Higher education

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

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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: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/BugJKtrEFRnhfJpkeDya/full, and the abstract is below.

Abstract

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

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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.

New research from Central Asian university students

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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.

Education for the local, as well as the national and global

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Grumpy cat is full of hope for 2017

Starting off the new year with a hopeful story – and I will do what I can to make this year one where hope is rekindled – comes news from the University of Central Asia‘s (UCA) brand new campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Regular readers will know I’ve been following this project for 15 years now, since working for the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan. I’ve written about UCA before on the blog: have a look at the archives here.

The article from Michael Igoe on Devex, which is reproduced below, is a very interesting read. It’s one of the few pieces about UCA I’ve read that gets beyond the university’s own marketing and publicity. It also sheds light on the impact of the university on the local environment and its local communities, something that is so important to the Aga Khan in his vision for development. Whilst Igoe has focussed on the “world-class in the mountains” angle – in itself a fascinating story – I would love to hear more about the local level as UCA develops. This covers themes as diverse as the professional training that will be directly relevant to the university (such as in construction and catering), the financial impact any university brings to its local town, to the less tangible impact a university has on the people who live locally. Igoe cites several local residents who seem to feel disconnected from the university whilst at the same time affected by its very presence, a curious phenomenon.

With the opening of the second of three campuses due in September this year, the questions of the local – not just the global or the national – will only become more important for UCA.

Article (c) Michael Igoe, https://www.devex.com/news/a-world-class-university-town-89014

A world-class university town

By Michael Igoe @AlterIgoe
04 January 2017


Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, the location of a branch of the Aga Khan Development Network’s University of Central Asia. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a three-part Devex series that examines the Aga Khan’s plan to create a new model for higher education in Central Asia, where the opportunity to achieve academic excellence is usually found somewhere else.

The road to Naryn, a sleepy outpost 100 miles from the Chinese border at Torugart pass, winds southeast from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s leafy, cosmopolitan capital, over mountain passes and through eroding canyons.

This is one vein of the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trade network that stretched from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Today cargo trucks traverse the route. Arriving fully weighted from China’s western provinces to stock Kyrgyzstan’s crowded markets, most of them return empty, belching black exhaust along the way.

Two men on horses guide a flock of fat-tailed sheep into oncoming traffic. The cars brake and the sheep envelop them, then part like a dusty sea of wool. The road turns with the Karakudzhur River, and then carves through a tight sandstone gorge as it levels out for the approach to Naryn, through an open plain of villages, still quietly reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.

But on the outskirts of town, on a barren plot of land at the river’s edge, backdropped by imposing cliffs that glow red in the late or early light, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is building a university.

Naryn is now the site of an audacious experiment, a daring bet placed by a billionaire philanthropist, one of global development’s most distinctive thinkers, and the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims who regard him as a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad.

The Aga Khan — who, as founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, has built a global development empire that employs 80,000 people in more than 30 countries — has poured more than $100 million into this sleepy, mountain town over the last 16 years. He plans to spend even more.

His vision is of a world-class university on the banks of the Naryn River, with state of the art facilities, and a curriculum designed to equip young leaders from mountain communities with the knowledge and skills to bring about an economic renaissance for the region. This is one of three campuses that will together comprise the University of Central Asia, a secular, nonprofit university jointly chartered by the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and the Aga Khan.

At Naryn the crisp yellow and red buildings of the campus rise improbably from manicured lawns bisected by neatly plotted walkways, while gangs of stray dogs roam the scrubby paths just outside the campus perimeter. It has wood-paneled dormitories, geothermal heating, laboratories, laptops for every student, and a “sports bubble” encased in white fabric to seal its indoor facilities against Kyrgyzstan’s harsh winter.

Naryn, like many of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-style settlements, is an unremarkable town dropped in a dramatic location. Set along the clear, blue Naryn River, crumbling apartment buildings and rusted storefronts cling like an afterthought to the walls of two parallel mountain ridges that cradle the country’s ninth-largest city — home to only 40,000 people — in a narrow valley. Despite sharing a border with the world’s second-largest economy, this is one of the poorest regions in the country, mostly dependent on animal herding, for wool and meat.

A car waits for sheep to pass on the road from Bishkek to Naryn. Michael Igoe/Devex

But UCA graduates emerging from Naryn and the other campuses, the Aga Khan hopes, will be the future leaders of Central Asia — a vaguely delineated region where civic-minded leadership has been in short supply in the 25 years since the Soviet Union dissolved into a jigsaw puzzle of independent republics. The three countries partnering with the Aga Khan Development Network to launch this joint university have teetered between democracy and despotism. Tajikistan fell from Soviet rule into a full-fledged civil war. Kyrgyzstan has seen ethnic violence and revolution. Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has occupied that post since 1990.

