I’m sharing a post I wrote for the Centre for Canadian & International Higher Education‘s blog about the University of Central Asia. The post was published today at https://ciheblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/a-multinational-university-in-central-asia/ and is also copied below:
A Multinational University in Central Asia
It’s the early 1990s and 15 new countries have emerged from the colossal historical moment that was the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of these new countries have never experienced statehood with their current set of borders before – including the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
With the collapse of a huge unified political and economic system, questions of nationhood and national culture exist alongside a great number of urgent problems for these new countries. Unemployment is growing – as much as 30% in some countries – and as many as 40-70% of the population are falling below the poverty line. How can the new national governments create economic opportunities when jobs have vanished overnight?
And yet at the same time, the new nation states inherited a legacy of well-developed social infrastructure that was particularly strong in healthcare and education. In Central Asia, for example, the first universities and Academies of Science (research institutes) were created during the Soviet era. Whilst the region has an incredibly rich heritage of learning and discovery stretching back more than a millennium, the 20th century saw the founding of the first formal institutions of higher education here.
It is into this context of economic crisis but highly developed education and social institutions that the University of Central Asia (UCA), a new institution equally based in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, came into being. And it was UCA’s story that the university’s Chancellor Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha came to share with a large audience a joint CIHE/Munk School seminar held at OISE on March 2, 2018.
The story of the University of Central Asia
From 1995, agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a major international secular private foundation with a presence in 30 countries worldwide, began working with the Central Asian governments. At their request, agencies of the AKDN began to provide food assistance, education, and financial services. As the 1990s progressed and the economic situation stabilized across the region, education rose up the agenda as a priority area. A successful Humanities Project, initiated in Tajikistan in 1997 under the auspices of AKDN funding (and still running today), showed that innovation in higher education could work.
In 2000, the UCA was created. It is believed to be the only regional university in the world to be founded by international charter signed by the three host countries; the charter has since been lodged with the United Nations. It joins a tiny number of other regional universities such as the University of West Indies and the University of the South Pacific.
A key aim of the UCA is to “create job creators, not job seekers”, according to Dr Kassim-Lakha. UCA is striving to fulfil this mission in a number of ways:
- Providing very low cost continuing education across a widely disbursed area, including in neighbouring Afghanistan. Courses are vocationally oriented, covering subjects such as Business English, Accounting, and Car Mechanics;
- Undergraduate education with two majors at each of the three UCA campuses. Two campuses – in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and Khorog, Tajikistan – are operational; the Kazakh campus in Tekeli is expected to open within the next five years. Right now, there are just under 200 students and at capacity, UCA hopes to host 1,200 students on each campus. Graduate education will follow in the future;
- Research in areas of relevance to the mountain societies that host UCA. The Mountain Societies Research Institute and Institute for Public Policy and Administration are already producing some interesting outputs;
Across all its activities, UCA is striving to engage the communities and countries around it. This ranges from a new Mountain University Partnershiplinking up UCA to existing higher education institutions in the towns it is operating in to substantial financial support for the majority of its undergraduate students.
The cost of creating a new university
Even though tuition fees are minimal compared to other higher education systems – US$5,000 plus $3,000 for accommodation and living costs – this is well beyond the means of most prospective students. Huge financial subsidies mean that most students are only paying a fraction of the true cost of their education, which Dr Kassim-Lakha put at $28,000.
A huge amount of money has been put into the UCA initiative. There’s the financial subsidies for students, the cost of construction – the campuses have each cost nearly $100m to build – before you start to account for ongoing running costs.
Some of that cost has been met by generosity from Canada. To date, around C$20m of funding has been channeled from Canadian government agencies and non-governmental organizations into the creation of UCA, and Dr Kassim-Lakha expressed the university’s deep gratitude towards the Canadian people for this support. As well as direct funding, there are already concrete partnerships in place with the University of Toronto, Seneca College, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, each supporting UCA to develop a specific area of its curriculum.
Nevertheless, and perhaps understandably, working out how the university will be financially sustainable in the future is the issue Dr Kassim-Lakha said that keeps him up at night.
In the very specific former Soviet context it is based in, there are also potential challenges arising from an autonomous university attempting to set its own future direction within national higher education frameworks that remain heavily state-centric and bureaucratized.
