Borat off the mark

27 October 2006

While Borat (and his alter ego British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) may have put Kazakhstan on the map, his portrayal of the central Asian country could not be further from the truth, according to an academic from UCL. …

Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country often described as boasting every element on the periodic table, is emerging as an important ally for UK academia. Kazakhstan is extremely rich and has money to spend, especially on education.

Stefaan Simons knows the country better than most. He was a wide-eyed junior chemical engineering lecturer at UCL in the mid-1990s when he was offered a work trip to Kazakhstan. …

“I jumped at the chance to go there,” he says. He could not have received a warmer welcome. “The Kazakhs are the most welcoming people. They accept you and give you so much respect. They are very proud to have visitors from abroad,” says Prof Simons. …

Prof Simons spent two years convincing academics at the Kazakh National Technical University (KazNTU) that there were better ways to train chemical engineers. It was a massive task then, and still is.

Despite the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan did not do away with its five-year, Soviet-style degree programme, which devotes the first two years to compulsory intensive cultural studies. It was a world away from the higher education system Prof Simons knew. …

Prof Simons worked to put in place a more integrated approach to chemical engineering at KazNTU, so students would be better equipped for the challenges of western academia and industry. …

The funding may have ceased, but Prof Simons’ fascination with Kazakhstan and KazNTU remains. He continued to travel to the country at least once a year, and then, in 1998, a chance meeting at an industry dinner with a businessman from the US chemical company Fluor, gave the professor another way to support KazNTU.

Fluor is building a huge gas refinery by the Caspian Sea, and Prof Simons managed to persuade the company to fund a computer design suite for KazNTU, which would give students access to computer simulation software to design a chemical plant - a process that is a major part of the chemical engineering syllabus at UCL.

KazNTU was so thankful for Prof Simons’ years of support, they awarded him an honorary professorship earlier this year to mark the opening of the computer suite.…

There are no PhD programmes in Kazakhstan, and the Kazakh government is interested in sending its students to the UK for postgraduate education, with UCL a strong contender. UCL also runs a programme for Kazakh students to prepare them for higher education undergraduate study in the UK.

After a decade of working with a country that he describes as one of the friendliest in the world, it is not surprising that Prof Simons will not be watching Borat’s new film, due for release in the UK next week.

Prof Simon says: “I just wish he [Borat] had chosen a fictional country because he has it very wrong. He is particularly wrong when it comes to the way they treat their women. As far as I can see, women have equal status in Kazakhstan and there are many women in senior positions.” …

Alexandra Smith, EducationGuardian.co.uk

Image: Professor Simons receiving his honorary doctorate