The Economist on the University of Central Asia 


Highly regarded British politics and economics magazine The Economist is a reliable source of news and tongue-in-cheek humorous bylines about what’s happening in the world. I was delighted to see a short article on the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan in this week’s edition, complete with silly/witty byline “Aga saga”. This refers to the Aga Khan, the much revered living spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims who can be found dotted around the world and make up almost all of the population of Badakhshan in south-east Tajikistan. It is also a play on words of a particular type of British light fiction written about domestic trials and tribulations –  Aga being the type of oven traditionally found in certain middle/upper class houses. 

The article itself is on the University of Central Asia and is regrettably brief. But at least it is being written about, and in a well read and respected publication. I hope The Economist’s interest is piqued so they will follow up on the university, which in just a few weeks is to open its doors to its first cohort of undergraduate students, well over a decade after it was formally launched. 

Read the story at:

University of Central Asia ready for students – at last!


After over 15 years in the making, I’m delighted to learn that the University of Central Asia (UCA) is finally ready to admit it first degree-level students for undergraduate courses at the Naryn campus in the Kyrgyz Republic this September. UCA’s recent news release further hints that the Khorog campus in Tajikistan will be operational from fall/autumn 2017, with the final campus in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, currently scheduled to open in 2019.

The process of creating a brand new university is riddled with challenges, and UCA’s mission is further complicated by its multi-campus, multi-country nature and the enormity of building not just a campus but making significant investment in the surrounding infrastructure as well (you want a university in remote south-east Tajikistan? OK, go build some roads to get there from the nearby town, lay the electricity lines and make sure there is running water…).

Determining the ethos of the institution: what it will teach, what kind of graduates it wants to produce, how it will operationalise mobility between the campuses and so on, has been another major challenge. I was involved in the development of curriculum materials at UCA’s outset and from my two year stint working for what was then the Aga Khan Humanities Project (AKHP), I was able to get an insight into the abundant complexities that were involved. The curriculum being created was genuinely multi-disciplinary and examined viewpoints that went well beyond the tired Western hegemonic discourses so common in university courses around the world these days. The materials that emerged were genuinely transformational and I strongly hope that the first two years of the undergraduate courses – which are billed by UCA as ‘rigorous core curriculum modelled on North American liberal arts degree programmes’ – have not diverged greatly from the AKHP model.

Taking these physical and intellectual challenges into account, it therefore comes as little surprise that the undergraduate programmes are only now being launched. The students who join the first ever UCA cohort will be true pioneers of a different model of learning and seeing the world and I am truly excited and inspired to watch their journeys unfold.

UCA’s news story on the admissions round can be found at

University of Central Asia – progress on Kyrgyz campus


There’s been a lot of activity in the Kyrgyz press this week following Prime Minister Temir Sariev’s visit to the Naryn campus of the University of Central Asia, which is at long last due to start accepting students for a first cohort in 2016/17.

Here’s the University’s press release on the visit, (c) UCA:

Prime Minister Sariev Visits University of Central Asia’s Naryn Campus

Kyrgyz Prime Minister His Excellency Temir Sariev visited the University of Central Asia’s (UCA) campus site in Naryn on 14 August 2015. He was accompanied on a tour of the campus facilities by UCA Director General Dr Bohdan Krawchenko.

UCA Director General Dr Bohdan Krawchenko (left) explains UCA’s phased construction plan to His Excellency Prime Minister Temir Sariev (far right).

During his visit, the Prime Minister noted that the University is a great contribution to the strategic development of not only the Naryn region, but to the whole of Kyrgyzstan.

“UCA is robust and well planned, offering good conditions for students to acquire knowledge and become competitive specialists, not only in Kyrgyzstan but internationally. Your contribution to social development is significant. It is good that you seek the most talented students, because students are beginning to think in terms of knowledge, not personal gain, said the Premier.

UCA was established through a unique partnership and an international treaty and charter signed by the Presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and His Highness the Aga Khan.

