Show loyalty? Kazakh president changes scholarship program to ‘please Russia’

ALMATY, Kazakhstan – Bolashaq is the name of the famous Kazakh scholarship program which has sent more than 11,000 people to study at prestigious universities abroad – mainly in Britain and the United States – since its inception in 1993.

But the government’s recent addition of four poorly rated Russian tech universities to Bolashaq’s program rankings is causing controversy.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said Jan. 21 that the scholarship program should focus on Russian tech schools.

But Kazakhstan experts have slammed Toqaev’s instruction to add Russian schools as politically motivated, with critics saying the president was trying to show loyalty to Moscow, which backed him during January’s massive unrest that took hold. led to the death of hundreds of people in the center. asian nation.

Bolashaq awards an all-expenses-paid scholarship to high-achieving young Kazakhs to study at foreign universities that have high academic rankings. After receiving their degrees, graduates are required to return and work for at least five years in their home country.

Kazakhstan’s Center for International Programs, which operates Bolashaq, relies on three influential global rankings from Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education and the Academic Ranking of World Universities to decide which universities to include in its program.

A requirement for universities used in Bolashaq is that they are among the top 250 schools in at least two of these three rankings.

But the four Russian universities recently added to the Bolashaq program – Bauman Moscow State Technical University, National Nuclear Research University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and St. Petersburg – are not up to par.

But when questioned on this subject by RFE/RLthe Center for International Programs said: “[the new universities were added] on Toqaev’s instructions.

The center added that the four Russian universities are among the top 20 schools ranked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the BRICS, a grouping of five emerging economies, including Russia.

The Bolashaq program had never before relied on the national ratings of OECD and BRICS countries when adding new universities. So far, only a handful of top Russian schools with relatively high academic rankings – including the Russian State University and several medical schools – have been among Bolashaq’s destination universities.

Quality issues

Toqaev’s decision has drawn criticism in Kazakhstan, with some former Bolashaq participants expressing concern about the quality of education in Russia.

A former Bolashaq scholar who earned a degree in advanced control and systems engineering from the University of Manchester said Russia lags far behind Western countries in engineering technology.

“To learn advanced technologies, you have to study in the West, not in Russia,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Studying in English provides an added advantage at many Western universities, according to another participant from Bolashaq.

“In a rapidly developing world, science and technology textbooks are constantly updated and the latest scientific information is available in English,” said Asiya Ermukhambetova, a graduate of University College London with a PhD in chemical engineering.

Many people argue that Toqaev’s decision to add the lowest rated universities was a kind of “thank you” to Moscow.

In January, Toqaev sought support from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help stabilize the country amid nationwide anti-government protests sparked by a hike in fuel prices. The CSTO agreed and briefly deployed troops to Kazakhstan.

Political analyst and former scholar Bolashaq Shalkar Nurseit (file photo)

“It’s a way for Toqaev to try to demonstrate his loyalty to Russia and President Vladimir Putin,” political analyst Shalkar Nurseit said.

“Following the CSTO’s help, Toqaev had to find a concrete solution to prove to Moscow that he is a pro-Russian president,” said Nurseit, who studied in the United States on a Bolashaq scholarship.

Russia is also interested in accepting Kazakhs into its universities as it hopes they will potentially become Russia sympathizers after studying and living in the country for several years, Nurseit added.

“I wouldn’t call it a partnership in education. The goal is to train pro-Russian specialists, and Russia will contribute to this,” Nurseit told RFE/RL.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Elnur Alimova.
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