Beyond Bologna and Bolashak: Policy Talk and Student Agency in Kazakhstan's Internationalization of Higher Education

By Laura Lucht

 

To support future economic growth, Kazakhstan’s government devotes attention and resources to the development of international education opportunities for top students. This paper presents an ethnographic analysis of Kazakhstan’s government rhetoric and student discourse regarding international education to explore the relationship between official policy talk and the lived experience of students. Implications drawn from this analysis can advise policy and practice for U.S. providers of educational services to students from Kazakhstan.
The discussion opens with a description of current internationalization in Kazakhstan’s higher education system. Government rhetoric emphasizes global collaboration in support of the oft-stated goal of creating an “intellectual nation” based on “education, science and innovation.” This discourse appeals to an industrial-production metaphor to frame the purpose and goals of higher education. Such discussions list the Bolashak scholarship for study abroad, the new elite Nazarbayev University and the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools along with membership in Europe’s Bologna Accords as the cutting edge of academic internationalization in Kazakhstan. However, these initiatives open doors for just a small percentage of Kazakhstan’s students, and structural changes linked to Bologna compliance have yet to create real curriculum flexibility and mobility for students in Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan’s average students settle for programs such as the summer Work & Travel U.S.A. exchange that offers students a J-1 visa and an opportunity to find a job in the U.S. in return for a substantial fee. Although many participants report hard labor, frequent unemployment, minimal support from program sponsors, and overall financial loss, some 3,000 students from Kazakhstan flock to the program each summer because it offers access to the United States. News media in Kazakhstan highlight sensational cases in which some of these students find themselves employed in adult entertainment, incarcerated, or deceased under dubious circumstances. However, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science remains silent about how the Work & Travel program impacts students. This thesis examines the Work & Travel U.S.A. program as a context where student agency manifests as determination to pursue international exchange despite substantial risk and difficulty.


Sources for this study include interviews and direct observations conducted in Almaty and Oskemen in October 2011, interviews conducted in the U.S. with students and faculty from Kazakhstan, and media publications available in Kazakhstan. Thick description of students’ lived experience as participants in the Work & Travel program and as Bolashak scholars reveals significant contrasts to Kazakhstan’s official policies and objectives for educational exchange as presented in legislation and press releases.
This paper employs Mary Douglas’s Grid and Group model of decision-making and social responsibility to analyze government rhetoric and student discourse. Douglas’s schema defines four preference types that vary along parameters of social hierarchy and group solidarity, or structure vs. community. This tool explains the approaches to educational exchange taken by Kazakhstan’s government, Kazakhstan’s students, Work & Travel sponsor companies, and U.S. educators in terms of these two parameters: first, accountability to individuals vs. groups, and secondly, decision making according to social norms vs. decision making by personal negotiation. Students in Kazakhstan display a high level of group solidarity, and a low-structure egalitarian decision-making style. They rely on their own informal peer-group networks to fill gaps that are left by the high-structure, status-based decision-making grid of Kazakhstan’s government and by the low-group, individualistic orientation of the U.S. educational system. The summer Work & Travel program may appeal so strongly to Kazakhstan’s students in part because the sponsor companies operating in Kazakhstan target the students’ high-group, low-grid orientation in their recruiting process. A grasp of these differences can guide policy and practice for educators who seek to increase the appeal and effectiveness of programs offered to Kazakhstan’s students.

 

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