University of Central Asia

University of Central Asia Students Hold First TEDx in Khorog

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It’s exciting to hear about the initiative taken by University of Central Asia (UCA) students in Khorog, Tajikistan, to hold the town’s first TEDx.

TED (the ‘x’ afterwards indicates it’s an independently organized event) is now a well-established idea. TED talks are mini-conferences in which people have just a few minutes to share a small number of key points in an accessible approachable way.

The Khorog session sounds like it was a fantastic event and I wish I could have been there! Here’s a news story about TEDxUCA from UCA’s website:

https://ucentralasia.org/Resources/Item/2128/EN

Undergraduate students at the University of Central Asia (UCA) organised the first TEDxUCA event in Khorog, Tajikistan with the theme “Encounters at the Edge”, gathering over 100 guests. Five speakers from different backgrounds discussed their experiences of how they have “stood on edge” of what is known and comfortable, and then to develop and grow as individuals within the global society.


UCA undergraduate students and speakers at the first TEDx in Khorog.

Speakers included Hadi Husaini, CEO of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat Central Asia, who expressed how communities could prosper as they are on the edge of survival; Ozodkhon Davlatshoev, Global Director of Accelerate Prosperity, who explored how technology can influence an individual’s life; Daler Jumaev, CEO of Pamir Energy, and Furough Shakarmamadova, Communications Officer at the Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association. Sahar Ibrahim, Communications Officer at the Aga Khan Education Services Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also made a presentation.

TEDxUCA was realised by UCA students, Saif Ur Rehman, Parvina Sultonmamadova, and a dynamic group of volunteers on March 9th 2019. The event was supported by Tcell of Tajikistan, and also included performances from the Khorog Music School and UCA’s Undergraduate Performing Arts Society, who presented Prometheus.

The event created an environment of excitement within the Khorog community, and was attended by Mr. Yodgor Faizov, Governor of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, representatives of the Education Department, the Mayor’s office, Aga Khan Development Network agencies in Khorog, as well as UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education and undergraduate campus faculty, students, and staff.

TEDx is an independently organised event that brings people together to share TED-like experiences to spark deep discussion and connection.

A Multinational University in Central Asia

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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.

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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

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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 https://ciheblog.wordpress.com/cihe-speaker-series/dr-shamsh-kassim-lakha-march-2-2018/.

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

cihe-munk-joint-seminar1

 

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.