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  • View of UCA building site, from Botanical Gardens, Khorog, Tajikistan.
    AKDN / Robin Oldacre
Higher education in high mountains (Media Advisory)

Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, 29 October-1 November 2002 - High in the mountains of Central Asia, a private, secular, not-for-profit university, dedicated to the eradication of the poverty all around it, is rising from barren ground in three predominantly Muslim countries.

Thanks to an initial contribution to the endowment of US $15 million from His Highness the Aga Khan, Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, the University of Central Asia (UCA) will soon have campuses in Khorog, Tajikistan, Tekeli, Kazakhstan and Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic. It will serve an impoverished population of about 25 million mountain dwellers.

The goal of the Aga Khan Development Network and the University is to raise the endowment to US $200 million and, by establishing remote learning sites in other mountain areas of Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, prove to be a resource for development. Extensive use of the latest distance learning technologies will eventually deliver courses across Central Asia.

Continuing education and training courses began in Khorog, Tajikistan, in 2001. In five years, UCA hopes to involve 6,000 students every year in its Continuing Education and Training programme, as well as graduates of the Master’s and Bachelor’s programmes.

Research undertaken at the University is expected to generate solutions to development for mountain societies not only in Central Asia but also in the Alps, Andes, the Himalayas and other mountain ranges.

Scoffers might recall the skepticism with which the proposed creation of the Aga Khan University and medical school in Karachi, Pakistan, was greeted 20 years ago. Today it is widely considered one of the finest universities in Asia.

The creation of the new university coincides with the culminating conference of the International Year of Mountains, the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit in the Kyrgyz Republic, 29 October-1 November. UCA will be the subject of a round table during the meeting. Participating governments include Switzerland, Germany and Italy.

UCA is offering an 18-month Master’s degree in Mountain Development Studies, a four-year undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts, and highly practical courses of Continuing Education and Training.

The decision to give priority to these continuing education courses reflects the Aga Khan Development Network’s belief that tools and resources must be channeled immediately to adult learners and by extension to their communities if the cycle of poverty that grips the high mountain zones is to be broken.

Caught up in the big-power skirmishes of the 19th century Great Game, these countries were made dependent on the largesse of the Russians while functioning as buffer states between the Russian and British empires. During the Soviet period, the Central Asian countries enjoyed high educational standards, but they learned little about farming and lacked self-sufficiency in food, energy and other basic necessities. UCA’s extension courses are designed to give mountain people in remote areas skills they do not possess, such as farming techniques, the building trades, modern animal husbandry, public administration, practical computing, and the running of small businesses.

When the Aga Khan signed a treaty with the three presidents of the Central Asian Republics creating UCA in 2000, he declared: “Mountain populations experience extremes of poverty and isolation as well as constraints on opportunities and choice, but at the same time they sustain great linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism, and show remarkable resilience in the face of extraordinarily harsh circumstances. By creating intellectual space and resources, this university will help turn the mountains that divide the nations and territories of Central Asia into the links that unite its peoples and economies in a sharedendeavour to improve their future well-being.”

Tuition for B.A. and M.A. students will be need blind, i.e., according to what they can afford to pay. No one who is academically qualified will be excluded for financial reasons.

Even in the wealthiest countries many mountain people have chosen to leave their homes and build new lives elsewhere. So, why not simply allow this seemingly natural process to run its course in Central Asia?

“This supposedly ‘realistic’ approach to mountain people would lead to dire consequences in Central Asia,” says Dr. S. Frederick Starr, the Rector Pro-tem of the University of Central Asia and Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). “The capital cities would explode with millions of new immigrants that they are totally unprepared to receive. Large numbers of the involuntary immigrants would be young males. Unskilled, unemployed, desperately poor, and disoriented, they would turn to whatever activities or groups promised them the most. Religious extremists, for example. And the few who remained in the mountains would also become ready recruits for drug traffickers, warlords and religious fanatics.

“The philosophy behind the creation of UCA is one of tolerance and respect for other ethnic groups and religions,” says Dr. Starr. “Theology will have no place in the curriculum nor will religious representatives be appointed to the faculty or staff. But at the same time the history and ethical systems of the world’s major religions will be studied through courses in history, philosophy and culture by faculty members with professional qualifications in those fields.”

The Aga Khan Development Network is also establishing pre-UCA preparatory schools in the three countries, as well as courses in English. After lengthy discussions with educators and regional specialists, it was decided to teach the continuing education classes in local languages and dialects that students feel most comfortable in using. English will be the language for B.A. and M.A. studies.

Note to journalists:
For interviews or additional information during the Global Mountain Summit in Bishkek, please contact:
Amyn Ahamed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel
Tel (996) 312 66 12 34
Fax: (996) 312 66 57 44
Mobile (33) 6750 77463
Sam Pickens, Information Officer, at the Hyatt 
Mobile (41.76) 390 5099

After the conference, please contact:
Dr. Tom Kessinger
Aga Khan Development Network
1-3 avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 2
Tel (41.22) 909 7200

For interviews with the Rector Pro-tem of the University of Central Asia:
Dr. S. Frederick Starr in the United States
Tel. (1.202) 663 7720