Turning a Soviet-era university into a leading Eurasian management school

“It’s entirely realistic to focus not only on encouraging the best Kazakh students to study inside Kazakhstan, but even on attracting international students to come here”

Nearly 32 years ago, Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union and began building a market economy. It was a difficult transformation for our country and society — especially for our education system.

Dozens of new private, for-profit universities and colleges began operating in Kazakhstan. Existing universities had to change on the fly, adapting their educational programs to the new environment, competing with the new establishments, recruiting faculty with more up-to-date qualifications and competing internationally for both students and academics.

I have first-hand knowledge of the complexities involved in these processes. As a student, I secured a Bolashak International Scholarship — an initiative Kazakhstan launched shortly after independence to fund the sending of Kazakh scholars to universities abroad, to equip us with modern technical and managerial skills — and studied at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Upon returning home, I worked as an administrator at one of the Kazakh universities in Astana, and then served as Kazakhstan’s vice minister of Education and Science for almost two years.

I’ve seen this constant process of reform, experimentation and modernisation play out from three sides — a student, a university manager, and a government minister. So in 2021 when I was offered the chance to continue this journey and become the head of Narxoz University, located in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, I gladly accepted the challenge..

To a large extent, the story of Narxoz’s development and its ambitions for the future is the story of Kazakhstan’s entire modern university sector — rapid transformation, built on historic foundations.

Founded 60 years ago, Narxoz made its reputation training the best and brightest to be top civil servants, bureaucrats, politicians and managers of public institutions and state-owned companies during the Soviet period. Education was based on the prevailing economic theories of that era, and the university quickly became recognised as the country’s top academy for teaching public administration and management.

With independence, universities from Kazakhstan were suddenly thrust into the international marketplace for education, a market economy took hold at home and the idea of management and leadership training changed almost overnight.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was new international competition. Students had a plethora of new opportunities to study abroad, with scholarships for young Kazakhs available at prestigious universities in the United States, Britain, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. As many of these top students continued living and working abroad after gaining a degree, they lost touch with their homeland, and Kazakhstan experienced a brain drain.

For the country to develop, it was — and remains — obvious that talented young people need to be able to study in Kazakhstan and to have access to the best educational practices in the world at home.

Narxoz set about an educational overhaul to meet this challenge and to play a leading role in modernising Kazakhstan’s university system. Most fundamentally, this meant improving and updating teaching methods, boosting research capacities, forging new international partnerships, and putting quality at the heart of the curriculum.

But that didn’t mean abandoning our heritage and core strengths, rather building on them as a national leader in public administration and management, bringing in new connections to private industry, more international expertise, learning from global best practice and helping reform the country’s entire education sector.

One of the first projects on this path was an EU-funded program in collaboration with the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands and Italy’s Bocconi University that became the basis for nationwide changes, like the move to credit-based university courses.

After years of such reforms, several Kazakh universities signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, officially joining the Bologna Process to uphold academic standards across Europe — a key stage in the transformation of Narxoz and the wider sector.

But change is a constant progress, not a fixed goal and Narxoz is determined not to stand still in our mission to become one of the best management universities in Eurasia.

The latest phase of Narxoz’s journey is the involvement of Bulat Utemuratov, one of Kazakhstan’s leading business figures. A Narxoz graduate, Mr. Utemuratov dreamed of turning his alma mater into a state-of-the-art institution.

Since 2007 he has invested more than $70 million to develop the university. Last year, the reconstruction of Narxoz’s stylish, state-of-the-art campus was completed. The building facade, equipment and furniture were all upgraded. Environmentally friendly materials were used to create a comfortable indoor space for students. More than 30,000 trees and bushes were planted on the campus, reducing harmful emissions by about 75% and making the campus one of the most pleasant and safest places in Almaty.

The main changes, however, were not external, but internal. Outdated and unpopular educational programs were cut, and new programs based on international experience and with teaching in English were added. These programs are accredited by FIBAA, an international foundation headquartered in Bonn that assesses the quality of higher education in Europe, the United States and China.

Launching new programs and courses is an easy task — knowing when and how to get rid of those whose time has passed is much tricker. In the last two years Narxoz has cut almost 50 individual programs. It is hard and painful, but part of the ethos of quality-first. If a program isn’t accredited, international recognised, valuable to industry or has lingering questions, it needs to be put under review. We want to achieve a portfolio of quality programs that provide value to our students for the rest of their careers — something you can’t achieve without internal transformation.

Narxoz went about this process of updating its programs to serve the needs of a modern, independent state, while staying true to its founding DNA. For instance, the university launched an Applied Finance program alongside the National Bank of Kazakhstan that has today become a key training ground for future leaders in the country’s financial sector. Our faculty have also pioneered the development of the domestic accounting and audit market, drafting accounting and financial reporting laws, and participated in the creation of Kazakhstan’s Chamber of Auditors. And this year, Kazakhstan’s financial market regulator allocated grants to train actuaries at Narxoz University.

We also collaborate closely with the private sector to ensure students get an applied, rather than purely theoretical, education and stay connected with the real world, not just in academic circles. Our educational programs are developed in partnership with private business and based on practical examples. For instance, our Telecommunications Marketing program is carried out in conjunction with Beeline Kazakhstan, one of the country’s largest telecoms companies. Tourism and hospitality students spend five months undergoing training at the Ritz-Carlton Astana and Rixos Borovoe hotels, while we have also launched a program with Big Four accounting firm EY in which the company selects instructors for the course.

Even as the university sector has developed fast over the last three decades, these days competition for students is arguably even fiercer. Kazakhstan and Narxoz aren’t just competing with universities in Western Europe and North America now, but also the likes of China, Malaysia and eastern Europe in terms of attracting students.

One key part of our offering on this front is our double degree programs — where students earn degrees at two universities in different countries simultaneously — for instance, with the University of Coventry in the UK for economics, finance and accounting and with Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania for law programs.

Looking to the future, I think it’s entirely realistic to focus not only on encouraging the best Kazakh students to study inside the country, but even on attracting international students to come here. Thanks to its academic development and campus investments, Narxoz is already attracting students from abroad — both from traditional neighbors like Uzbekistan and Russia, as well as emerging economic powerhouses like India and Nigeria. At the moment, around 5% of our 6,000-strong student body are international students.

Our ambitions there secured a big boost this year, with Narxoz being recognised in top international university league tables, used by millions of students around the world when choosing where to study. For instance, QS’s World University Rankings 2024 awarded Narxoz four stars, the same as the likes of the University of Central Lancashire in the UK and the American Institute of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. We secured the highest-possible five stars in several categories that have been core focuses of our reforms — teaching, employability and inclusiveness.

Three decades after the journey of transformation started, such recognition is testament to the hard work and difficult choices countless people are responsible for. I hope it will serve as motivation for Narxoz and Kazakhstan’s wider university sector in the years ahead as we continue our mission to become one of Eurasia’s top management schools.

About the author: Dr. Miras Daulenov is the President of Narxoz University, a leading economics, business, finance, and law university in Kazakhstan. His past positions include Vice Minister of Education and Science in Kazakhstan from 2019-2021, and lecturer at the University of Wroclaw from 2009-2012, among others. He has also worked on development projects with the World Bank and other institutions.