Following a brief presentation by Krawchenko in the campus courtyard, the Prime Minister toured the interior of the academic building, where under-floor heating is currently being installed, reviewing progress and the quality of construction. He then visited a faculty apartment.

His Excellency Prime Minster Sariev (left) and UCA Director General Krawchenko tour the interior of the Academic Building at UCA’s Naryn campus.

“UCA is an ambitious endeavour. We are building a world class university in a secondary town, providing an example for other towns to reinvent themselves. Our investments in student preparation, curriculum design, faculty recruitment and campus development are strategic and painstaking,” said Krawchenko. “We will have succeeded when all of our graduates are employed or are continuing their studies at leading universities.”

The Naryn campus will open in September 2016. The first class of 60 students will primarily be from UCA host countries. To ensure that the brightest students across the region can attend, they will have access to financial aid in the form scholarships, grants, loans and work study programmes. Quality faculty from around the world and the region are being recruited and academic programming and curriculum development is being designed in response to local and regional economic realities.

His Excellency Prime Minister Sariev (third from left) listens as UCA Director General Bohdan Krawchenko presents UCA’s ambitious agenda.

As part of its ongoing commitment to UCA host communities, the Aga Khan Development Network, of which UCA is a member, is working with the Kyrgyz government to make strategic investments in the infrastructure of Naryn town. These investments will support the town’s transition into a university town, and include the development of a university inn and additional housing, an early childhood development centre and a family medicine and diagnostic centre.

Administration Office

138 Toktogul Street, Bishkek, 720001, Kyrgyz Republic
Tel.: +996 (312) 910 822 Fax: +996 (312) 910 835

University of Central Asia public lecture on education and identity among Pamiri youth – 22 August, Bishkek


This lecture looks really interesting. I can’t attend (being in Oxford, not Bishkek at the moment!) but if any readers go, I’d love to hear your comments.

Here is the info from University of Central Asia’s website:

Education, Identity and Resilience among Gorno-Badakhshan Pamiri Youth by Carole Faucher

Speaker:  Carole Faucher

Date: 22 August 2012, 4 pm

Venue: University of Central Asia, 138 Toktogul Street, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, Conference Room.

This lecture examines the interplay of religious, secular and home education in the self-identification process of Pamiris originating from Tajikistan’s Autonomous Province of Gorno-Badadkhshan (GBAO), living in Central Asia with access to Ismaili religious education. The continuous pursuit of knowledge is an intrinsic component of the Ismaili faith, a Shia branch of Islam to which the majority of Tajik Pamiris of GBAO belong. Ismaili religious education includes topics that are also part of secular teaching such as literature, history and geography, and emphasizes development, the use of critical thinking and group interaction. At home, youth master their mother tongue and other aspects of Pamiri culture(s), while the national curriculum aims to socialize them as active citizens of the country where they live. These three sources of education provide structured ways of constructing a sense of belonging. How youth identify themselves in specific contexts nevertheless depends on a multitude of factors, including their own personal historical trajectory. Findings from field research conducted in Khorog, Murghab, Dushanbe, Khujand, and Osh over the past two years indicate that religious education provides Pamiri youth with a strong base for integrating and unifying different categories of knowledge and identity frameworks provided by the other means of education. Good academic performance is a highly valued cultural trait which has more to do with community resilience then with individual competitiveness, and it contributes to the preservation and accumulation of cultural capital associated with the Pamiri regional identity framework.

Please RSVP to with your name and affiliation. Please indicate if you require Russian translation.

Carole Faucher is an Associate Professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. She obtained her PhD in Sociology from the National University of Singapore and her Master’s in Anthropology from the Université de Montréal. She has written extensively on identity politics, education, and regionalism in South-East Asia. Her latest publications include the co-edition (with J. Gomez) of a special issue of the Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies entitled “Politics and Identity: Negotiating Power and Space in Asia” (2010). She is currently working on publication projects focusing on Central Asia, including the co-edition (with B. Pasilov) of Education, Identity and Social Transformation in Central Asian Societies, a journal special issue collection which will introduce a number of young scholars from the region. She has been conducting research in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan since 2009.

