The Bolashak scholarship, funded by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science, has provided Kazakh-speaking students a ticket to a virtually free, world-class education for two decades. Recipients have attended the likes of University of Tokyo, McGill University, and MIT.
In addition to providing proof of their work experience, applicants must also pass tests on foreign language and general knowledge, and complete a psychological evaluation.
The scholarships once funded a wide range of academic endeavors, but opportunities have become increasingly limited since the establishment of Nazarbaev University in 2009.
In 2011, Kazakh Secretary of State Qanat Saudabaev said of the program, "The selection process should be unbiased and strict. It's not big numbers of students that matter."
The program has not funded those seeking bachelor's degrees since 2011 and has curbed the types of postgraduate degrees it supports.
"We have decided to, in stages, stop sending postgraduate students abroad to obtain master's degrees in majors [that are also] taught at Nazarbaev University in Astana,” Sayasat Nurbek, who administers the scholarship, said in 2011.
A diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks underscores the Kazakh government's desire to wind down the scholarship despite its popularity. Aida Sagintayeva, president of the Center for International Programs, reportedly told the U.S. State Department in 2008 that Bolashak would decrease the quantity of its partner universities.
"The program currently works with 630 universities in 32 countries but plans to scale back to 150 universities in 22 countries," the cable reads. It also notes a 20 percent increase in Kazakh students studying in the United States that year, suggesting strong demand for the scholarship.
Students who participate in the program are required to work at Kazakh companies for at least three years upon their return. Most of those companies are private; only a handful of returning scholars each year work for the government. According to the 2008 WikiLeaks cable, of the 4,500 students who had been sent abroad by 2008, only 29 had failed to return to Kazakhstan to work.
Students who accept the scholarship are made to sign an agreement saying they will "engage in labor activity in their specialty acquired through the Bolashak scholarship" for three to five years. Those who break the terms of the agreement are obligated to repay the cost of their scholarship.
Not all who participate in the program are eager to return from abroad. "None of the Bolashak students believes that he or she will be able to find a good job with decent salary back in Kazakhstan," said Gulzira Amantulina, who graduated from the London School of Economics on a Bolashak scholarship in 2003. "There is a huge difference between Kazakhstan and European countries, where better jobs are available."
Bolashak, "future" in Kazakh, was launched in 1993 by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who saw a need in the Kazakh workforce for Western-educated students. From 2005-11, the program sent 7,000 students abroad. According to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Education and Science, nearly 13 million tenges ($86,000) was allocated for the program in 2011 but only about 2 million tenges of that sum was spent.
Despite the decline in Bolashak scholars, some argue the program is necessary because of the high-quality education that Western universities provide.
"There are a number of specialties that are not present in our country. Here, there is the advantage of foreign universities," said Aset Abdualim, vice president of the Kazakh Center for International Programs, which is run by the Ministry of Education.
-- Sam Colt