Town and gown dispute update: Statement from University of Central Asia 

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Shortly after my post on the rising tension in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan following an alleged town and gown dispute after a sports match, the University of Central Asia has now issued a detailed version of the incident on its Facebook page. The English version is copied below in full:


Emotions ran high in Naryn yesterday (June 8) as the basketball team from the University of Central Asia and the Naryn Club Team continued their feud – but all ended well with apologies from both sides.

On May 27 at a basketball game on the UCA Campus in Naryn, a physical altercation ensued between the UCA Team and the Naryn Club Team, consisting of students from the Naryn State University and the Naryn Sports School. The matter was handled by the UCA faculty and security present at the game, and the teams left without further incident.

Yesterday, June 8, while some UCA students were in the town of Naryn on academic assignment, they were recognised by a few players from the Naryn Club Team, and verbal insults were exchanged which led to physical threats. The Naryn Club members quickly called for reinforcements and in a short time a mob of some 80 individuals had gathered. Most had simply shown up in support and were unaware of the issues involved.

It was suggested a meeting take place at one of UCA’s off campus buildings to resolve the issues. The Governor of Naryn, the Deputy Mayor, and the Dean of UCA’s School of Arts and Sciences, along with some community leaders, presided at this meeting. The Governor’s plea for good sense to prevail went unheeded. After some heated verbal exchanges, and in the interest of maintaining peace and civility, the involved UCA students apologized for the incident at the basketball game, and the crowd dispersed soon thereafter.

UCA has been working closely with the authorities including with the Governor and Mayor of Naryn to arrive at an amicable resolution. Today, accompanied by the Governor and senior government officials, a student delegation as well as some leaders of the crowd that gathered yesterday, came to UCA’s Naryn Campus and conveyed their apologies to the UCA leadership and students for yesterday’s unfortunate incident. The Governor conveyed his appreciation of UCA and the benefits it has brought to the town of Naryn, and urged the gathering to build bridges. The meeting ended in an atmosphere of forgiveness from both sides. 

Working in close cooperation with the authorities in Bishkek and Naryn, UCA is continuing its investigation into the causes of the incident, so that appropriate action can be taken, including how such altercations can be prevented in the future. 

Town and gown clash at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan

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Local residents gather at the UCA campus in Naryn on June 8, 2017. Image (C) Akipress

Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).

This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.

Today, June 9, news is emerging that the national government is treating the response of local residents as hooliganism and a violation of public order.

The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating  young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.

This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.

Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.

Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)

There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.

Town and gown disputes in university towns like Oxford would often lead to violent fights in the past

Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.

The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.

Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.


Akipress story from June 8:

Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”

On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.

Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.

During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.

After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.

The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.


From the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between: Ten defining moments of Congress 2016

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The big news in the Canadian academic world at the moment is Congress 2016 (on Twitter: #congressh), taking place right now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Congress – or to name it in full, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – is the annual gathering of 75 Canadian scholarly associations, with around 8,000 researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the public converging on a university site for a week every year to:

…share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow. (source:

As you can imagine, it’s a huge undertaking for the organizers, the host university – and also for participants navigating their way around the many different associations (most people are connected with one or more society but in principle are able to attend sessions organized by other groups) as well as Congress-wide events.

This was my first experience at Congress, and specifically as a member of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education Conference (Twitter: #csshe2016). The CSSHE conference organisers did a fantastic job, so a big thank you to Kathleen Moore and Michelle Nilsen.

This post is an attempt to distill some of the ideas, conversations and experiences of the past few days. Here goes…

1. Listening and learning

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Social cartography in action

What a wealth of presentations at CSSHE! I learnt about nurturing professional identities, mental health support at Canadian universities, the implications of league tables for the structure of university systems, elite interviewing, the sociology of expectations, quality assurance, immigrant pathways, “alt-ac” (alternative academic) career prospects, the ethics of employing graduate research assistants and much, much more.

One session I found really stimulating was Vanessa Andreotti’s presentation of research undertaken as part of a cross-national ethical internationalism in higher education (EIHE) project. I loved how they’d used social cartography, a visual technique to represent multiple ways of seeing and knowing. I thought it was ingenious to use social cartography not just for the research but amongst the team to map out their own perspectives. This is a really innovative way of working with discomfort and dissonance.

2. Sharing what I’ve been doing

Me in action (my hands are very demonstrative!)

I gave two presentations at this conference, one (pictured) on connections between universities’ histories and their contemporary engagement with their local communities, the other with my supervisor on our recent research project investigating the public policy framework on international students in four countries.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about these projects, to share what’s been in my head these past months and see what others think about what I’ve got to say.


