Al-Farabi Kazakh National University

Central Asia’s first universities

Posted on Updated on

As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.

Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.

The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.

As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.

Lenin and cat
I had to include a cat somewhere in the post…

The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.

Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.

‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.

The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.

The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).

These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.

Kaz state uni 1929 etoretro.ru
Another early university – the Kazakh State University, now Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. Image from early 1930s, (c) etoretro.ru

Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.

In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.

Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.

Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.

References/Further reading

Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.

Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/high­education/istoriya­obrazovaniya/.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.

Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.