University of Central Asia

Bureaucracy 2.0: Red tape redux in Tajikistan

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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.

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An aerial view of the UCA Khorog campus in its first phase of development (C) University of Central Asia

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.

originalWhether 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.

Why?

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.

Town and gown dispute update: Statement from University of Central Asia 

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Shortly after my post on the rising tension in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan following an alleged town and gown dispute after a sports match, the University of Central Asia has now issued a detailed version of the incident on its Facebook page. The English version is copied below in full:

UCA LOOKS TO BUILD BRIDGES FOLLOWING BASKETBALL SAGA

Emotions ran high in Naryn yesterday (June 8) as the basketball team from the University of Central Asia and the Naryn Club Team continued their feud – but all ended well with apologies from both sides.

On May 27 at a basketball game on the UCA Campus in Naryn, a physical altercation ensued between the UCA Team and the Naryn Club Team, consisting of students from the Naryn State University and the Naryn Sports School. The matter was handled by the UCA faculty and security present at the game, and the teams left without further incident.

Yesterday, June 8, while some UCA students were in the town of Naryn on academic assignment, they were recognised by a few players from the Naryn Club Team, and verbal insults were exchanged which led to physical threats. The Naryn Club members quickly called for reinforcements and in a short time a mob of some 80 individuals had gathered. Most had simply shown up in support and were unaware of the issues involved.

It was suggested a meeting take place at one of UCA’s off campus buildings to resolve the issues. The Governor of Naryn, the Deputy Mayor, and the Dean of UCA’s School of Arts and Sciences, along with some community leaders, presided at this meeting. The Governor’s plea for good sense to prevail went unheeded. After some heated verbal exchanges, and in the interest of maintaining peace and civility, the involved UCA students apologized for the incident at the basketball game, and the crowd dispersed soon thereafter.

UCA has been working closely with the authorities including with the Governor and Mayor of Naryn to arrive at an amicable resolution. Today, accompanied by the Governor and senior government officials, a student delegation as well as some leaders of the crowd that gathered yesterday, came to UCA’s Naryn Campus and conveyed their apologies to the UCA leadership and students for yesterday’s unfortunate incident. The Governor conveyed his appreciation of UCA and the benefits it has brought to the town of Naryn, and urged the gathering to build bridges. The meeting ended in an atmosphere of forgiveness from both sides. 

Working in close cooperation with the authorities in Bishkek and Naryn, UCA is continuing its investigation into the causes of the incident, so that appropriate action can be taken, including how such altercations can be prevented in the future. 

Town and gown clash at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan

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Local residents gather at the UCA campus in Naryn on June 8, 2017. Image (C) Akipress

Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).

This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.

Today, June 9, news is emerging that the national government is treating the response of local residents as hooliganism and a violation of public order.

The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating  young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.

This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.

Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.

Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)

There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.

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Town and gown disputes in university towns like Oxford would often lead to violent fights in the past

Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.

The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.

Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.

 

Akipress story from June 8:

Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”

On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.

Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.

During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.

After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.

The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.

 

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.

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

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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.

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!

Higher education in the high mountains of Central Asia

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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