No shame in the name - we meant the university, not the autocrat

Cambridge college defends and then withdraws 'Nazarbayev Fellowship'. David Matthews reports

April 5, 2012

Credit: Getty
Nursultan Nazarbayev fellowship: 'not the intention to celebrate the president'

A University of Cambridge college has denied it intended to "celebrate" the autocratic president of Kazakhstan after advertisements appeared in the country for a fellowship in his name.

Adverts for the "Nazarbayev Fellowship" posted on several websites in the central Asian country invited applications for a six-month postdoctoral scientific placement at the "prestigious" Churchill College, Cambridge. The college - which has now abandoned immediate plans for the fellowship - said the adverts should have discussed the "Nazarbayev University Fellowship" in reference to the new institution in Kazakhstan's capital Astana that is also named after the president.

Richard Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, said in a statement: "It is true that at one stage its draft name was the Nazarbayev Fellowship but...this is not the name that the college adopted".

The adverts invited applications to the provost of Nazarbayev University, Anne Lonsdale, a former pro vice-chancellor at Cambridge.

Applicants, who had to be citizens of Kazakhstan, were shortlisted by Nazarbayev University, and Mr Partington said that Churchill College had gone on to select an "excellent and deserving prospect". However, in a further statement issued last week, he said that "repeated delays" in the process of establishing the fellowship meant that the "window of opportunity for an appropriate appointment this academic year" had been missed.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Last year he won another term as president with a reported 95.5 per cent of the vote in a poll lacking "opposition candidates and...a vibrant political discourse", according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Amnesty International reported that in 2011, defacing pictures of the president or "misrepresenting" his biography was made a criminal offence.

According to the non-governmental organisation Freedom House, academic freedom is permitted in Kazakhstan "except with respect to criticism of the president and his family".

Since the London School of Economics' links with the late Mu'ammer Gaddafi's deposed Libyan regime were heavily criticised in the Woolf report last November, UK universities' relationships with autocratic countries have been closely scrutinised.

Asked before the plans were ditched whether he thought the fellowship would bolster Mr Nazarbayev's reputation, Mr Partington said: "Is it a likely side-effect? We hope not."

Two sources within the college told Times Higher Education that Churchill College had changed the fellowship's name after becoming nervous about any association with Mr Nazarbayev.

Mr Partington said that this had been "one of the factors in the name change", but later stated that when the adverts appeared, Churchill College had already decided that the post should be called the "Nazarbayev University Fellowship".

"Churchill College council had the nature of Kazakhstan and its government in mind from the beginning of our considerations," he explained. "Factors that we have borne in mind in our discussions have included the importance placed upon education in Kazakhstan and the substantial academic freedom of Nazarbayev University.

"It [was] not the college's intention to celebrate President Nazarbayev in making this appointment."

It was intended that the Kazakhstan branch of the financial services company PricewaterhouseCoopers - which operates independently from the UK firm - would have paid for the fellowship.

University College London already helps to teach a foundation year to students at Nazarbayev University.

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