The Aga Khan’s vision seems to defy logic. How will a world class university survive in a place few have ever heard of and fewer still would ever think to visit? Why build it here, in a remote mountain town? In a region with so many needs, why not focus on something simpler, such as basic health care or primary education?

“When I have talked about this project with people in all parts of the world over these past 16 years, many of them have been a little bit surprised,” said the Aga Khan, now 79 years old, at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. While he spoke, some members of UCA’s inaugural undergraduate class wept with joy and reverence.

Building institutions

For 12 years, not much happened at the construction site, while Naryn’s residents — and UCA’s own staff — wondered if the project would ever break ground. More than a decade after the three presidents and the Aga Khan signed UCA’s charter, there was still no university to point to.

Different people offer different explanations for the long wait. Some say the Aga Khan expected to find co-financing for the project — from the three partner countries or a multilateral development bank. Others suggest he didn’t have the right team in place yet to execute his vision.

Everyone points to the massive investment AKDN has made in Naryn to better prepare the town to benefit from the construction of a world class university at its doorstep.

“The impact of what we do can not only be global and regional — it can be local as well,” the Aga Khan said at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. “By working with the leadership of the [state], we hope, for example, that Naryn will become a dynamic university town, enhancing the quality of life for all its citizens.”

The Aga Khan Development Network espouses an approach it calls “multi-input area development.” It means that multiple parts of the 10 agency network converge on a region with mutually supportive initiatives. The picture that emerges in a place such as Naryn, where AKDN has a big presence, is of a development organization that has become a deeply integrated — seemingly permanent — part of the town.

In Naryn, AKDN has built a local diagnostic center that could eventually become a hospital. The same day the Aga Khan inaugurated the UCA Naryn campus, he joined local government leaders in opening a new wifi-enabled “smart park,” complete with exercise equipment, inlaid stone walkways and playgrounds.

But UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, a sharp, red building smack in the center of town, stands out.

For six of the 12 years that UCA’s construction site stayed quiet, UCA’s professional branch in town was busy providing continuing education courses to local people who, if they have the skills and business acumen, stand to benefit from having a world class educational institution on their doorstep.

While a young man selling onions and sheepskins by the side of Naryn’s market road described his impressions of the University of Central Asia — he thinks it will be a “big, great university,” but that it remains out of reach for many of Naryn’s own students — an older man named Baryktabas approached and greeted him.

He pointed to a stately but shabby Soviet building nearby where, in retirement, he directs a youth center. Baryktabas opened the doors to this building revealing a hidden concert hall, secreted away from a lost era of Soviet youth culture, filled with rows of musty, wooden seats, a full drum set on the concert stage and, improbably, a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar leaning against the bass drum.

“I’m not a musician,” he said, after delivering a spirited drum solo to the cavernous, empty hall.

Baryktabas is skeptical the University of Central Asia will deliver on the promise it has made to the small cohort of striving undergraduates who now matriculate there. “What are they going to become?” he asked. “President of the United States?”

But, despite his pessimism, Baryktabas is himself a product of the University of Central Asia system — and part of the much broader effort the Aga Khan has launched in Naryn to turn this struggling, secondary city into a international research and teaching hub.

The local labor challenge

The Aga Khan Foundation’s long-term view

Devex spoke with Michael Kocher, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation, about the challenges of balancing a long-term approach with the urgency of working in a geopolitical hot spot.

Some 90,000 students have passed through UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, which has learning centers in each of the three UCA countries. While the impact of UCA’s flagship undergraduate program will take years to gauge, the supporting educational and economic infrastructure the Aga Khan agencies are constructing is, in many ways, the bigger story — particularly for people in Naryn.

Baryktabas graduated from a certificate program. Then he received a business loan at 9 percent interest — nearly 20 points lower than the going rate thanks to UCA’s partnership with the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank — and additional coaching from SPCE’s business instructors.

“I got a good education there,” he said.

SPCE’s program has helped launch 27 startup businesses, from building contractors to children’s clothing producers, in Naryn, said Nurbek Nisharapov, head of SPCE’s Naryn campus. Before students — who range from 14 to 70 years old — can gain their certificate, they have to present a 35-page business plan.

The continuing education school has also helped fill a local labor gap that risked barring many of Naryn’s residents from winning construction jobs at the university project site. Graduates from SPCE’s technical and vocational education program founded a small construction enterprise that has contracted with UCA on the main campus project.

