Improving the human capital of Kazkahstan has been a key priority of the government, and one way to achieve this has been through the provision of overseas scholarships for students. Launched in 1993 by President Nazarbayev, the Bolashak program was based on a similar presidential scholarship program in Singapore. With humble beginnings, the program sent only handfuls of talented students to the world’s top schools, including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, and Cambridge in its first years. By the early 2000s, the list had expanded to include hundreds of universities across various countries, and the number of recipient students began to swell. Today, there are 7,611 Bolashak scholars, with almost 4,000 graduates and 3,000 students still studying, according to Sayasat Nurbek, president of the Bolashak program. In 2010 1,259 students graduated alone. Students are granted the opportunity to study in 32 countries at 630 leading universities.
The selection process is highly involved, and only the best make the cut. Language proficiency is key, with students expected to be proficient in the Kazakh language, as well as in English, French, Russian, or German. Further requirements include IQ, psychometric, and Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) tests. The final test is an interview conducted by a national independent expert commission on Kazakh culture, history, legal issues, diction, personality, and professional capability. These criteria have contributed to the current demographics of the scholars, of which 93.6% were recorded as of Kazakh ethnicity, while 3% were Russian, 0.9% Korean, and 0.5% of Tatar background.
For the first 17 years of the program, the scholarship scheme was implemented over all levels of education, while in 2008 special quotas were introduced involving research internships and fellowships for postgraduates.
Another program exists for civil servants. “The aim is to focus our foreign scholarship programs on master’s and PhD students. We also need to focus more on research and innovations, and that’s the reason why we’ve shifted focus from general academic studies to more specific academic programs,” Nurbek told TBY in an interview.
A stipulation that Bolashak students work in Kazakhstan for at least five years following graduation is aimed at allowing the knowledge they have gained to return to the country, effectively expanding the information base. “But Bolashak’s aim isn’t just to bring professional skills to Kazakhstan, it’s also to bring social change and different influences to our culture,” added Nurbek, stressing that the aim of the program is to develop “social wealth” more than anything else. However, the long-term international connections and relationships students build are also crucial for the future of Kazakhstani business, finance, and politics.
On lasting influences, Nurbek highlighted that “this program has greatly motivated our young generation”, allowing students to “better themselves, to be as good as they can be”. In that regard, the success of the program is undeniable in terms of the dynamism it has brought to the Kazakhstani education system.
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