And actively choosing to build a tri-campus university in small and remote mountain towns, as UCA has done, adds another dimension to the challenge. The guiding rationale for doing so – to reduce political, social and economic isolation – means that the university and other AKDN agencies are not just building a university, but a whole framework around it: from providing continuing education courses to qualify local people to work on the building sites to creating physical infrastructure such as building roads and pipelines.
UCA is an incredibly ambitious and exciting new endeavour. If the quality of its graduating students – the first of whom will reach the workplace in 2021 – come anywhere near matching the quality of financial investment and effort placed into creating UCA, then the results could be transformative for the mountain societies and the countries they are located in.
If you’re the Kazakh state, the answer is an obvious “yes”. No details have yet to emerge from the Centre for International Programmes, the government agency tasked with internationalizing Kazakh higher education, but you can bet that if the public policy agenda is leading in this direction, it won’t be long before the hub becomes a reality.
Higher education hubs have been successfully created in the Middle East (Dubai is a great example) and South-East Asia (Malaysia is another success story), and create special spaces for foreign universities to set up a branch campus or partner with a local university. Thus, students in the hub country and its neighbours can study for an overseas degree without leaving the region.
This has many advantages for students – hub-based campuses tend to offer a similar quality of education for a fraction of the regular tuition fee ticket, and with all the benefits of not having to travel far.
For the host country, acting as a hub can bring economic benefit by attracting more international students and staff/faculty, and enhance the country’s reputation through the legitimacy generated by the international universities. For Kazakhstan, reputation really matters and I imagine this would be seen by the state as a major benefit to creating an education hub.
This year, 14,000 international students are already studying in Kazakhstan, mainly coming from neighbouring countries. At the same time, 70,000 Kazakh students are studying abroad – not quite 10% of the total student population of a little under 650,000 – and there are plans to make the renowned Bolashak Scholarship more accessible in the coming years.
Interestingly, it was neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that until recently seemed the most likely Central Asian country to set up a regional education hub. In the 2000s, Kyrgyzstan was hosting up to ten times more international students each year than Kazakhstan, despite a population seven times smaller.
A 2012 study by Nurbek Jenish found that relatively low tuition fees and a low cost of living were the main reasons that international students head to Kyrgyzstan. International students – mainly from Central and South Asian countries – also perceived the quality of higher education and the opportunity to study in Russian or English to be beneficial, as well as the perception that admission requirements were soft.
But it is dynamic Kazakhstan that now appears to be running with the hub idea. This is not just because of the economic and reputational benefits, although those are evidently highly influential policy considerations. As Zhanbolat Meldeshov, President of the Centre for International Programs, pithily puts it:
«Студенческая и академическая мобильность, это мировой тренд в эпоху глобализации. Нельзя остановить этот процесс, можно только в нем активно участвовать.»
“Student and academic mobility is a global trend in the era of globalization. It’s impossible to stop this process, so you can only actively participate.”
This is another classic example of Kazakhstani policy pragmatism: if you can’t beat them, join them… and ultimately seek to beat them at their own game.
Call for papers – “Global Bolognaization”: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
Are you a Central Asia based academic or practitioner with direct experience of the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area? If so, we want to hear from you!
I am co-Chair of a proposal for a roundtable at the European Consortium of Political Researchers (ECPR) General Conference, which will be held in August 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.
The roundtable is called:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The call for papers is below and attached: CfP Global Bolognaization – ECPR 2018_forcirculation. Please share widely with your networks.
Paper proposals are due by January 10, 2018.
Call for proposals
Within the ECPR Section Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, we invite proposals for a roundtable on:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The Bologna Process has now spread far beyond the borders of the European Union, a process we call Global Bolognaization. This makes it critical to understand how European higher education ideas and reforms are being transferred to other settings and what impact this is having in these expanded spaces.
This roundtable focuses on the ways in which the Bologna Process is impacting the region of Central Asia and its constituent countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All five states have been engaging with the Bologna Process for some time: Kazakhstan has been a full member of the the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since 2010; European-inspired reforms in the other Central Asian states are either ongoing or currently in the process of being implemented. Yet Central Asia is currently on the periphery of the EHEA, not just geographically but in terms of academic/practitioner research.