Each of the three university campuses brings it own unique challenge to the construction management table. In Tekeli, Kazakhstan the soil conditions are bad. Khorog, Tajikistan a bone-rattling 12-hour drive over rugged, mountain roads from the capital Dushanbe presents “horrendous” logistical problems, as one UCA staff member put it.

In Naryn, the biggest challenge is finding skilled local labor. Skilled workers go to Bishkek where construction projects dominate the skyline, leaving few people in town with the experience to deliver contracts at the quality UCA is demanding — or to benefit from the opportunity that UCA’s construction represents.

But even as AKDN’s other projects in Naryn gained steam, people still doubted that the big idea — the world class university they’d heard about for over a decade — would really come to fruition.

Designed on a fault line

When Grant Robertson joined the University of Central Asia in April 2012 as director of construction and facilities, he encountered a project that had lost focus.

The original plan was to build all three university campuses in parallel at full capacity — a 330,000 square meter project that would also have entailed getting all of the academics on line at the same time too.

“Mind-blowing,” Robertson said.

The university’s celebrated Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki — with a long list of conceptual buildings in Europe, the U.S. and Japan to his name — and AKDN’s leadership were at an impasse over what to do now that it had come to light the Naryn campus was designed on top of a seismic fault line.

The first phase of the University of Central Asia’s Naryn campus. Michael Igoe/Devex

“UCA blamed the architect, the architect blamed UCA, and it just sort of ground to a halt,” said Robertson, seated at a conference table in UCA’s Bishkek office, with aerial plans for each of the three university campuses taped to the wall behind him.

“There was no clear direction on what campus was going to go first, what the size of that campus would be, if there was phasing and what that phasing would look like — and what the pot of money that was available would be.”

“I came in at a time when it needed to move,” Robertson said.

First the team had to redraw a master plan that both the Aga Khan and Isozaki, the architect, had lent their seals of approval to, since the fault line issue made the original plan unworkable. Isozaki argued they shouldn’t build on the site at all, Robertson said.

“We don’t have another site. We need to build on this site,” Robertson said. He scheduled a three-day trip to negotiate with the Japanese architects in Japan. Within three hours, they came to a new agreement with a new plan.

Instead of building three campuses in parallel, Robertson was tasked with delivering the first phase of one campus in Naryn, a 15,000-square-meter compound that would grow over time. But he still had to figure out what a workable project management approach would look like in rural Kyrgyzstan, under the looming threat of an extreme winter, for a project that demanded uncompromising quality.

50 projects in 1

Usually, when an organization wants to do a complex construction project, they hire a general contractor to manage it. But the model can have drawbacks. A general contractor typically won’t begin any part of the project until the entire design has been finalized and approved. For every service they commission or material they procure the contractor adds some profit margin onto the cost they charge their client.

In places such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — with recent histories of political violence and reputations for graft and corruption — an international general contractor is going to include a risk premium. And since Central Asia has no general contracting firms capable of executing a project this big, an international firm from Turkey or Russia or elsewhere would have to come in — and usually they will import most of their own labor.

But under the Aga Khan’s direction, UCA’s mission was not just to build a campus on the outskirts of a struggling town. It was to contribute to Naryn’s economic development — not an international contracting firm’s portfolio and profit margin.

For Robertson, it was clear the standard model would not achieve the Aga Khan’s goals. Instead, UCA adopted a “multipackage construction management” approach. They split the project into 50 different “work packages” and managed each as an individually contracted project — oftentimes with local contractors. One third of the project’s overall value has gone to Kyrgyzstani contractors, Robertson said.

“It is a risky thing. Theoretically speaking, you are taking the entire risk. But practically speaking you are taking the entire risk in any case, because if the general contractor walks away the risk falls on you,” said Rahim Somani, UCA’s chief financial officer.

The multipackage approach also gave UCA the flexibility to move parts of the construction at different speeds, since they didn’t have to deliver a fully approved project design to a general contractor before any work could get started. They could construct one work package, like the foundation, while still designing another, like the roof. Robertson estimates it saved 18 months.

UCA’s multipackage strategy has since earned an important vote of confidence. In Khorog, where Robertson is now implementing the same procurement model, the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp. committed $30 million in financing to the construction of UCA’s Tajikistan campus. For an experimental university startup initiative with a nontypical procurement model, that validation is an important thing to have.

The Khorog campus is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017.

Town and gown

At the moment, the undergraduate campus in Naryn still feels a world away from Naryn’s modest cultural offerings. The town’s residents are universally curious about UCA, but their knowledge of what it looks like and what’s happening there is still imbued with a hint of mystery and awe. A shopkeeper named Elmira said she heard the campus was “like a five-star hotel,” with televisions in the classrooms. She’s never been inside.

