The future leaders of Central Asia

Students from the University of Central Asia’s inaugural class during the inauguration ceremony in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part three of a 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. Read part one here and part two here.

Naryn, Kyrgyzstan — In the 15th century, a grandson of the Central Asian conqueror Timur — or Tamerlane — sought to turn the city of Samarkand into an intellectual capital of the Persian Empire. His name was Ulugh Beg, and he ruled over the territory now referred to somewhat dismissively as “the Stans.” Ulugh Beg built one of the largest astronomical observatories in the world, with an 11-meter sextant, and he used it to calculate the timing of eclipses.

“Central Asia, a thousand years ago, led the world in trade and investment, in urban development, in cultural and intellectual achievement. This was the place that leading thinkers from around the known world would look to for leadership,” said Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, at the inauguration of the University of Central Asia in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, in October.

The Aga Khan Development Network, a multi-disciplinary development organization founded and led by the Islamic royal billionaire, is trying to rebuild Central Asia’s educational and intellectual infrastructure. The University of Central Asia will operate in three countries — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan — and draw students from across the region. Its aim is to create the next generation of Central Asian thinkers, scientists and leaders.

The university, however, has taken a big risk and faces an uphill battle. UCA’s graduates will have the language skills and educational training that would propel many young job seekers to higher-paying opportunities abroad. The Aga Khan’s vision is that these students find opportunities for leadership in their own region. Whether that vision comes to fruition will depend on whether UCA can tailor the education students receive to the specific practical challenges facing their own communities — and whether the university can establish a network of graduates and researchers who will become Central Asia’s job creators.

There are only 71 students in UCA’s inaugural class, but when it reaches full capacity, the university’s three international campuses in remote, underdeveloped mountain towns will educate 3,000 plus students and employ more than 300 faculty. The Aga Khan Development Network has placed a big bet on these students: that, if equipped with a world-class education tailored to their own countries and mountain environments, they can help drive economic, scientific and political progress across Central Asia.

Today, Central Asia is better known for its past than its present. World heritage sites shelter in cities whose names resonate through history — Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat — while the future remains an uncertain place. Since the days of the fabled silk road trading routes, Central Asian states have found themselves caught between spheres of influence, absorbed into political empires, and cast out into the wilds of global capitalism. Five of these countries are still known best by what they used to be — “the former Soviet Union.” Most have struggled with war and autocracy.

According to the Aga Khan, the quality that enabled the region’s intellectual life to flourish a thousand years ago was “openness.”

“Openness to new ideas, openness to change, and openness to people from many backgrounds and with a variety of gifts ... That kind of openness can again be the key that unlocks the doors to the future,” he said at the inauguration.

The spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili muslims has staked a big share of his legacy and fortune on the University of Central Asia — and the international cohort of students he hopes will help redefine leadership for a region that has struggled to recapture its spirit of openness.

Will this society reward them?

Zarastin Kholbash is a member of UCA’s inaugural class, currently pushing through the intensive one-year preparatory curriculum designed to help incoming students master English and critical thinking skills before moving on to the four-year international degree program.

Kholbash, who is from Khorog, Tajikistan, an isolated mountain town near the Afghan border, already speaks English with near-fluency. She plans to study communications so she can work as a journalist like her uncle and her mother, who have both been targeted by Tajikistan’s government for their opposition to a regime the Economist Intelligence Unit dubs “authoritarian.”

“The government were looking for us. They did a lot of bad stuff to my family. My mom, they don’t let her work. And my uncle, he had to leave the country … I had a lot of problems too in school,” Kholbash said, seated at a table in UCA’s bustling cafeteria.

If UCA lives up to its billing, the education students receive will be on par with world-class universities in Europe and the United States. In its first admissions cycle UCA already attracted some of the most competitive applicants in the region, many of whom saw the Central Asian startup as an alternative to leaving for universities in Russia, Turkey, Europe or the United States. But whether UCA fulfills its mission as an institution focused on regional economic development depends on more than just the quality of the education it delivers. UCA’s regional impact hinges on what students decide to use that education for — and where.

“I can assure you that it would be a heck of a lot cheaper to take these 70 students and send them off on scholarships to the U.S. and Canada … than it is to build this university and keep them here,” said Valerie Lopes, director of teaching and learning at Seneca College in Toronto, who led the development of UCA’s preparatory year curriculum.

The Aga Khan has chosen to undertake a massive institution-building project in rural, mountainous areas. After this first preparatory year, UCA’s students will have the English-language proficiency to pass university entrance exams and the academic credentials to stand out among international applicants. But UCA’s basic mission is to promote socio-economic development in the region, not send qualified job-seekers abroad.

“That’s without question a risk they’ve taken… They’re gambling here,” Lopes said.

The students’ own preferences are not the only factor that will determine whether they can apply their UCA education at home. With a few exceptions, such as oil-wealthy Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s economies are small and struggling. More than 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population lives on less than five dollars a day, and with many of the former Soviet states still heavily dependent on remittances from Russia, Moscow’s economic troubles have been a liability for the region. The countries may not have the capacity to employ the more than 1,000 graduates who will eventually emerge from UCA every year.

Lake Chatyr-Kol, seen from a mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

“The question will be, will this society reward them for that level of knowledge,” said Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, chairman of UCA’s board of trustees.

It may take some time, Kassim-Lakha admits, before a steady stream of UCA graduates are meeting a steady supply of job opportunities in the countries where their expertise and talents are so badly needed.

