regional cooperation

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 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.

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.

Inter-regional soft power: Kazakhstan and Tajikistan meet again

Posted on Updated on

First, greetings from Canada and a note on the silence on the blog for the past few weeks. After a whirlwind summer taking in three continents and cramming in temporary farewells to family and friends, I have now moved to Toronto, Canada and have started my PhD in Higher Education and Comparative, International & Development Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Those of you who have seen where I’ve worked before at universities in London and Oxford will be unsurprised to find me in yet another brutalist 1960s building!

The good news is that what happens inside OISE more than makes up for yet another dose of concrete and odd internal building layouts. After the first week of classes (PhD students in North America take taught courses for at least a year before moving on to start writing their theses), my brain is buzzing from the ideas I’m learning and the people I’m meeting. I have been keen to beef up my knowledge of educational theories and undertake methodological training and this is just the place for it. Many of the writers and thinkers we are examining are in my vocabulary already, but many aren’t, and I look forward immensely to making new connections and using this time to frame my research topic more explicitly.

So that’s where I’m at right now: not just a new direction in terms of making a full shift towards academic research, but a new country too. A lot to take in, but a great challenge to take on.

My blog post today concerns inter-regional relations, specifically, the relationship between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, was recently in Tajikistan on a state visit, presenting an opportunity for the two countries to develop projects and areas for cooperation. In their current identities as independent post-Soviet nations, the two countries first signed an agreement creating relations between them in 1993 [ru]. This sets out the basic principles of a neighbourly relationship, promising for example not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs and to develop economic cooperation.

In 2000, the countries signed an agreement specifically on educational cooperation [ru]. This includes undertakings to:

  • share information, for example on educational structures and reform
  • agree quotas for student and academic exchanges
  • create institutional partnerships

In their meetings this month, the two presidents – both of whom have been in power long enough to remember having signed the original 1990 agreement – updated the agreement on education as well as another memorandum concerning youth, sport and tourism. Nazarbayev invited Tajik youth to study in Kazakhstan, noting the opportunities at his eponymous Astana-based university. He also pointed out that there are a number of Tajiks studying at military institutions in Kazakhstan. [Source: Khovar.tj – ru].

What to make of these overtures by the Kazakh president? In his speech he also remarked that Kazakhs have been living in Tajikistan and Tajiks in Kazakhstan for centuries, and that it is important that they are able to live well and to remember their culture and language. Because of this, it remains important to develop relations between the two countries. Perhaps it the rather odd wording of the statement, but it is hard to see on the surface whether there is a deeper message that has been left unsaid. There has been no major conflict between the two countries – unlike between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over water/electricity and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders in the Ferghana valley – but might it be possible that there is an air of irritation from the Kazakh side in taking on the lion’s share of what was intended to be an equal partnership?

The agreement on education suggests that educational exchange should be equal i.e. with similar numbers of students and teachers traversing both directions, but the reality is that the flow is almost completely one-sided towards Kazakhstan. Educational reform in Tajikistan has been slow and driven more by international organisations than by state capacity; as such, it could be argued that there is more information to share from the Kazakh side.

Does Nazarbayev genuinely want Tajik students studying at the university he intends to be world class, and therefore is this speech a skilful deployment of the soft diplomacy that Kazakhstan’s neighbour China has become so good at in recent years?

Discussions over cooperation in education make up just one part of the two countries’ diplomatic and neighbourly relations, but could just be offering us a glimpse into a more inequitable relationship than was intended in the heady days of the first memorandum in the 1990s.

Postscript added 18 September: I have just read this report on Kazakhstan’s foreign policy [en], published on the website World Bulletin. This is useful for adding context to the points I have made above, although I have some reservations as there is no author or source either on the website or document. I suspect it is a government produced document.