through a world-class university in the capital, Astana.

Since its inception in 2010, Nazarbayev University has become the destination of many of the region’s best and brightest students, collaborating with leading international universities such as UPenn, Duke Fuqua and the UK’s University College London (UCL) and the University of Cambridge across a broad range Spectrum of disciplines from engineering, life sciences and humanities to business and education. Instead of going abroad through the state’s Bolashak program, talented students can now seek world-class education and cutting-edge research right at their doorstep.

Mr. Shigeo Katsu, Founding President and current President of Nazarbayev University, explains what the university represents for students and faculty: “For the first time in the post-Soviet space, academic freedom and institutional autonomy have been legally enshrined in a tailor-made law. This means, for example, that we are not subordinate to the Ministry of Education and Science and can design our programs, research priorities and admissions guidelines ourselves.”

Mr. Katsu was offered the position of President after his previous role at the World Bank took him to Kazakhstan. A graduate of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and University of Tokyo, he joined the World Bank in 1979 as part of the highly selective Young Professionals Program (YPP). From 10,000 applicants, no more than 30 to 40 talents are recruited and trained for future senior specialist and management positions.

During his 30-year career at the World Bank, Mr. Katsu has held various positions including leading China’s financial sector reform, becoming Director for Côte d’Ivoire and, in his final years, Vice-President for Europe and Central Asia, familiar with the leadership of Kazakhstan. After his retirement, the Kazakh government contacted Mr. Katsu about opening a new university and asked him to become a member of the External Advisory Board and attend the formal opening of the institution in June 2010. Soon after, they offered him the post of President of Nazarbayev University.

“I almost fell off my chair,” Mr. Katsu recalls. “It’s one thing to go to universities and give lectures once in a while. It’s another thing to run a university. And not only that, to build it from scratch as well.”

With its commitment to academic freedom, Nazarbayev University is a strong advocate of academic integrity. There is no preference or easy entry for applicants. “Because the eligibility criteria are very strict, everything has to be merit-based,” emphasizes Mr. Katsu. “We had to show merit and academic integrity from the start, otherwise we would never develop into a world-class research university.”

An example of the university’s commitment to academic integrity is that its initial undergraduate class was reduced from 470 students to approximately 350 by the first graduation ceremony in 2015.

“Much of this was due to poor academic performance, but some of it was found to be plagiarism or fraud. We’ve had some high-profile cases of leadership students who unfortunately failed and we had to pull them out of the program,” explains Mr. Katsu calmly. Despite complaints from influential parents, the university held its own.

“We strive to be merit-based and ensure academic integrity drives all of our instruction as well as our research. I think it has really proven itself as we not only attract the most talented students but also instill a new way of thinking.”

In addition to its commitment to academic integrity, Nazarbayev University is also developing strategic partnerships with top international universities, with each of its seven schools and affiliated educational centers hosting their own specific partners from the UK, US or Singapore.

University College London (UCL), ranked 10th best university in the world by QS, was a first partner to contribute to the development of the university and provided extensive support in setting up the university, establishing its governance and academic structures to develop programs. Since then, bespoke partnerships have grown and emerged.

The University of Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania support the NU Graduate School of Education, while the University of Wisconsin-Madison partners with the NU School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Duke University Fuqua School of Business, one of the world’s leading business schools, has a strategic collaboration with the NU Graduate School of Business, including an Executive MBA.

Among other disciplines, the NU Graduate School of Public Policy collaborates with the oldest higher education institute in Singapore – the National University of Singapore, while the NU School of Mining and Geosciences collaborates with the Colorado School of Mines and supports the NU School of Medicine from the becomes University of Pittsburgh.

“Forging strategic partnerships with top international universities has been very important to us to drive our institutional development. As each of our schools is under contract to a different partner, this adds to the complexity of management, but also allows us to learn a lot from the diversity of the organizations we work with.”

When it comes to its students and graduates, Nazarbayev University’s mandate is to develop future leaders with academic expertise and knowledge, while ensuring they are considerate, inclusive and critically contributing to the future of the country.

Mr. Katsu acknowledges that while STEM subjects are a strong focus in education, other disciplines are just as important in achieving their ambitious goals. “When we started the university, many expected that of us only STEM-oriented. I find it unfortunate that we are seeing increasing pressure on universities to emphasize STEM over traditional humanities and other subjects. In my view, if you don’t focus on digital science and engineering, it’s a misconception that you’re not supporting your country or your economy.

“We try to develop graduates that benefit human society. But society is not made up of robots and in many ways is more driven by the humanities and social sciences. That’s why we emphasized from the start that while we offer STEM and other related subjects, we still need to develop strong social sciences and humanities.”

Just 12 years after its founding, Nazarbayev University now boasts a diverse international population. The student body of nearly 7,000 includes students from 35 different countries. The global background of the faculty is even more pronounced, with 70% coming from 59 countries.

Mr. Katsu emphasizes that everyone learns and works differently, and he is enthusiastic about the concept of personalized learning.

“Early on in our educational lives, particularly in primary and secondary school, almost all of us are being trained for industrial society. We go into training, sorted by date of birth, and are guided through the modern education system. And while we know that young people develop differently at their own pace, we treat them all the same. The move towards personalized education is so important. In order to develop a truly student-centred institutional system, we really need to consider the differences between each individual.”

Data from Times Higher Education shows that many of the world’s most dynamic and exciting junior universities are located in Asia. It is clear that Nazarbayev University is committed not only to exemplifying academic freedom and integrity in the post-Soviet space, but also to being an example to the rest of the world of how universities can and should develop and operate in the future.

Although Mr. Shigeo Katsu has ambitious plans for NU’s growth and recognition on the world stage, he also offers reassuring advice for every young student. “Don’t set goals too soon. Explore and don’t worry about failure!”

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