But he hopes UCA’s graduates will eventually become job creators and look to the network of fellow graduates to help build Central Asia’s businesses and institutions. Some of them will no doubt be drawn away from the region, to countries where salaries are higher and jobs are more plentiful. But Kassim-Lakha predicts that many will come back.

“You work on Wall Street — who knows you there? Who are you? You are another number, or maybe another brilliant financial analyst. You come here and people say, ‘my god, look at this man,’” Kassim-Lakha said.

“The way we are educating them is to have that sense about ‘my people.’ Where do I belong? Where are my roots?” Kassim-Lakha said.

Kholbash, who traveled to the United States under the State Department’s Future Leaders Exchange Program, and who has seen family members suffer for expressing political views, says her goal is to apply what she learns at UCA at home, not to use it as a springboard for job opportunities abroad.

“I grew up in Tajikistan, and yeah, I had a bad experience with government. I had a bad experience with people, but I don’t think it’s their fault. They just don’t know another way of doing things. If more people get educated, it’s going to change, but we need more time,” she said.

“I don’t want to just leave them and say, ‘oh it’s Tajikistan. It’s just the way it is.’ I want to change something. Because nobody needs me in Europe or America. They need me here, because it’s my home town,” she said.

18,000 lawyers and 8 geologists

Kyrgyzstan is richly endowed with natural resources, including gold and rare earth metals such as beryllium, but also hydropower; its reservoirs fed by the massive rivers that drain the country’s glaciated peaks. Less abundant are local people with the scientific and environmental knowledge to harness those resources for the country’s own development.

Deep in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains and 14,000 feet above sea level, the open-pit gold mine “Kumtor” churns out mineral resources worth nearly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The mine can produce more than half a billion dollars worth of gold per year in a country where the GDP per capita barely tops $1,000.

But suitable expertise is simply lacking inside a country that looks to the mining sector to power a significant portion of its economy.

“You have a country with an educational system that produces 5,000 lawyers a year and three or four people that are geologists, whereas the extractive industries is a high priority,” said Bohdan Krawchenko, UCA’s director general and dean of graduate studies.

Between 2008 and 2012, Kyrgyzstan’s universities graduated eight geologists and 60 exploration technicians — and 18,018 lawyers, according to UCA.

“The disconnect between declarations and actually mobilizing society and building capacity in society for these declarations — there is a yawning gap in between,” Krawchenko said.

The University of Central Asia’s campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

A key component of UCA’s strategy is to educate students in areas relevant to the socio-economic development of the mountain regions where the three campuses are located. Beyond the undergraduate curriculum, UCA aims to host graduate research programs and create new knowledge of practical use to mountainous Central Asian societies.

The Mountain Societies Research Institute, a multidisciplinary research center “dedicated to addressing the challenges and opportunities within Central Asian mountain communities and environments,” is already active. In November MSRI announced a partnership with three snow leopard conservation programs aimed at securing vital ecosystems for the endangered cats. MSRI-affiliated researchers have studied sustainable land management, tourism development, glacial retreat due to climate change, and a range of other issues affecting Central Asia’s mountain communities and ecosystems.

“To find the smallest particle of matter is very important, but we don’t have the means [nor] the ability to compete in that area,” Kassim-Lakha said. “If our researchers can come up with ideas — whether it’s on disaster mitigation, or in the area of agriculture, or improving the understanding of how one valley works with another one without fighting — that improve the quality of life for people, [then] we have then made this university relevant to the society in which it functions.”

Eventually, UCA’s leaders aim to develop graduate programs that will train experts in areas critical to socio-economic development in the mountains.

“We’re going to try to move the graduate schools ahead even more quickly than the undergraduate schools. It will give us a quicker impact. It will give us mid-career support for mid-career people in this region,” the Aga Khan said in response to a question from Devex.

What is ‘Central Asia’?

UCA’s students, currently drawn from five countries, live in two-person rooms with wooden dividers that separate one from the other. Each student is matched with a roommate from a different country.

Kholbash, from Tajikistan, lives with a student from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. “She talks about Kyrgyzstan. I tell her about Tajikistan,” Kholbash said.

The two countries share a border and a history as former Soviet republics and about 50,000 Tajiks live in Kyrgyzstan. But the two landlocked nations are also culturally distinct. Tajik is a Persian language, while Kyrgyz is related to Turkish. The rivers and canals they share have been points of conflict. Regional cooperation has been difficult to forge, despite — and in part because of — the Soviet effort to construct a post-national, integrated union.

“Today, Central Asia is just known as Central Asia to you and me. People here call themselves Kyrgyz, or Kazakhs, or Tajik. It is not an identity of Central Asia ... They don’t get to see themselves as Central Asians,” Kassim-Lakha said.

Part of UCA’s potential, according to the university’s leaders, is to contribute to a sense of regional identity — and to enable better regional cooperation among the political, business and scientific leaders who will eventually comprise the university’s network of graduates.

“One hopes that in the next 20 to 25 years, some of the kids we saw there will be the best physician, a very powerful civil servant, or a minister or a lawyer — and I need to just pick up the phone and ask my friend in Astana, ‘listen, we’ve got this issue, and why are we fighting between ourselves?’ Just multiply the number of cohorts by about 50, and you can see that this is a possible catalyst for cooperation,” Kassim-Lakha said.

For now, UCA’s inaugural class of students are focused on the next assignment — and feeling the weight of expectations that has followed them from home.

“In my home town, when I was leaving, they were telling me that I can change the situation in the country … I have a lot of pressure.” said Kholbash.

“I think it’s fine, because it makes me more powerful,” she said.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.