A leading Irish academic has moved from Pana to Astana to train future politicians and public servants in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
The unusual transfer to Kazakhstan for Neil Collins comes after 12 years as head of University College Cork’s department of government, where his research established him as a leading expert on corruption in Irish politics.
After an approach earlier this year, he arrived in late October to head up the graduate school of public policy at Nazarbayev University in the capital Astana, which is only open a few years and has just over 1,000 students.
“It’s the first western-style university in Kazakhstan, it was a Soviet-style education system before, meaning research was done in research institutes and universities were just teaching institutions,” he said.
The country was 133rd out of 176 in a 2012 corruption perception index, with a score of 28 out of 100 on a scale where lower scores denote higher levels of corruption. In the same index, Ireland had a score of 69 and was deemed 25th least corrupt, and Mr Collins was involved with the Irish arm of Transparency International which helped put it together.
He likens the former Soviet Union-controlled nation to Ireland in the early days of independence, and said that perceptions of its corruptness were part of what attracted him to the job.
“It’s a very centralised system — there’s a very dominant party and the president has been in office since independence and looks like being president for some time to come. The influence of Britain was with us for a very long time and the influence of Russia is still with them here,” he explained.
He is also continuing to collaborate with colleagues at UCC on some of his ongoing research, which in the past has focused on political corruption.
“We have a zero tolerance for anything associated with corruption here. It’s one of the things we aim to tackle, and the university is keen to be an example in terms of relations with students and outside interests,” he said.
Kazakhstan has a population of 16 million and is very dependent on wealth derived from its oil, which has seen the capital become one of the world’s most futuristic with its modern infrastructure. Despite some difficulties with the language, most other academics are also foreign — around 60% of them from the United States — and all university business is done through English.
“Astana has a very western feel, it’s like an architect’s dream, one building is more extraordinary than the next. But I’m sure that even an hour outside the city, it’s probably very different,” he said.
Another factor in his decision to move was the climate in higher education at home here, as funding and staffing are constantly reduced while student numbers rise.
“The atmosphere in Irish universities is one of cutting back and things are not likely to improve for some time, although UCC is doing its best to keep up standards,” he said.
For now, his biggest frustration is the bureaucracy around filling vacancies, but he is glad to have the freedom to recruit academics to the growing university.
And he will continue for some months to supervise students from UCC’s MBS in Asian Business, which means meeting some in Singapore and regular Skype conversations with students in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved