Kazakhstan is spending $1 billion on its new capital city while education is in decline, writes Ruth Cherrington
It is just over a year since the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan officially inaugurated its new capital, Astana, but those involved with higher education find that old problems persist behind the facade of progress and change. They found few reasons to celebrate Astana's first birthday.
An estimated $1 billion was spent on giving what used to be known as Akmola the appearance of a capital, but some question the the outlay given the economy.
Conditions in many education institutions are deteriorating and some academics say investment in education infrastructure would have been more worthwhile.
University lecturers suffer problems similar to many of their counterparts in other former communist states. Low salaries and unreliable payment are common complaints on top of insufficient spending on education in general.
Some lecturers receive just $30 a month, which does not buy very much these days in Astana. Inflation is eating into earnings.
Shifting the capital was seen by many as a political move by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's president, who has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, rather than a necessary strategic one. It is intended to strengthen the Kazakh identity of the remote Steppe region, which has a majority of ethnic Russians, and to bolster Mr Nazarbayev's standing among the increasingly strong Kazakh nationalists.
There has been no rush for foreign embassies to relocate in the past year. The new capital is not very accessible and takes a 22-hour train ride or a bumpy two-hour flight on local aircraft from Almaty, the old capital, which is still the communications centre. Astana is also prone to extreme weather conditions and other inconveniences, such as power failures.
While its citizens can claim some enhanced status from their new identity as capital dwellers, this does not translate automatically into better living standards, especially for hard-pressed lecturers and teachers.
They may now be able to claim superiority over their colleagues in Almaty but they do not have higher salaries. One lecturer stated that, while Astana is beginning to get wealthy, there is no sign of this spilling over into her profession. Yet their commitment to their work remains strong.
Other things that are relatively unchanged relate to the huge impact made on the country by Russia during the era of the Soviet Union.
Despite attempts to carve out a new identity for itself, many of the old features and practices of the former times persist.
Soviet-style education was imposed on the country and many aspects of this centralised system are intact. Attempts to replace Soviet structures, processes and practices with more western ones are being made but not all academics agree this is a good thing.
There were positive results from the former system and some elements are probably worth retaining, it is claimed, in order to maintain standards and some stability. To change everything in the course of a few years without thorough thought may be dangerous educationally. The local context is still developing and in a state of transition and some academics argue this has to be taken into account.
Russian retains its predominance as the lingua franca although Kazakh is now the official language. Russian is used by most people and appears more often on streets notices, signs and so on.
Some Kazakhs do not know their own mother tongue and are having to learn it for the first time. If this entrenchment of the Russian language is threatened at all, it is probably not by Kazakh but by English, the preferred international language.
Kazakhs increasingly look to western countries for investment and employment, as well as educational opportunities and this requires knowledge of English. Foreign language teachers are increasingly turning to English and Russian language teachers are retraining.
Many middle-age academics speak of how a sound knowledge of Russian was essential in the former period for professional opportunities and development but now English is taking its place. For some people, it is hardly worth bothering to learn Kazakh with English becoming so important.
It can also be a valuable source of additional income for English-speaking lecturers who can supplement their low salaries by giving extra classes or having private students.
It is not uncommon to find English teachers rushing around various institutions and homes to do extra work. It is tiring but necessary to maintain an acceptable standard of living.
Graduates of English, however, are increasingly deterred from entering teaching when they see the salaries and conditions. Those with good language skills are tempted away from teaching to work as translators and secretaries in foreign companies.
There has been an influx of western companies in recent years because of the prospect of tapping Kazakhstan's oil and mineral reserves. Chartered accountants and machinery companies all need local staff and offer better salaries and conditions.
But if the oil boom proves to be ill-founded, then these people will find themselves joining the large numbers of unemployed. Since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, most state-run factories have been closed down.
Education offers one route out of unemployment and possibly a chance to go abroad for the successful few who have their sights set higher and further afield than the new capital.
Ruth Cherrington is a writer and
lecturer who has worked recently in Bulgaria and Poland.