A woman selling clothes at Naryn’s market. The region is one of the poorest in Kyrgyzstan. Michael Igoe/Devex

It’s hard to predict whether the town and the university will grow together.

Sitting on a stone bench outside UCA’s dormitory building, Robin Higgins, the university counselor, and Jonathan Chang, a student life adviser, are talking about what they do on their rare days off. Chang gets one free weekend every month. He spent his last weekend in Bishkek — a relative metropolis, with coffee that’s brewed from beans, not powder, and multiplex movie theaters.

But it’s tempting to imagine a version of Naryn with the trappings of a college town.

“I actually think that some entrepreneur should put a good coffee shop just off the campus here,” says Higgins, pointing across the street, where a cluster of concrete buildings cling to the hills. “Just a place to go that’s kind of different.”

You can almost see how it would happen. A student at the professional school in town puts together a 35-page business plan for her certificate program and gets a soft loan from the bank. A cafe springs up. Students and teachers shuttle back and forth for a coffee or an off-campus meeting.

But, for the moment, a lone cow grazes at the side of the road as a battered minivan rattles past the sign marking UCA’s entrance. Its passengers glance at the carefully laid paths and the mountains reflecting off of clean glass windows. Then the sight disappears from view as they continue West, tracing the river.

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About the author

Igoe michael 1

Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider’s perspective.

Corruption corrupted in Kazakhstan

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Cash for university and school places? This cat’s ready to pay.

Kazakh civil servant Almat Yermagambetov wins this week’s prize for bare faced deception.

Yermagambetov handed over to the police a woman who falsely claimed she could obtain admission at Nazarbayev University and a place at a top school in return for a large amount of cash – $20,000 US to be exact. This sounds great for moves towards transparency in a country that despite significant reform still struggles to eliminate corruption.

The plot thickens, though, not when you learn that the accused flatly denies any allegation of wrong doing – but when you find out that the person who paid out the not-to-be-sniffed-at sum of $20,000 to buy admission places for his children is Yermagambetov himself. Yes, the very same civil servant who brought the corruption to light. And, yes, as the 100+ comments on the original article also note, the very same civil servant who does not appear to be facing any charges for his own highly corrupt behaviour.

You couldn’t make it up.

Thanks to news portal Nur.kz for the story – https://www.nur.kz/1319394-chinovnik-otdal-moshennice-20-tys-dlya-zach.html [ru]

Faculty blamed for poor standards at Kulob State University, Tajikistan

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An unusually critical article was published recently in Asia-Plus – one of Tajikistan’s last remaining bastions of press freedoms – observing a worrying drop in educational standards at Kulob State University [ru], nominally one of the best in the country.

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A totally irrelevant (irreverent, some might say…) image about knowledge and cats.

Two main causes are identified: the fact that many of the better qualified faculty have left the university (20 instructors last year alone), and the fact that those who remain are not sufficiently qualified to be able to do their job properly.

Even the university rector acknowledges that the brain drain has had a negative impact on quality at the university. As the top posts in Tajik universities are appointed by the national government, it is rare for senior leaders to speak to the press – and rarer still for them to acknowledge that the Leader of the Nation (as President Emomali Rahmon is now known, following a referendum earlier this year) may not have all the answers. Kulob is not far from Danghara, the President’s hometown, and this southern region of Tajikistan has benefited greatly from capital and other investment in recent years. Kulob State University opened its doors to a new “modern and luxurious building” on its campus [en] just a year ago.

Yet shiny new buildings do not educate students: lecturers do. The Asia Plus article is scathing about the lack of qualifications of many of the remaining instructors. Journalist Hamidi Imoniddin draws on the university’s own data showing that nearly 40 lecturers were unable to submit properly written job documents – many of whom are the university’s own graduates. Because of the lack of properly qualified instructors, the university is resorting to newer researchers who do not meet the qualification requirements (generally a PhD) and do not have much by way of work experience. Even after offering a salary raise last year, university staff in Kulob are underpaid and this is certainly contributing to the outflow of more suitable candidates for faculty leadership roles.

All of this suggests an alarming downward spiral, where students can’t get a decent higher education because the staff don’t have the skills, experience or resources (textbooks and the like) to support them, and the staff who could be inspiring the next generation are leaving the town or even their profession in the hope of a better future.

As one of the comments on the article points out, this isn’t just a problem being faced by Kulob State University. There are nearly 40 universities in Tajikistan and the challenges fleshed out in Imoniddin’s article are common the most of them. System-wide reform of the higher education system would be the main step towards making positive change, but this needs to be accompanied by a reaffirmation of the value that higher education can bring for individuals and the population as a whole for any reforms to be truly successful.

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins

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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!