Maximizing the benefits to the nation from government scholarships for international education in Kazakhstan

Maximizing the benefits to the nation from government scholarships for international education in Kazakhstan

This policy brief presents the key findings and recommendations from a study of government scholarship programs for international education in Kazakhstan.

It identifies

  1. the contribution of alumni from the Bolashak scholarship program and Nazarbayev University to the nation at the individual, institutional and societal level
  2. the factors that support and hinder alumni contributions to the development of their country.

The findings are based on interviews with 45 government scholarship alumni (13 alumni from Nazarbayev University and 32 from the Bolashak program). All participants possessed a master’s degree and had received a full government scholarship. All had a full-time job in Kazakhstan and had been employed for at least three years. The participants were graduates from STEM fields, including chemistry, biology, nanotechnology, and computer science.

Key findings
Contribution of alumni

Government scholarships for international education at home and abroad brought numerous benefits. International education played a powerful role in creating positive changes in the workplace, community, and wider society. Yet, the nature and extent of contributions depended on the sector, type of employer, seniority in the workplace, the reputation of diploma and scholarship programme regulations.

Individual level

Alumni believe that an international education was effective in many ways. It enhanced their field-specific knowledge, improved their English language skills, and strengthened their soft skills. International education ‘broadened their horizon’ and developed their interest in issues like social justice, equality, and transparency. Alumni consider themselves as ‘change agents’, have a strong sense of patriotism and a commitment to sharing knowledge and skills to benefit the nation.

Institutional/Workplace level

International education alumni contributed to the improvement of systems, processes, and practices in the workplaces and identified this as their most notable contribution. Bolashak alumni introduced new systems and practices that were claimed to automate, optimize, and improve their company’s work efficiency. NU alumni noted that their networking and management skills enabled them to attract investors, drive innovation and implement effective project management systems.

Training and mentoring colleagues was the second most important contribution. Alumni shared new approaches, methods, and strategies for more efficient work with their colleagues. Several NU and Bolashak alumni opened their own businesses which they believe created a good workplace for others and indirectly contributed to socio-economic development.

Our findings suggest that alumni contributions are dependent on the type of organization and the seniority graduates hold in the workplace. Predictably, those alumni who held senior and middle management positions demonstrated a more significant contribution than those in lower positions. Several participants noted that because of ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘resistance to change’ within the civil service and public sectors, only those senior-level positions could get enough leverage to improve policies, practices, and services.

Although international education received abroad and at home are both appreciated by employers, it seems that graduates with international diplomas obtained overseas receive more preferable treatment in the job market. Bolashak alumni seem to be at an advantage in securing relatively more senior positions, enabling them to be more influential in bringing positive changes. Their experiences in internationally diverse settings make Bolashak alumni confident and persistent in pressing for changes in work practices, particularly in the public sector.

Society level

The contribution of alumni to society started with family and friends and extended to the wider community. Most alumni provided financial support to their families and advised family members, relatives, and friends on educational and job-related opportunities.

Volunteering and charity work were common among alumni. They helped socially vulnerable people by organizing charity funds, teaching children various skills, and participating in charity marathons.

Initiatives around environmental protections were often referred to, with several alumni raising awareness about efficient water and energy use on social media platforms or by personal example collecting trash they see on the road. Contributions to political life were least mentioned, although some alumni participated in legal protests.

Barriers to contribution

Contributions by alumni were shaped and sometimes restricted by economic and socio-cultural factors, as well as by the characteristics of the scholarship programme.

Economic factors

Lack of job opportunities and low salaries limit alumni contributions to their country. Although the majority of Bolashak and NU alumni had a job related to their field of study, many experienced skills mismatch stemming from limited opportunities or underdeveloped industries with under-resourced facilities and laboratories. This was a major issue for Bolashak alumni in the fields of space technology, nanoelectronics and nanotechnology that were either underdeveloped or non-existent in Kazakhstan. This has delayed alumni’s career progression and limited their contribution to the economic development of the nation. Conversely, an oversupply of graduates in some fields, such as oil and gas, was claimed to make it harder to secure a job.

