Penn GSE Partners With Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University

A nearly six-year-old alliance between the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan has grown from providing significant start-up guidance to bringing the NU Graduate School of Education’s first cohort of Ph.D. students to Philadelphia for a semester last fall.

Penn GSE, along with Cambridge University, helped to establish NU GSE when Kazakhstan’s new research university opened in 2010.

Led by Matt Hartley, Penn GSE associate dean and an executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, or AHEAD, Penn experts have assisted NU in developing academic programs and working through educational reform and issues such as academic freedom.

Kazakhstan’s educational reforms are aimed at greater institutional autonomy and shared governance. Diane Eynon, AHEAD’s senior scholar and director of international higher education initiatives at GSE says that, as the former Soviet Republic had only operated under a bureaucratic system of education governance since the 1920s, Nazarbayev University decided to partner with Western universities to re-envision higher education.

“It’s been interesting to watch how Kazakhstan has reformed its higher education system to meet some of the challenges that many countries are facing today, such as how to be competitive in the global knowledge economy,” says Eynon.

As part of NU’s study abroad program with Penn, six NU doctoral students spent the fall semester in Philadelphia. The students had the chance to audit classes and access research materials at Penn Libraries and resources across campus.

As they conducted research and worked on their dissertations here, the six worked closely with Penn faculty and had the opportunity to see how GSE operates.

“As part of the Penn community, they can experience what it is like to be a student here at the Graduate School of Education and in the U.S. and to contrast that with their experience at home,” says Eynon.

Renata Apergenova and Assel Mukhametzhanova were among the first NU group to study at Penn last semester. Their work focused on leadership and management.

Apergenova says that, as Kazakhstan looks to restructure and rebuild its higher education system, she understands it might take some time to implement reforms.

She says, “In Kazakhstan we are moving toward reforms, more academic autonomy, and there are some models that we borrowed from the U.S. universities, such as having a board of trustees."

“I was interested in how things happen here: How universities are structured, education policy and ethics and leadership in higher education. We were very lucky to experience the atmosphere at Penn. It’s really like a family. If you have questions, you can go to a professor or program coordinator.”

Mukhametzhanova hopes to work in policy-related administration and educational management.

“Even though our university at home is world class,” she says, “we don’t have as many international students. It was very useful to hear opinions from a lot of people with different experiences, so we can take that back with us. The idea is that we are going to translate our experience to other universities and to fulfill any educational reforms that are coming to Kazakhstan.” 

Apergenova and Mukhametzhanova say they are looking forward to playing a role in helping their country realize educational reform.

“There’s a real opportunity and we’re thinking about how we can be useful,” Apergenova says, “how we can use all of our experience.”

“We’re hoping to make a difference in our country,” says Mukhametzhanova. 

Penn GSE’s work with the students continues in June. A team of faculty who have advised and collaborated with the students on their research topics will be in Kazakhstan when the students defend their dissertations. 

Story Photo