3. Becoming a better writer and thinker

Writing your “tiny text” aka abstract… your ten minutes start now…

Just before the CSSHE conference, there was a full day of sessions for graduate students covering important topics from teaching to publishing, and surviving your PhD along the way. George Veletsianos‘ use of memes made the somewhat more serious topic of crafting your research agenda that much more palatable!

This set of topics were substantiated by Congress-wide sessions on skills development, such as “How to write that journal article in seven days” – the room was understandably packed for that one. Here I would particularly highlight the wealth of contributions made by The Thesis Whisperer, also known as Dr Inger Mewburn. What a privilege to make a 3D connection after following her blog for so many years!

PS For those of you who were not at the journal article writing session, the title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at trying out one of Hartley’s “12 types of title” that Inger talked about. Category: definitely a bid for attention of some sort!

4. Random encounters

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Deanna Rexe skilfully employing historical images to illustrate interview methods

Of course, these meetings are not entirely random when you start off in a conference of other researchers… But within that frame, I talked to and swapped ideas with some fascinating folk. Critical race theory? Governance in Kazakhstan? Employing photos from the Calgary stampede to illustrate methods? Yes to all of them.

Best of all was the five minutes spent talking to the people sitting next to me at Inger Mewburn’s journal article session. I don’t know who they are or what they research, but they offered me a couple of incredibly useful insights for an article I’m working on at the moment that will help me substantially improve it.

5. Building virtual communities

Canadian humour on the #congressh Twitter stream

As well as the face-to-face encounters, there was a great buzz on the CSSHE and Congress Twitter hashtags. I believe we were even “Trending in Calgary” at one point (though I’m not sure what the competition is…).

As well as being able to share images and soundbites with colleagues not at the conference, it was exciting to see what other people were doing and thinking. And also indulge in some of the less serious commentary, as the picture accompanying this point shows…

6. Dreaming up hashtag projects

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A candidate image for the (already in existence) #refreshmentswillbeprovided hashtag

Speaking of Twitter, and inspired by Inger Mewburn’s #phdemotions project, we had a lot of fun thinking up new hashtags that might be popular. OK, I know hashtags aren’t going to save or change the world, but there is a little bit more to this than just photos of food.

Using and sharing hashtags is another way to bring people together, which for PhD students working by themselves and possibly not even on campus very much can be an easy and lighthearted way to connect with others and overcome feelings of isolation. And if you’re into ed tech research, it offers a mine of potential data to play with! See, I told you this wasn’t all (totally) irreverent…

7. The Mayor of Calgary’s purple shoes

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Look carefully at that footwear

Being at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities meant not just sharing space with 8,000 other delegates but the chance to attend some cross-disciplinary lectures.

Hence the chance to hear Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary and something of a local legend. He is a great storyteller. And he wears purple shoes.


8. The vibe in Calgary

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Can you bear it, Calgary? Bear made of felt roses, Glenbow Museum.

Canadians are generally pretty friendly people, and the friendliest Canadians I’ve met (so far, at least) can be found in Calgary. The University’s volunteers stood out in rain and sun to help conference delegates; members of the public we spoke to downtown were similarly happy to assist. I even heard a bus driver apologise to a passenger that she couldn’t taken him where he needed to go!

I was also very taken by the University’s speedy and holistic response to supporting evacuees from the devastating fires further north in Fort McMurray. As well as housing 1,400 people (and countless pets) on campus, their sports department is organising courses for children, their food services team are packing lunches every day, and their nursing and social work faculty and students are providing support for physical and mental health needs. Oh and the vet students are getting some hands on experience with all those pets!

9. Marvelling at the campus

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Looking up, or: how to present concrete in novel ways

I do love a good 20th century modernist/brutalist building, especially if there’s exposed concrete or Soviet-esque public art (see David Trilling’s photos or my own from Kyrgyzstan) involved… So I very much enjoyed indulging my passion for buildings at the University of Calgary.

PS Before anyone from Calgary writes in to complain, I should point out that they also have some delicious new builds on campus as well.

PPS This might well be where my next hashtag project is headed…

10. Touching at the edges of something bigger

Back from the ridiculous to the sublime with this last point.

Every now and then, during a presentation, in a conversation or at a lecture, there was a spark of something touching on some of the sector’s big questions: What is higher education for? What is our role in societies? Where do we go from here?

Rightly, nobody was offering easy answers – these are huge philosophical and practical questions – but it was exciting to sense the atmosphere and think that we have all, in our very different ways, taken on responsibility for breaking down those questions and looking for ways forward.