university history

Central Asia’s first universities

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As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.

Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.

The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.

As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.

Lenin and cat
I had to include a cat somewhere in the post…

The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.

Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.

‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.

The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.

The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).

These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.

Kaz state uni 1929 etoretro.ru
Another early university – the Kazakh State University, now Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. Image from early 1930s, (c) etoretro.ru

Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.

In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.

Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.

Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.

References/Further reading

Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.

Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/high­education/istoriya­obrazovaniya/.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.

Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.

Holiday viewing: Universities in Soviet Kazakhstan

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Every now and again, I treat you (well, really this is as much for my own benefit) to a visual offering on this blog. In previous years, we’ve had early Soviet era Central Asia posters, a tour of Bishkek’s universities and a selection of Christmas trees for the Tajik school and university students who were banned from putting up Christmas trees for the festive season in 2015.

For the winter holidays this year, I offer you another sojourn into the recent history of Central Asia with a series of images of Kazakhstan’s universities from the Almaty City State Archives. This photo story is from Kazakh news agency BNews by journalist Aigul Mukhambetova. The story is in Russian and I’ve given an informal English translation below.

On the subject of university history and the importance of place (but not on Central Asia), you might also be interested in a recent article I’ve had published in the Canadian journal Comparative & International Education on the connections between universities’ foundations and their current levels of engagement with their local communities.

So – happy viewing and happy reading, but most of all happy holidays. May peace, reason and expertise reign in 2017 for everyone in the world.

Какими были крупнейшие вузы страны в годы их становления (ФОТО)

Which were the country’s best universities during its founding years?

ФОТО: предоставил Госархив г. Алматы
Photos provided by Almaty City State Archive

В современном Казахстане огромную роль играют высшие учебные заведения, которые за годы независимости выпустили сотни тысяч высококвалифицированных специалистов. Однако их история началась еще в довоенный период. Редакция BNews.kz предлагает провести небольшой экскурс в первые годы становления нескольких алматинских  вузов.

In contemporary Kazakhstan, higher education institutions play an important role, and since independence in 1991, hundreds of thousands of highly qualified specialists have graduated. Yet the institutions’ histories started even before the Second World War. The BNews.kz team invite you on a small excursion into the first years of some of Almaty’s universities.

КазНУ им. аль-Фараби // Al-Farabi Kazakh National University


Казахский национальный университет им. аль-Фараби был основан в 1934 году.  Тогда университету было присвоено имя С.М. Кирова. В становлении университета оказали помощь вузы Москвы, Ленинграда, Казани, Украины.

Al-Farabi Kazakh National University was founded in 1934. At that time, it was named after Sergei Kirov [Russian Communist leader assassinated also in 1934, possibly at Stalin’s (indirect) order]. Universities in Moscow, Leningrad [St Petersburg], Kazan and Ukraine provided support to the foundation of the Kazakh National University.

Во время становления университета в  КазГУ работали известные ученые и общественные деятели. В первый год существования вуза работали два факультета, когда сейчас студентов обучают по 80 с лишним специальностям на 14 факультетах.

At the time it was founded, well-known scholars and public figures worked at Kazakh State University. In its first year, there were two faculties. Today, students can study for one of around 80 degrees in 14  faculties.

Сегодня КазНУ успешно сотрудничает более чем с 400 крупнейшими университетами из 25 стран мира. В  2015 году вуз вошел в топ-300, заняв 275 место среди 800 лучших мировых университетов.

Today, Kazakh National University successfully cooperates with more than 400 excellent universities in 25 countries. In 2015 it joined the top 300 universities, taking 275th place amongst the world’s best 800 universities.

КазНАИ им. Т.К. Жургенова // T. K. Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts

История КазНАИ им. Т.К. Жургенова начинается с 1955 года. В институте искусств им. Курмангазы (ныне Консерватории) был открыт театральный факультет.

The history of the T. K. Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts started in 1955 when a theatre faculty was opened at the Kurmangazy Institute (now Conservatory) of Arts.

В 1977 году на его базе был создан алматинский государственный театрально-художественный институт. Сегодня в академии функционируют 6 факультетов: театральное искусство, кино и ТВ, хореография, живопись, скульптура и дизайн, искусствоведение и музыкальное искусство.

