New publication: Emerging global players: Building institutional legitimacy in universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan

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Summer 2018 is turning out to be a productive time for book publishing: in July, a chapter I wrote with Professor Creso Sá on scientific nationalism and scientific globalism was published; late August saw the publication of my new chapter with Dr Merli Tamtik called:

Comparing post-socialist transformations book cover
Book cover of ‘Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations’

Emerging global players: Building institutional legitimacy in universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan


It’s out as part of an exciting new collection, Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations: Purposes, policies, and practices in education, edited by Maia Chankseliani and Iveta Silova.

Our chapter compares how Estonia and Kazakhstan are using their two flagship universities – the University of Tartu and Nazarbayev University – as tools in their broader quest to find a place towards the top of the global hierarchy of nations with high quality (and top ranking) universities.

Why compare Estonia and Kazakhstan?

Apart from the obvious sharing of 20th century educational and political history as republics of the USSR, both states have in recent decades been investing heavily in higher education reforms. They do this in their effort to transform into the much desired ‘knowledge economy’, which is basically a global panacea for all countries’ educational and labour market problems.

Adding a really interesting dimension to the comparison is the historical differences between the two countries and universities we examined. Estonia was a nation-state well before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and the the University of Tartu is one of the oldest universities in the European model, having been founded in 1632. That makes it older than any university in the United States which has a plethora of institutions in the global rankings.

At the other geographical end of the former Soviet space, Kazakhstan became an independent state only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It does have a deep and rich history, just not in the geographic and political formation it inherited last century. Our case study Nazarbayev University is an archetypal creation of contemporary Kazakhstan, teaching in English, recruiting academics from around the world and rapidly expanding after admitting its first students in 2010.

Building international legitimacy

To make our comparison, we used the theoretical idea of international legitimacy building. This is a dynamic process in which actors – in our case, the governments of Estonia and Kazakhstan and the two universities – discover, shape, adopt and diffuse ideas or sets of norms with the aim of enhancing their global standing.

Having a top university is one symbol of being a highly ranked nation, which is why we focused in on the flagship university in each state.

Going through the four phases of international legitimacy building, we found both patterns and divergences between the two countries. For example, strong leadership from the top in steering higher education was found in both settings, as were a series of rapid reforms to higher education made as soon as economically possible after 1991.

The clearest distinction between the two states was the much greater agency of higher education institutions in Estonia than their counterparts in Kazakhstan, where persistent centralization has only very recently started to shift towards offering universities greater autonomy.

Why is this important?

It’s never enough to say that your study is important because it is the first of its kind (although it is true that this is the first comparison of national/higher education developments in Estonia and Kazakhstan and we are pretty excited about having done this!).

We believe the chapter makes a contribution in the understanding and analysis of processes of state formation in the post-socialist space – states that are (re-)forming under intense global pressures not experienced by other countries that came into existence in the mid-20th century or earlier.

We have also used our study to raise the important question of ‘what happens next’ for states like Estonia and Kazakhstan that choose to adopt dominant global discourses. Can they get their heads above the parapets and get the universities into a global top 100 ranking? Will they have to change their systems completely to achieve what they see as ‘global best practice’? Or is there a way in which Estonia and Kazakhstan can use this global discourse to enable their universities to flourish as global players on their own terms?


Tamtik, Merli, and Emma Sabzalieva. 2018. “Emerging Global Players? Building International Legitimacy in Universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan.” In Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations: Education in Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union, edited by Maia Chankseliani and Iveta Silova, 127–45. Oxford: Symposium Books.

More details about the book including a useful summary and chapter listing can be found at: http://www.symposium-books.co.uk/bookdetails/104/

Under copyright rules, I am not allowed to freely distribute our chapter. Sorry. But if you are based at a university or college, would you encourage your library to stock a copy? Thank you to Max Antony-Newman for requesting a copy for the University of Toronto library already!

Alternatively, if you would like to buy a copy, I can help you get one with an extremely respectable 50% author discount. Please drop me a note to follow up.