The presentation will be conducted in English. Russian translation provided upon prior request.

New research from Central Asian university students


relevant-to-my-interestsIntrigued by reforms to education in Kazakhstan, from the new trilingual education policy to greater steps towards decentralization of governance?

Want to know what students at a new Kazakh university think about life on campus or the effectiveness of their institution’s strategic plan?

Curious to learn more about students’ views on learning methods, from videoessays to critical thinking skills?

I thought so.

You need to subscribe to a great blog run by students at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, which has published posts on all these themes and much more. Stories are short, evidence-based and offer some great insights into two areas.

Firstly, there are articles that enhance empirical understanding of education at all levels, with a particular focus on the Kazakh situation. Secondly, the blog offers some interesting insights into the contemporary Central Asian student experience by allowing students to choose (within a framework) what they are writing about, how they express themselves, and how their articles are received and discussed by others.

QS University Rankings – Emerging Europe and Central Asia 2015 out today


University rankings are a real buzz area in higher education at the moment, with universities clamouring to move into the top X, governments giving extra funding to support universities that they feel can achieve this mission and enhance the country’s prestige, and students and researchers using the outcomes of rankings exercises to shape their choices and opinions about higher education.

My point here is not to discuss the advantages and disadvantages that this quantification of quality brings to our understanding of higher education (that can wait for another blog post another day!) but to alert fellow Central Asia followers to the publication of a new list from QS that covers ‘Emerging Europe and Central Asia’.

The headlines are that Russian universities perform extremely well, with Lomonosov Moscow State heading the pack. Turkish and Kazakh institutions also feature strongly, with Al-Farabi National University the top ranked Kazakh university at number 21. CA-News focusses on the less good outcomes of Kazakh universities this year compared to last [ru] (when the ranking was of 100 universities; this year it runs to 150). Other Central Asian countries barely feature, with just Kyrgyzstan’s American University of Central Asia enters at the 101-110 group.

This is the second year that this ranking has been run, building on a pilot study run in 2014. The rankings cover 20 countries that can be broadly defined as having shared a socialist past – and the ranking organiser QS makes the point that this shared heritage provides for interesting comparisons.

QS believes that this grouping is significant in three areas:

  • For institutions – some of whom may feature in the QS World Rankings but many of whom do not, and thus a more specific focus enables a celebration of their achievements;
  • For the study of global trends in higher education – the way that these universities are internationalising is noted (and commended), as is the growing competitiveness of universities in this region;
  • For students – recognising high levels of mobility within the region, particularly from former Soviet countries to Russia, the rankings offer a tool for informed decision making.

The supplement to the online rankings discusses these points in more detail and is worth reading. It’s also worth investigating the methodology used, which has been adapted from the World University Rankings with different measures of research excellence and two new indicators covering universities’ web presence and a count of the number of staff with a PhD. Again, this isn’t the time for an analysis but I do have some questions about the rationale underpinning this revised methodology.

To read the supplement either create a log in on the QS website or borrow my copy: qs_university_rankings_eeca_2015_supplement!

University closures in Russia – will Central Asia follow?


Although this blog focusses on Central Asia, every now and then something happens in the broader sphere of influence on Central Asia that merits being featured. As part of its drive to enhancing the quality of university education in Russia, University World News this week reports on news that the federal government has recently decided that fully 40% of all universities in the Russian Federation should be closed. Under its 2016-2020 education development plan, the government has planned a series of closures and mergers – which will mainly affect the many private universities that have sprung up since 1991 – with the intention of wiping out some of the poorer quality education that is largely found in these newer institutions.

