Silk Road university serves nomadic mountain communities

The University of Central Asia, a unique university on the New Silk Road being developed by China to link Asia to Europe, hopes to tag onto the new infrastructure to educate some of the most marginalised communities in the mountainous region – most of them living a nomadic lifestyle raising livestock and facing problems due to conflicts and climate change.

For development to be sustainable, universities need to work with the communities where they are located, not merely to educate populations and provide them with qualifications and certificates, but also by conducting research into issues that affect mountain communities, says Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Central Asia (UCA).

Founded in 2000 by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation, it has three campuses in each of the countries, located away from the major cities. They are on the historic Silk Route and UCA hopes to be at the heart of the economic and intellectual transformation taking place in the region, Kassim-Lakha told University World News.

Naryn, where UCA’s main campus is located, is about 350 km from the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek and is at the centre of the New Silk Road joining China to the Persian Gulf and beyond, part of China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure and trade project.

“This region has a strong relationship to China and also to Russia. We felt at some stage we have to take this into account as we evolved this university,” noted Kassim-Lakha. “We find some Chinese institutions are at the top in some areas we have an interest in,” he said, including the economics of the region which presents long-term possibilities for Chinese institutions to work with UCA.

Serving mountain communities

But there is a strong focus on serving the local communities.

Students come mainly from the three Central Asian countries, as well as from mountain regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are also many students from urban areas. Admission is purely on merit and UCA offers financial assistance, especially to students from rural mountain communities, to cover living expenses at its residential campuses.

Kyrgyzstan’s land area is 90% mountainous. UCA's Mountain Societies Research Institute is working on a number of research projects to address the development and environmental problems associated with the area as glaciers melt and mudflows and floods become more intense.

The region’s surrounding Tian Shan, Pamir, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges are home to great biological diversity that maintains ecosystem integrity and a sustainable flow of ecosystem services.

There is a dearth of rigorously investigated and documented scientific understanding of mountain societies. Most of them live nomadic lifestyles raising livestock such as cattle, sheep and horses.

The university offers degree programmes in computer science, communication and media, economics, earth and environmental science, and plans to introduce in 2022 degrees in business management and engineering sciences.

Myrza Karimov, head of cooperative education at UCA, said after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, universities proliferated in Kyrgyzstan. Now 60% of high school leavers are admitted to universities.

But the new system of higher education, he argued, is selling certificates to students and not providing skills for them to be productively employed.

“Almost one million young people [from Kyrgyzstan] are in Russia as migrant workers. There’s another half million that can’t go to Russia but have left their villages and live in Bishkek building new community houses illegally on land. But there are no jobs. The 56 universities are just giving out certificates,” maintained Karimov.

‘Technology parks’ that serve the community

After a month-long study tour to South Korea some two years ago, Karimov got the idea to develop technology parks in Central Asia. “I got the idea of cooperative education from there [South Korea] where the government provides land and the universities put together a consortium consisting of government, university and banks [to run the system],” Karimov explained.

The Kyrgyz education ministry has given UCA permission to introduce this type of experimental education in Kyrgyzstan.

Karimov believes UCA can work with cotton growers in Kyrgyzstan by setting up technology parks “and work together in developing cotton-based industries”, rather than simply selling cotton to rich countries as raw material. It would “tap into the regional economy and stop internal migration”, he said.

“We don’t want our graduates to go to Russia to work as construction workers. Our goal is that students should work in the community, based on the majors they did at UCA,” Karimov said.

Evangelia Papoutsaki, head of media and communications at UCA, believes that the remote mountain areas can be best served by training students to focus on the mountain communities, learning their history and geography, and understanding their social, economic and environmental needs.

“Students need to volunteer and interact with everyday people in these communities,” she said.

Student volunteers in the community

Narinder Pal Singh, project manager for community outreach and engagement at UCA, has mobilised student volunteers to work with adjoining communities in Naryn, to work in recycling and women’s empowerment projects.

“The university wants to encourage students and the community to come together and work on a voluntary basis,” he explained, admitting in the beginning it was hard to get volunteers.

Then Singh went to the community with a group of students to meet women at home who wanted to find a way to have extra income. The mothers expressed a wish to learn sewing and set up their own businesses but needed funding to start.

Singh helped the students organise a fundraising event in the town centre. “Now we have formed a committee – UCA faculty, students and members of the community are part of this committee – which will decide how to spend the money to help them,” explained Singh.

Vocational courses

The university’s School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPCE) in Naryn provides vocational training and numerous other courses designed to improve income-generation opportunities for the mountain communities. Since 2006, over 120,000 people have completed SPCE courses here as well as in 12 other Central Asian locations, plus Afghanistan.

The university identifies the needs of the communities and devises courses to address them. For example, Kassim-Lakha said: “We realised there was a huge gap in financial education,” including the double entry book-keeping system, which is standard around the world.

Now they provide accountancy and book-keeping training right up to chartered accountancy levels. Other popular courses are in English skills, plumbing, brick-laying and automobile engineering with computerised systems – necessary in a region where long-haul trucks using the new routes use digital systems.

With China’s Belt and Road Initiative gathering momentum across the region, UCA has set up a research project in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s University of Oxford to study its social and economic impact in the region.

The university is also looking into developing the tourism potential of communities as road transport improves. For this task UCA has set up a Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit, which is soon going to become an institute.

“One of the important roles of a university is how we can preserve and promote culture that gives pride, and mountain communities all have different cultures,” said Kassim-Lakha, a former Pakistani cabinet minister.

“SPCE has a programme for training mountain guides and entrepreneurs to become tourist guides in the community. This could be a very powerful way to connect with the communities.”

“One of the reasons I applied to UCA was that I was planning to get involved in business and I was impressed with what the university was offering to encourage start-ups, not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in Central Asia in the field of IT,” said Elgiz, a media and communication student.

“There are courses here to train students to be social entrepreneurs. We learn how to make business plans and design a contract,” he added.

“We want our students to be job creators not seekers,” said Kassim-Lakha. “We give them a spirit of entrepreneurship. One of the problems of the developing world is that many graduates are educated unemployables.”