Why aren’t Universities in Kazakhstan Built Outside of Major Urban Areas?

Date: 30 January 2017
Other languages: Русский язык |
Receiving a higher education in Kazakhstan means moving to a big city. For some, this move presents new opportunities; however, for others this creates inevitable challenges. Students have traditionally identified transportation, accommodation and living costs as their most significant challenges. Kazakhstan has never built universities outside major metropolitan areas, contrary to common practice in the West, where universities frequently become cores of small towns. Vlast.kz looks into why universities in Kazakhstan are not leaving major cities and whether such a move can happen in the foreseeable future.

There is not a single higher educational institution in Kazakhstan that is located in a rural area or in a small town. Most universities are concentrated in two major urban areas – Almaty and Astana, with approximately 15 universities in the latter city and more than 40 universities in the former. Other universities are usually located in province capitals, industrial hubs or other major regional cities with a population of more than 100,000. The two smallest cities in Kazakhstan that host universities are Zhetisay and Arkalyk, which have populations of approximately 30,000.

In these cases, the universities are deeply integrated into urban infrastructure and are very closely linked to the town itself. This model of interaction between universities and their host towns is significantly different from the model that exists in Europe and America, where colleges can be located not only in major urban areas but in small settlements as well. For example, Princeton University, one of the leading US universities, is located in Princeton, New Jersey, a small town with a population of only 14,000.

The US model originally comes from Europe. Universities have essentially evolved from monasteries (Oxford, Cambridge). Due to their remote location, they have little involvement in everyday life. It is precisely this European historic experience and understanding of a university’s mission that has shaped the concept of liberal arts,” says Mikhail Akulov, Dean of General Education, Kazakh British Technical University (KBTU), who spent 15 years living in Europe and America.

According to the historian, this other model, where universities are always located in industrial centres, is closely linked to industrialisation and the urbanisation that accompanied it.

Most of the universities in the Soviet Union were established after the Bolshevik Revolution. This is linked to industrialisation and rural-urban migration. Further, one should note that Soviet universities were quite unfamiliar with the idea of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, which explains why the concept of liberal arts is so unfamiliar to Soviet and current Kazakhstani experience. This, in turn, can explain our catastrophic underperformance in humanities. There is little understanding of why the country needs humanities, since the perception is that they have little practical value and little practical application,” continued Akulov.

The practice of establishing universities in industrial and major towns originated in the Soviet period. The historian further says that one of the purposes of Soviet universities was “to be able to create future Soviet copies.”
Kazakh-British Technical University in Almaty
Yelena Darzimanova further explains the history behind Kazakhstan not having universities in rural areas. According to this architect, most universities have been designed and built as separate, stand-alone buildings, rather than campuses. In other words, universities could not exist outside of urban areas, since they did not have sufficient infrastructure of their own.

The first universities in Kazakhstan started appearing in 1930s. At that time, these were individual buildings, but as the universities grew, they started expanding to other buildings, which, in some cases, were located in other parts of their host cities (…). This explains one of the problems caused by such decentralisation, namely the problem that the buildings of our universities, in most cases, are quite spread out. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (Almaty) or the Nazarbayev University (Astana),” said Ms Darzimanova.

According to the architect, the only examples of universities that have been purposefully built as all-inclusive campuses are the KazNU and the Satpayev Kazakh National Technical University.
Nazarbayev University in Astana
KazNU was designed to rely on its own infrastructure. It has its own boiler house, cafeteria, laundry, shops and dormitories. In essence, it is a small town within a city. Similarly, KazNTU buildings and dormitories are concentrated within several street blocks. Both these universities have been designed from the onset as campuses, with all relevant facilities and infrastructure. In most other cases, however, our universities originated in smaller buildings and then expanded to other buildings,” said Ms Darzimanova.

Darzimanova further explains that even though universities in Europe are frequently located in rural areas, they are still adjacent to major urban areas and rely on the resources of the metropolises.
Universities; however, are still related to cities. Look at Oxford, for example, it is a university city. Or look at American universities: some are located within city limits, others may be located separately and outside of major cities, yet they remain sufficiently close, 10-15 km, to major urban areas. Why are the universities being built nowadays usually located quite close to cities? The intent here is that for a host city to be able to have access to what a university has to offer and for the university to have access to the host city’s resources. Universities need to be sustainable and save on costs. Being close to a city means that the universities can rent out their property and generate income to cover their costs,” continued Ms Darzimanova.

Mr Akulov explains that there are examples where universities in Kazakhstan are abandoning this Soviet practice of building universities in major urban areas. One of such case is the construction of the University of Central Asia (UCA) campus in Tekeli, a town with a population of less than 30,000. This university however, is not a Kazakhstani initiative, as it is being built by the Aga Khan Foundation.

They could have picked any other town. However, they understand that this University will encourage development in this area. UCA’s campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and its upcoming campus in Tekeli will not follow the Soviet experience, where education is closely linked to industrialisation. We will see whether this initiative will be successful, but at least, this illustrates that there are alternatives out there,” explained the historian.
Psychoanalyst Anna Kudiyarova says that locating universities outside of major urban areas could serve as an additional criterion to ensure universities only enroll the most motivated students.

Those who are truly interested in higher education do not really care about where the university is located. Having universities outside of major urban areas could screen individuals who are only interested in acquiring a diploma as a checkmark on their CVs. In fact, this is why, such students do not attend classes but start working almost immediately after enrolling. Motivated students will find jobs as well, but it will be of an intellectual nature,” says Ms Kudiyarova.

The willingness of a student to leave their home town can serve as an indicator of their aspiration to achieve greater freedom and independence.

Ms Kudiyarova further explained that for Kazakhstani students and faculty, the decision to switch to universities outside of major urban areas will depend on whether such universities will have robust infrastructure and transport access to cities.

Architect Yelena Darzimanova highlights that there are many universities in Kazakhstan outside of Astana and Almaty and that these universities are mostly industry specific, which could benefit students from rural areas of the country.

We have industry specific universities. This is how we can describe, for example, universities in coal-rich city Karaganda, where students can pursue degrees in coal-related disciplines, something that the universities in the capital cities do not offer. Or look at the oil industry, for example: students do not need to go to Almaty, as most universities offering degrees in oil-related fields are located in the western part of the country,” says Ms Darzimanova.

Darzimanova is convinced that robust infrastructure is required for universities to emigrate out of cities.

If a university’s critical functions are supplied by its host city, moving outside of that city makes little sense, as your student body has many other needs, besides academic-specific needs. Placing a university outside of a major city is justified if you have all the necessary infrastructure on your campus,” continues Ms Darzimanova.

Mikhail Akulov thinks that Kazakhstan is not yet ready for the idea of universities existing outside of major urban areas.

Our culture, attitudes and perceptions are slightly different. Kazakhstan is a country undergoing modernisation and the Soviet past is still with us, to a certain extent. For this reason, our education needs to be very practical and this is why we concentrate on training engineers, economists and the like. The Soviet idea of education is still relevant, despite our country not being part of the USSR any longer. This is not some trapped-in-history mentality, this is because the questions that the Soviets raised at the time still remains very much relevant today. We cannot compare the Anglo-American model of education with our context, where universities preceded the industrial revolution. This is why, I think that not having universities outside of major urban areas is necessarily a bad thing (…). It is possible that, once we achieve a certain level of prosperity, we will export [sic] this model, but at the moment, we are far from it,” reflects Mr Akulov.

Written by Alyona Subbotina

Translated from the
original article into English and reprinted with permission from Vlast. 
Vlast is an analytical Internet publication an independent opinion, which presents differing perspectives, opinions, live reports and a fresh look of the familiar.