As such, the purpose of this roundtable is to bring the Central Asian experience of Global Bolognaization to the fore. As far as possible, presentations at this roundtable will be by academics and practitioners with first-hand experience of the EHEA as it is being encountered in Central Asia. We welcome research based case studies of how the Bologna Process has impacted individual or groups of higher education institutions, faculty members, students, and the public; comparative studies between and beyond institutions and/or Central Asian states; and reflective studies on the prospects of the Bologna Process in Central Asia.
All proposals for this roundtable must have an analytical component, even if they are empirical studies. Where appropriate, participants should draw on a theoretical or conceptual framework that is a suitable match for the Special Interest Group’s theme of the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.
We will select up to five papers for inclusion in this roundtable.
At the conference, each presenter will give a brief presentation (5-7 minutes) and must submit a short paper before the conference (2,000-3,000 words, in English). After the presentations, there will be a moderated discussion between the presenters and the audience lasting around one hour.
The roundtable will be conducted in English.
How to apply
Title of your paper:
Abstract (300-500 words):
Keywords (3-8) indicating the subject, theme and scope of the paper:
Presenter’s email address:
If you have a co-author(s), please also include their name(s), email address(es) and institution(s).
Late or incomplete applications will not be accepted.
Dr Aliya Akatayeva, Head, Social Studies Department, Satbayev Research University, Kazakhstan; email@example.com.
Section abstract for the Special Interest Group Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation
Knowledge policies are at the forefront of contemporary global politics and are seen as the foundation on which societies coalesce and economies thrive. This Section builds on the previous six Sections on the Europe of Knowledge and invites contributions to consider the various dimensions of knowledge policy development.
Specifically, we are interested in theoretical, empirical, and comparative contributions that investigate the role of politics and policy in the global, multi-level, multi-issue, and multi-actor governance of knowledge. By role, we refer to effects that ideas, actors (both individual and organisational), policy instruments/mixes, and institutions have had on the governance of knowledge, and vice-versa. We focus on roles to enable a multidisciplinary discussion on whether these factors share defining characteristics across different knowledge policy domains (i.e. research, higher education, and innovation), and between distinct governance levels and geographical regions.
This Section continues to welcome scholars, globally, from all theoretical and methodological approaches to critically discuss the reconfiguration of knowledge systems around the world.
I was asked recently to give an overview of Central Asia’s higher education systems to a group of people who know a lot about higher education but less about the Central Asian context.
This was a great task. It really got me thinking about what someone would need to know in order to get a sense of how a higher education system operates and what some of the challenges and opportunities are within that system.
I decided to include indicators that would tell people about:
- Size: overall population, number of students, % of women;
- Money: how wealthy the country is, how much government spends on higher education, how higher education is funded;
- Organization: who are the important actors in this system, how is research organized, how international is the system;
- Big issues: what are some of the recent reforms to higher education, what worries people in that system.
My first thought was to lay out some data in a table by country (my research focus is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan so those are the three countries I used in this exercise). I did this, and it was a helpful exercise in getting clear what the key points were and how these could be summarized on one sheet of paper.
But… it looked boring! (No opportunity for cat pictures in the document either)
So I decided to harness my inner designer and try presenting these facts and stats in an infographic. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these – using images, very small amounts of text, colour, striking design and so on not only to grab attention but to try and present information in a more visually appealing way.
Some hours later and thanks to a free online tool, I had me an infographic. It doesn’t encapsulate everything that was on my fast fact sheet, and nor does it go into any detail e.g. on data sources – but that was part of the point. The idea was to help convey a few very basic ideas about higher education in Central Asia as visually as possible.
If you’re unfamiliar with higher education in these settings, does it give you an idea of how these systems might compare with other countries you know more about?
Are there important facts or figures that I could add which would make the contexts clearer?
Do the choices of images, graphs etc make sense?
I’d love for you to take a look at what I came up with and let me know what you think:
I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.
So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.
Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.
Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.
That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.
The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.
Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.
Yes, you heard that right.
A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.
A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.
That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.
UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.
Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.
Whether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.
Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.
But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.
During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.
Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.
Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.
The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.
Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.
After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.
This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.
The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.
And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.