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The Many Contributions of the Bolashak Program to Human Capital Development

Laura W. Perna, University of Pennsylvania

Context

Educational attainment, an indicator of the human capital accumulated by a population, is a primary determinant of a nation’s prosperity and global economic competitiveness. By offering financial subsidies that enable students to study and earn degrees from high-quality universities in foreign nations, the Bolashak Scholars Program is an effective strategy for promoting the development of the nation’s human capital.

Process

Over the past two years, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Nazarbayev University has been working together to collect and analyze data about the Bolashak program in order to better understand the characteristics of scholarship recipients and the program’s benefits.[i]  Consistent with case study methodology, the research team collected data from multiple sources including presidential decrees and documents published by the Ministry of Education and Science, reports and data from the Center for International Programs, and interviews in Astana, Almaty, and Karaganda with 62 individuals, including current and former program administrators, representatives from the Ministry, former scholarship recipients, and employers of Bolashak graduates.  We conducted the interviews in May 2012, September 2012, and May 2013.  Papers describing findings from the research were presented at the European Conference on Educational Research (September 2013), will be presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (November 2013), and will be published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals.

Because the research design does not control for students’ self-selection into the program, we cannot conclude that the Bolashak program causes improved outcomes for individuals or Kazakh society.  Nonetheless, the descriptive analyses provide useful insights into the many ways that this program is promoting human capital development in Kazakhstan, a nation that is continuing to improve its own higher education system and transitioning to an innovation-driven, globally-competitive economy.

Benefits for Individuals and Society

Although serving a small number of individuals, our data show that the Bolashak program is promoting the development of human capital that is not otherwise available in the nation. Particularly important appear to be the financial support and encouragement to study in high-quality universities in nations that are not common destinations for foreign study (e.g., universities in the U.K. and U.S.) and pursue academic specialties that are needed by employers but are not available at Kazakh universities. The program also develops human capital by encouraging foreign-language fluency (especially in English, a language required for many international business partnerships) and the acquisition of current technical knowledge that employers require for global competitiveness.

The program also generates other benefits for individuals and society. Particularly important are the ways that the program broadens the “world-view” of graduates. This expanded vision is being utilized by employers and channeled by the Bolashak Association to enhance competitiveness and stimulate innovation.  The efforts of the Bolashak Association to capture and apply the international knowledge and insights of Bolashak graduates to solve current societal problems may offer a model to other nations that seek to maximize the vast knowledge that graduates have acquired from living and studying abroad. The Bolashak program may also have a multiplicative effect, signaling to the nation the value of foreign study and thus contributing indirectly to the nation’s high overall rate of foreign tertiary study.

The many benefits of this program for human capital development and nation building support the merits of government investment in this program. Nonetheless, we did not conduct a comprehensive accounting of the benefits and costs. Further inquiry is required to understand the benefits and costs of different program configurations in light of the nation’s higher education system and economic needs. For instance, although the elimination of funding for undergraduate study may have reduced direct program costs, the net benefits of this change for individuals and society are not clear. Although program administrators consistently articulated the underlying rationale, a number of employers and graduates articulated the need to reconsider this change. Kazakhstan undoubtedly requires more individuals with Ph.D.s, especially as it continues to develop its own higher education system (including Nazarbayev University) but additional foreign-educated bachelor’s degree recipients might also help advance innovation.

Other Accomplishments in the First 20 Years

Our analyses also point to a number of other important accomplishments over the past 20 years.  First, with expansion of number of scholarships to 3,000, concerted efforts to disseminate information about the program, and the standardization of selection criteria, the program is no longer perceived to be available only to the “politically connected” (especially in the early years) but rather open to anyone who meets the selection criteria.

Second, the program has adapted and evolved over time to meet changing priorities and goals.  Over the past 20 years the numbers of recipients and nations in which students may study have increased. The level of study that is funded has shifted so that now only master’s degrees, doctorates, and short-term research internships are funded through the program. Application and selection criteria have also been modified over time. With its longevity and evolution over time, the Bolashak program is a potential model for other nations seeking to promote their nation’s human capital.

Third, although the openness of the program has improved over time, participation still varies across groups.  Participation has been lower for those from rural areas and higher for those from the nation’s largest (and most affluent) cities. These participation patterns seem to reflect differences in the availability of resources that promote participation, particularly the availability of high-quality primary and secondary education. These findings underscore the importance of improving the quality of the nation’s elementary and secondary education (especially in rural areas) so that more students are prepared to enter and succeed in higher education in Kazakhstan and abroad.

The Need for Better Data To Assess Equity Effects

Understanding differences in program participation by social class or family income is hampered by the absence of the systematic collection of relevant demographic data. Although the generous coverage of the direct costs of attendance may promote participation for those from less-affluent backgrounds, the need to document collateral and meet various academic requirements likely works in the opposite direction.  This program may be primarily serving those with middle- and upper-middle-income backgrounds as at least some individuals from the most affluent families are able to use their own financial resources to “opt out” of the government’s requirements and participate in foreign study on their own terms. The concentration of government resources at the upper end of the income distribution will likely only increase moving forward, as the program now only funds study at the post-baccalaureate levels (and thus benefits only those who have successfully attained high-quality undergraduate preparation).  To allow for more complete consideration of these and related issues, more attention is required to ensure the systematic and comprehensive collection of data that describe the characteristics of individuals who apply to and are selected for program participation, and that document the experiences and outcomes of participants education in Kazakhstan and in other nations.

Post-Bolashak Support to Maximize Impact

Policymakers and administrators should continue to consider ways to mitigate the cultural tensions that may result when Bolashak graduates return to Kazakhstan after completing their program. Although sometimes minor and not necessarily widespread, these tensions may limit the contributions of the program to human capital development. Although such challenges are not surprising, the success of a strategy that encourages foreign study for improving a nation’s human capital development is dependent on a strong domestic infrastructure that can make effective use of citizens who were educated abroad.

Conclusion

Although more progress is required to reach the status of an innovation-driven economy, Kazakhstan has made remarkable progress over just 20 years in transforming from a centrally-planned economy to a market-based, globally completive economy.  The Bolashak program has clearly contributed to this transition. In its first 20 years the Bolashak program has generated numerous benefits for individual scholarship recipients and for Kazakh society more generally.  The program may be a useful model for other transition economies.  Moving into the future, enhanced data collection and focused support for returning scholars may further increase the program’s impact.



[i] Members of the research team are Laura Perna, Kata Orosz, and Bryan Gopaul from the University of Pennsylvania and Marina Kishkentayeva, Zakir Jumakulov, and Adil Ashirbeckov from Nazarbayev University.

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