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Kazakhstan is four times the size of Texas, and its leaders have ambitions of a similar magnitude for the nation’s education system.

Since 2009, Penn’s Graduate School of Education has been working with Kazakhstani leaders on revamping their higher education system. GSE faculty and staff first advised leaders in anticipation of the opening of Nazerbayev University, which saw its first incoming class in fall 2010.

Following the establishment of Nazerbayev University, GSE’s role expanded. GSE faculty are now conducting research on educational initiatives in Kazakhstan, helping existing universities within Kazakshtan to adopt a Western-style university-management system and assisting with the development of Nazerbayev University’s very own graduate school of education.

According to Director of International Higher Education Initiatives Diane Eynon, GSE’s partnership in Kazakhstan is, relative to the other international partnerships, “probably unique in its scope and in the depth of our engagement.”

According to GSE professor Matt Hartley, who worked on the partnership as early as 2009and who now researches Kazakhstani post-Soviet era educational reforms, engagement with the university has been slowly evolving.

“Our early work wasn’t so much research as it was helping them to develop their capacity,” he said.

Matt Hartley and Laura Perna, also a GSE professor, are each collaborating on research projects with Kazakhstani professors. An important goal for these projects is to build research capacity.

“They have a bright and talented group of researchers, but they haven’t had the benefit of the same level of training,” Perna said. Together, her research team is working to develop and understand the role of higher education in Kazakhstan.

Leaders in this former Soviet republic, including its president and prime minister, were interested in adopting certain Western-style higher-education practices, such as an independence in the curriculum and in the universities’ management, both of which had previously been delegated to the Kazakhstani Ministry of Education. But according to Eynon, leaders believed that they had untapped intellectual resources.

“Part of being a world-class university in their mind was an emphasis on research,” Eynon said.

For this reason, she explained, Nazerbayev University leaders have been working to establish several other graduate schools. Leaders have reached out to several Western universities for advising, including Duke University, the University of Wisconsin and Cambridge University.

But despite the speed of their work, Eynon noted that adequate care is being taken to ensure the quality of their programs.

“Our experience has been that it’s well thought-out,” she said. “While they are eager to get the graduate schools up and running, there’s also a recognition of the fact that there are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration.”

“There’s a real sense of idealism and sense that we can create the country that we want, and they see [their] universities as playing a big role in that,” Hartley added. “It’s nice to be working with folks who really care about what they’re doing.”

While some Americans may not know where to find Kazakhstan on a map, Hartley pointed out that the resource-rich country shares a border with China.

“I think it’s a country that will be an increasingly important partner for the United States,” he said.

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