Measurement and Assumptions - Reflections on Osipian and his Nazarbayev Obsession

Note: This content was updated on 4/30/2021 to correct some typographical and grammatical errors in the original post.

I have a Google alert set for Nazarbayev University. I set it when I got hired, and I have kept it even though I left NU last July to accept a tenure track position at Stephen F. Austin State University1. This morning I got a link to an article written by Ararat Osipian about universities in Kazakhstan. The link is to an article in the “University world news” site. Osipian has written about education in Kazakhstan a few other places - he’s a familiar name.

What finally got me to write something about his commentary about universities in Kazakhstan is that much of it is written from a general perspective of someone who knows something about post-Soviet countries and education, but not from a lot of local knowledge or experience. In fact, the piece that was written today was essentially recycled ideas from another piece he wrote in 2018 about Kazakhstan for the Times Higher Ed blog link to pdf of that paper.

I started writing this a couple of days ago and was interrupted by some meetings, teaching, and some personal appointments. Now that I’ve come back to it, I’m less interested in writing a formal rebuttal to Ossipian, which had been my plan initially. I want to rant a bit about the obsession with academic rankings.

Ossipian asserts that Nazarbayev University - an institution that has been awarding degrees for just six years - is a failure because it has not made it into the international rankings. He also hints that Nazarbayev university has been a failure in attracting international faculty2. On the one hand I am infuriated by these assertions. On the other hand, Kazakhstan’s government and the university are obsessed with climbing up the rankings. By that measure, I suppose there is some angst.

When I was at NU, I often argued that the goal shouldn’t be to chase ratings, but to build an institution that would eventually be recognized as providing quality education and research. Students in the department that I taught in - Political Science and International Relations PSIR - have been successful by any measure of success for a school. Our undergraduate students have been able to move on to MA and PhD programs in the West with scholarships and fellowships. The MA program attracted students from other universities in Kazakhstan. Our graduates get jobs and are well-educated. Many of my colleagues have gone on to permanent employment at quality universities in the US and U.K. Both of these say something about the quality of the institution where they cut their teeth, that is Nazarbayev University.

My Experience with Rankings

I was contacted by some of the organizations that do global rankings. Their methodology is quite flawed. They cold contact professors to fill out long surveys. The primary question that is asked is what other universities in the country have a good reputation. Why might this be a problem in Kazakhstan?

Well, NU is a threat to many other universities for a lot of reasons. The first is that it has taken up a huge portion of the higher education budget. A lot of that was construction of the campus - a showcase campus in the heart of the capital city. The rest is the cost of salaries that are competitive for foreign-trained and qualified faculty. The University has it’s own status in the law, meaning that it doesn’t have to report to the same bureaucracy or patrons as other universities do. Admissions are blind and competitive for all the scholarship students.

Given those circumstances, the odds that faculty at other universities, competing for resources and prestige and tied more closely to local political and economic networks, would name NU as having a good reputation over the other universities in the system are low.

My Endorsement

Nazarbayev University is not perfect. However, the quality of education offered is significantly better than anywhere else in Kazakhstan - especially for those who are interested in pursuing further education outside of Kazakhstan. There are pockets of good education at some of the other universities in the country as well, but the quality is much more uneven. I would put the NU students up against students at any quality university in the West. I am less interested in the noise of rankings than I am in the lives and outcomes for students. Measured in those terms, NU has been a smashing success.

  1. I mostly left NU for family reasons and not because of issues with the university. There were some things I didn’t like and I could talk about that, but most jobs leave something to be desired. My main driver for leaving NU wasn’t professional or systemic, it was prioritizing my family, and particularly my older daughters’ desire to have a “normal” US high school experience. ↩︎

  2. This is where am restraining myself. I was intimately involved with hiring for most of my time at NU. Hiring was challenging, but we were always able to attract good faculty with good training and potential. Not everyone who applied with a degree from a good university like Vanderbilt made the cut, and I’ll leave the comment at that. ↩︎