A Multinational University in Central Asia

Posted on Updated on

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 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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 10.23.38 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 10.23.24 AMA 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.

Seminar // March 2, 2018 // Toronto // Education at the roof of the world: The story of the University of Central Asia

Posted on Updated on

If you’re in Toronto on Friday March 2 between 11am-12.30pm, please consider coming to a seminar organized by my department and the Munk School of Global Affairs in which Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Central Asia, will talk about this innovative, new, multi-country university.

Details in the poster below and at

Please note the change of venue: due to an expected high turnout, the seminar will now be held in the Library at OISE.



Higher education in the high mountains of Central Asia

Posted on

Regular blog readers will know that I am passionate about higher education and about Central Asia. You may also know that I have been following the trajectory of some of the region’s newest institutions with great interest, in order to better understand the motivations behind the creation of these universities and to observe what these institutions mean for the people who are directly affected by them (through being students, faculty or staff there) or those with more indirect connections (local communities, employers, families of students etc). How do these universities change the societies around them? How do the societies around them change the institutions?

One project I have a particular attachment to is the University of Central Asia (UCA), which I first learned about in the early 2000s when I worked in Tajikistan for a path-breaking project that has now become linked to UCA. After an arduous journey – which is still only just beginning – UCA will admit its very first undergraduate students this autumn/fall and the buzz around it is steadily growing. The idea behind the university is to bring high quality higher education to three remote and mountainous regions in three countries of Central Asia: Tekeli in Kazakhstan, Naryn in Kyrgyzstan, and Khorog in Tajikistan. Whilst the mountains tell much of the story, there is also an undercurrent of social and economic justice: this is also about bringing three diverse but neighbouring states together and about creating opportunities for these regions and the states they are in to prosper in the 21st century.

In this post I would like to share a recent lecture by Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, UCA Board Executive Committee Executive Chair, given in London to share the university’s vision. The webcast of the lecture is below. If you enjoy that (or don’t have time to watch it in full), take a look at this 5 minute BBC news story and UCA’s photo reportage of the lecture.

We need to find opportunities, and that comes out of the intellectual application of minds, creating research and fostering socio-economic development of Central Asia’s mountain based societies, and helping societies preserve and draw upon their rich cultural heritage.

Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, May 2016