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Central Asia: Charter University To Bring Education To Remote Mountain Regions

Central Asia is to become the site of the world's first internationally chartered university. The University of Central Asia will have three campuses in the mountain regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. As RFE/RL reports, the long-term project is already bringing education opportunities to residents of the countries' most remote areas.

Prague, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The remote mountain regions of Central Asia are a world that time has largely passed by. But educators involved in the world's first charter university project say the University of Central Asia (UCA) will focus much-needed attention on the remote mountain towns of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

The UCA was established in 2000 by an international treaty between the three countries and the Ismaili Imamat, the institution grouping the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim community around the world.

It aims to improve the livelihood of the region's mountain residents by establishing campuses in three mountain towns: Khorog in Tajikistan's Badakhshan region, Naryn in eastern Kyrgyzstan, and Tekeli in southeast Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border.

Frederick Starr chairs the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, and is serving as UCA's acting rector. He told RFE/RL the university will help speed the modernization of the remote mountain regions.

"Many of the most difficult social and cultural problems today -- including questions of drugs, of various forms of extremism, but above all the problem of extreme poverty -- are focused in mountain areas. The University of Central Asia is being created to encourage economic and social development in these regions that are otherwise being neglected," Starr said.

The UCA project is the first of its kind. Money for the venture is being raised privately around the world, sparked by an initial endowment of $15 million from Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim community. The university is secular, co-ed, and will provide financial aid to qualified students who cannot afford the tuition.

It is still several years before campus classrooms will open. But certain aspects of the curriculum are already determined. Incoming students will spend a year studying computer skills and English -- the language of instruction for UCA's degree programs.

New faculty members who are hired locally will also receive special training in computers and English. They will also invest two years of further study in their fields, and will be introduced to modern pedagogical methods.

Shamsha Berkimbaeva is Kazakhstan's education minister. She told RFE/RL she believes the new campus in Tekeli will be "very useful" for her country. "With the creation of such a university, many students will move to Tekeli," she said. "There will [also] be teachers. Both students and teachers will be able to get education through traveling and exchanges with their colleagues at other schools and universities of the Aga Khan Foundation. And secondly, there will be investments. Tekeli is a town whose infrastructure has been affected by economic hardships. With the new university, workplaces will be opened, and new buildings and infrastructure will be constructed. That is very important."

The university will offer three programs emphasizing a combination of academic and vocational training: a four-year bachelor's program in liberal arts and sciences, an 18-month master's program focusing on social and economic development, and a continuing education and training program.

Development of the campus sites has only just begun. But the continuing education and training division has been up and working in all three countries since last year. Some 1,000 people have already completed courses, taught in their local languages, using a combination of local learning centers and long-distance education technologies.

Starr said the division's success lies in its ability to adapt to the particular needs and demands of its adult students. "[The division] has produced courses in a wide variety of areas, including everything from entrepreneurial skills, communication skills needed for entrepreneurship. In Kazakhstan, there was demand for how to conduct business in the Kazakh language. There were questions of legal rights for women. In Tajikistan, at Khorog, they have done several courses on beekeeping, because this is a way that people in the most impoverished areas can actually make some money," he said.

By targeting and working with adult learners in poor mountain communities, the continuing education and training division is functioning as the vanguard of the university's efforts to help mountain populations extricate themselves from a vicious cycle of poverty.

"The division of continuing education [and training] serves not just future leaders or members of some elite, but the entire mountain population, including mid-career civil servants, people who are carrying out normal governmental functions in mountain regions and who are often terribly underpaid and demoralized. We also, through this division, will provide re-training of teachers, and mid-career training for other people whose work affects mountain areas," Starr said.

David Lewis is the director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. He welcomes the initiative, saying that UCA will help the mountain regions improve what he calls their "intellectual capacity."

Lewis told RFE/RL: "There is a need for technical education in trade, in agriculture, [and] in small artisan-type trade. And there is a need for giving people an understanding of how the economic world works, of how business works, of entrepreneurship as well. And also I think it's important to use education to offer people new ideas and to give them a view on the world, which for many of these societies is becoming more and more difficult, particularly as the Russian language is retreating from some of the countries in Central Asia."

Lewis said the UCA will move some of the intellectual life out of the capital cities into communities that have never before had access to a range of educational possibilities.

But Lewis pointed out that more efforts still need to be made to convince young people in rural areas and small towns that education is actually necessary and useful for their careers.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report).