Сегодня в вузе подготовку специалистов осуществляют 23 кафедры, из которых 17 являются выпускающими и 6 общеакадемическими.  

In 1977, the Almaty State Theatre Institute was founded on the Academy’s site. Today, there are six faculties: theatre, cinema and TV, choreography, drawing, sculpture and design, art history, and music. Today the Academy prepares students in 23 departments.

КазНПУ им. Абая // Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University

Казахский национальный педагогический университет имени Абая основан в 1928 году.

Сегодня это крупнейший и ведущий университет Казахстана, один из центров отечественной педагогической науки и культуры. Университет сейчас занимает достойное место среди 10 лучших университетов республики и первое – в рейтинге педагогических.

Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University was founded in 1928.

Today it is one of Kazakhstan’s leading universities and a centre for national pedagogical science and culture. The university is ranked amongst the top 10 in the country and the first for pedagogical studies. 

КазНПУ им. Абая включает 11 факультетов, институт магистратуры и докторантуры PhD, 10 научно-исследовательских институтов и центров, лаборатории и более 64 кафедры. В университете обучается  свыше 11 тысяч  будущих специалистов по 55 специальностям бакалавриата, 46 специальностям магистратуры и 16 специальностям докторантуры PhD.

Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University has 11 faculties, an institute for Master’s and PhD students, 10 research institutes and centres, laboratories and more than 64 departments. More than 11,000 future specialists study at the university for over 55 undergraduate degrees, 46 Master’s degrees and 16 PhD degree subjects. 

КазНМУ им. С. Д. Асфендиярова // S. D. Asfendiyarov Kazakh National Medical University


Решение об открытии медицинского института в Алма-Ате было принято в 1930 году. Штат института в 1931 году включал 5 профессоров, 4 доцента, 13 ассистентов и 2 преподавателя.

The decision to open a medical institute in Alma-Ata (Almaty’s previous name) was taken in 1930. the institute opened in 1931 with five professors, four assistant professors, 13 assistants and two teachers.


За годы войны институт окончили около 2000 врачей, 75% выпускников были направлены на фронт. Бессмертный подвиг во имя свободы Родины совершили на фронте воспитанники медицинского института – Маншук Маметова и Владимир Иванилов, которым посмертно были присвоены звания Героя Советского Союза. Они навечно зачислены студентами медицинского университета.

Сегодня в КазНМУ им. С.Д. Асфендиярова работают известные ученые-педагоги Казахстана, академики Национальной академии наук РК, Российской академии медицинских наук, Академии профилактической медицины РК, Международных академий, заслуженные деятели науки и образования, заслуженные врачи и фармацевты.

During World War Two, around 2,000 doctors graduated, of whom 75% were sent to the front. Two Medical Institute graduates, Manshuk Mametov and Vladimir Ivanilov, were recognized posthumously with Hero of the Soviet Union status for their heroic efforts in the name of freedom for the Motherland. They have been marked for eternity a students of the medical university.

These days, well-known Kazakh science teachers, members of the Kazakhstan National Academy of Science, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, the Kazkhstan Academy of Preventative Medicine, International academies, recipients of national science/education awards and honoured doctors and pharmacists all work at the S. D. Asfendiyarov Kazakh National Medical University,

КазНТУ им. К.И. Сатпаева // K. I. Satpaev Kazakh National Technical University


История казахского национального технического университета им. К.И.Сатпаева — флагмана инженерного образования республики берет начало в 1934 году. Тогда вуз назывался   Казахский горно-металлургический институт.

K. I. Satpaev Kazakh National Technical University is a leading provider of engineering education and was founded in 1934. At that time it was called the Kazakh Mining and Metallurgy Institute.

В 1999 г. за особые заслуги в подготовке инженерно-технических кадров страны постановлением Правительства Республики Казахстан КазНТУ присвоено имя выдающегося ученого, академика Каныша Имантаевича Сатпаева. КазНТУ сегодня – это 11 профильных институтов и 54 кафедры, где преподают и ведут научные исследования около 200 докторов и более 500 кандидатов наук.

In 1999 the university was given the name of academic Kanish Imanatevich Satpaev by government decree in recognition of its important role in the training of engineering and technical graduates. Today the university has 11 institutes and 54 departments, where teaching and research is undertaken by around 200 PhDs and more than 500 Candidates of Science.