Ramon O'Callaghan, dean of Nazarbayev University
Ramon O'Callaghan, dean of Nazarbayev University

It is one of the largest countries in the world, rich in oil, gas, uranium and copper, yet Kazakhstan is little understood in western Europe and North America. That might all change, however, as some of the world’s most experienced business professors collaborate to set up an internationally recognised business school in Astana, the country’s capital.

On the ground in Astana is Ramon O’Callaghan, former dean of TiasNimbas in the Netherlands and now dean of the Graduate School of Business at Nazarbayev University, which is named after the country’s president. The establishment of the university marks a sea change in attitudes in the country, he says, as the government has previously funded top students to study overseas.

“Now the time has come that instead of sending people into the world, we are bringing the world to the university.”

There is also the question of academic freedom in the post-Soviet era and a real sense that this institution will pioneer and protect this, says Prof O’Callaghan. “There is this idea that there is something really happening. It is very gratifying.”

The heavyweight teaching on the programmes will come from Duke University’s Fuqua school of business, whose faculty staff will fly into the country for the programmes. This is a challenge in itself, admits dean William Boulding, with professors needing to take three flights to reach Astana.

But the Fuqua school – and Prof Boulding in particular – are committed to the project. “There is an aspiration to build a world-class business university to serve central Asia. There’s an extraordinary commitment,” he says. “They [the Kazakh government] think they can speed up building a great university by having partners who can help them at the start.”

As well as partnering with Fuqua for business degrees, the university is collaborating with the University of Cambridge and University College London in the UK, the University of Pennsylvania in the US and the National University of Singapore to create other university departments.

“It’s been my great fortune to be involved from day one,” says Prof Boulding. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Though students speak both Kazakh and Russian, all programmes will be taught in English. Initially, as with many new institutions, the Nazarbayev business school will focus its attention on executive programmes and the EMBA – an MBA for working managers – as opposed to full-time residential degrees. This investment in more mature participants for the EMBA is strategic, says Prof O’Callaghan. “It is for board-level people. These people will then be in a position to send participants [to programmes] themselves.”

One of the EMBA degree’s merits is that it plays to Fuqua’s strengths, he adds. “Duke has a lot of experience in setting up this kind of programme.”

The school is also focusing on one-week entrepreneurship courses. Each class trains 30 people and there will be 14 classes a year. “One of the reasons I find this programme so interesting – and it sounds almost clichéd – but you can actually make a difference,” says Prof O’Callaghan. “People listen. People really value education.” Duke Corporate Education is already involved in working with companies in the country for customised programmes.

The business school matriculated its first EMBA class this year. “That was the initial hurdle,” says Prof Boulding. “Would we get the students to come? Now the big activity is to get the faculty in place.”

All potential new professors are interviewed at Duke University in North Carolina, says Prof O’Callaghan. “People go through the same hiring process as to become faculty at Duke. Duke plays a role in the faculty development. We have to hire people that Duke is happy to work with.”

The business school has already appointed five academic staff, who will be in situ by January. Prof O’Callaghan is also hoping to establish a PhD programme, though he acknowledges that this will not happen in the next few years. “It’s going to take a while to realise the vision of building a world-class university.”

In October the school will start recruiting participants for the full-time MBA, which will begin in September 2014. The degree will be an accelerated version of the Duke MBA, with the first cohort completing the programme in November or December 2015.

Will the programme attract international students? “We would like it to,” says Prof O’Callaghan, who is looking to Russia, India and China for recruits. Kazakhstan is just over three hours by aeroplane to Delhi, he says, and the country has borders with both Russia and China.

This geographical and political positioning means the learning is a two-way process, says Prof Boulding. “They’re in transition between a Soviet-style model and what it means to operate in a global system. There is a recognition that they need to build a brand-new model. For us [Fuqua] to be a great global business school we have to immerse our staff, faculty and students in other parts of the world. It’s a wonderful place for us to learn.”

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