In the public sector, salaries were claimed to be below the stipend alumni had received as students and were hardly sufficient to cover accommodation costs forcing some to take a second job or change jobs a few times. Both Bolashak and NU alumni believed that low salaries had an adverse effect on their efficiency at work and were one of the key reasons for corruption and bribery in Kazakhstan. Many participants believed that if the economy continues to be slow to diversify and modernize, the contribution that the alumni can make to national development will be only partially realized.

Socio-cultural factors

Socio-cultural factors also limit alumni contributions. Bureaucratic practices with inefficient systems, especially within the civil service, took away valuable time that could be spent on more important tasks. Bolashak alumni working in the civil service reported that poor access to senior managers, unrealistically long working hours, last-minute deadlines, and little concern for employees’ well-being demotivated them and made it difficult to make a positive impact.

Many of our participants said their ideas were often perceived as ‘unrealistic’ by older colleagues who were rigid in their beliefs and resistant to any changes. Alumni working in the civil service and public sector often encountered a hierarchical environment where it seemed that most decisions were made by one person who held a post by virtue of seniority rather than expertise.

Scholarship regulations

The requirement that Bolashak graduates must work in a particular sector with a previous employer or in a pre-determined region caused skills mismatch for many alumni and limited their contribution to society.

Alumni views on maximizing benefits by modifying policy and practice

Alumni observe that stronger economic development via diversification and modernization would offer more opportunities for greater contributions.  They also believe that government actions to eradicate corruption, improve the local education system through increased institutional autonomy and stronger collaborations between universities and industries, would also help increase opportunities. They suggested that special attention should be paid to regional development so that graduates of NU and the Bolashak program have the opportunity to introduce the latest international practices at regional enterprises and universities, the infrastructure of which often does not meet modern standards and therefore limits positive contribution of graduates.

Additionally, alumni suggested that the government adopt a more receptive stance towards its citizens, establish efficient partnerships with employers, and involve alumni in various initiatives and projects, offering them opportunities to contribute positively to societal transformations. Openness to new ideas and practices will improve the image of the civil service and public sector as employers, which, in turn, will help attract more graduates to work in governmental services.

One procedural change recommended by alumni was changing scholarship regulations with regard to the contractual employment obligation (otrabotka) – to make it proportional to the length or cost of study. Another was to make Bolashak scholarships more accessible to families which did not have the resources to act as a financial guarantor. 

As for NU, it is important to improve existing educational programs, revise applicants’ selection criteria to make them more competitive, and enhance the system of providing students with necessary equipment for their studies.

Bolashak and NU graduates often need support from management while implementing innovations, which can be achieved through closer cooperation between ministries, organizations supervising scholarship programs and employers.


Drawing on the results of the study and our understanding of other national approaches to financing international education we draw policy makers’ attention to the following nine observations.

  1. Bolashak and NU graduates do make a contribution to the nation. They play pivotal roles in nurturing local talent, enhancing the systems, practices, and policies in their workplaces, thereby fostering broader societal and economic changes.
  2. Immediate impact is limited by economic factors especially when job opportunities are limited.
  3. The social impact is most obvious among peers and family networks and in the wider society.
  4. Alumni in the public sector struggle in a hierarchical seniority based environment,
  5. Regulations requiring service with specific employers or in defined regions can be limiting.
  6. The extent of alumni contributions appears to vary based on their field of expertise, employer type, seniority at work, geographical location, and the criteria of the scholarship program.
  7. Bolashak alumni appear to have an advantage in attaining higher-ranking positions, allowing them to have more influence on initiating change processes.
  8. Despite policymakers’ best intentions, constraints such as limited job opportunities in certain fields, inadequate salaries, and a bureaucratic work culture hinder alumni from making substantial contributions to the nation.
  9. Further research examining the longer-term benefits of investing in local infrastructure like NU over the more immediate returns from scholarships to study in other counties would be invaluable to national policy makers in many countries. Kazakhstan is well placed to lead such work.

This work was supported by the Nazarbayev University Faculty Development

Peyman Taeidi

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