The Kyrgyz government in particular may well be taking notes on this strategy. As I have previously reported, the President himself has taken an interest in the burgeoning number of institutions in the country and the related reports of deteriorating quality of provision. There are no fewer than 52 universities in this small country – population just under 6 million – of which around a third are private institutions (source: Tempus Kyrgyzstan). Some of these private institutions like the American University of Central Asia are not only legitimate but offer exceptionally good education, but there are certainly many others that, like Russian Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov says, are merely “offices for the sale of certificates”.

New article published: The policy challenges of creating a world-class university outside the global ‘core’


Yup, I am pretty excited about this one

I’m pleased to share the publication of my latest journal article. Out online in the European Journal of Higher Education now (and in print in June), my article is called The policy challenges of creating a world-class university outside the global ‘core’ and takes a fresh look at the now commonplace idea of the world-class university.

I used a case study of recently founded Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities for policymakers and people working/studying at the university arising from this new and in many ways experimental project.

You can download the article in full at:, and the abstract is below.


Although the idea of the world-class university is not a new one, it has become increasingly commonplace in public policies around the globe, also gaining traction in states outside the global ‘core’. Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian member of the European Higher Education Area, is no exception as it too aspires to have a world-class university. This paper examines the policies of the Kazakhstani government towards a recently founded institution, Nazarbayev University, as it seeks to position Kazakhstan as a credible global knowledge economy, but also use the university as a means of fulfilling domestic nation-building objectives. Addressing the policy challenges of creating a world-class university in this particular Central Asian context, the paper contributes to a reshaping of our understanding of how certain states currently outside the global ‘core’ are using higher education as a neoliberal development strategy. This paper offers the prospect that there might not just be multiple paths to the creation of a world-class university, but also multiple interpretations of what it means to be a world-class university.



A mountain to climb? Educating leaders for Central Asia


Big, beautiful cats in the big, beautiful mountains of Central Asia. Image (c) National Geographic

At the start of this year, I shared a great article on the nascent University of Central Asia from Devex and Michael Igoe. If you enjoyed that, you’ll be pleased to hear that the article in fact came in three parts.

In part two, A classroom for the mountains, Igoe discusses the intensity and rigour with which the undergraduate curriculum has been developed, the difficulty of recruiting suitably qualified staff to come and work in rural mountainous Kyrgyzstan on the site of the first campus and the fundamental importance of that mountain location to the Aga Khan’s vision for the university.

Part three, The future leaders of Central Asia, focuses on the university’s hopes for its future graduates, including a nice feature with an undergraduate from Khorog, Tajikistan, who matter of factly comments on the hostility her family has faced from the government for expressing political view. The piece also emphasizes the way the university is gearing its programmes towards the needs (current and prospective) of the regional economy.

Something that struck me in all three articles was the absence of discussion of the political environment in which the university operates. This may be a reflection of the pragmatic mission of the Aga Khan and his network of charities that aim to work with local communities from the inside, rather than tie short-term funding to political or economic conditions. This is a laudable aim, although for the University of Central Asia, it seems as if the encouragement for students to be change-makers beyond the economic arena will be implicit at best.

In a setting like Kyrgyzstan where the government is more open, this strategy may be effective. It may be possible for students to envisage and even implement alternative ways of seeing and experiencing their home and other contexts. Yet for the Tajikistan context, the government maintains close control over the political establishment, making it hard (it not impossible) for alternative voices to be heard, let alone permitted in government.

The Tajik campus of the University of Central Asia is opening in Khorog, a town in the south-east of the country that the government has for a number of reasons found harder (though not impossible) to control. People from Khorog and the surrounding region of Badakhshan are spiritual followers of the Aga Khan and since he first visited the country in 1995, they have keenly followed his command to focus on education, particularly in English language and information technology. School leavers from Badakhshan are thus likely to be in a position to make extremely competitive applications to the university, increasing local leadership capacity in a part of the country that has on occasion been restive.

I think this raises important questions about just how holistically – ‘leadership’ is taught – and interpreted – at the University of Central Asia.

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins


After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.

The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.

For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!