Higher education at the top of the world
(A version of this entry appears in the Calgary Herald)
I am flying over the jagged Celestial Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the highest ranges in Central Asia, which cover 93 per cent of the country. It has been a mild winter, allowing cattle to be moved early to the jailoos, or summer pastures, used by local herdsmen. Below are some abandoned settlements, the remnants of Soviet-era social engineering experiments that subsidized people to live and work on state farms in remote areas. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the subsidies dried up, forcing people to move to the capital Bishkek and other Kyrgyzstan cities.
Our helicopter descends into the Naryn Valley, where we get our first glimpse of the site of the campus of the unlikely University of Central Asia. My initial impression is that His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV — or simply “HH” as some of his followers call him — has lost his senses.
Who in their right mind would build a high-altitude university in the poorest and most remote region of little-known Kyrgyzstan, a campus complete with its own water reservoir, geothermal heating system, soccer field and interconnected buildings to protect students against the area’s harsh winters? At the campus construction site, fences have been erected to keep out the cattle that wander freely through town.
Two similar campuses are also under construction by the Aga Khan in Khorog,Tajikistan on the Afghanistan border and in Tekeli, Kazakhstan. Established by treaty between the three governments, the University of Central Asia is the world’s first internationally chartered university.
To Brian Felesky, the answer to the Aga Khan’s plan for the region is obvious.
“I think it is absolutely visionary,” says the Calgary lawyer, who has come here as part of group of Canadians led by prominent Calgary oilman and philanthropist Jim Gray. The Calgary group — which includes Felesky and businessmen Chris Robb and Sherali Saju — spent three weeks in the spring of 2015 touring Aga Khan projects in India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Under the name Awali, from a Swahili word for “the beginning,” Gray, Felesky, Saju and Robb head a list of 125 donors, most from Calgary, who helped kickstart an Aga Khan teacher training institute in East Africa 10 years ago. Gray, who believes in education as the best way to combat the global ills of poverty, disease and radical fundamentalism, regularly returns with various group members to visit Aga Khan projects in the developing world.
The University of Central Asia campuses are being built at historic crossroads of civilizations along the legendary Silk Road. Considering their isolated locations, the university is a bold experiment, which is what attracted Bohdan Krawchenko to sign on as its director general a decade ago. “I thought it was an audacious, mad idea,” he says of the remote mountain university project. A former high-level advisor to the Parliament of Ukraine during the tumultuous years of the nation’s post-Soviet independence in the early 1990s, he knew little of the Aga Khan network. “I thought that anybody who can think of such a mad idea must be worth working for.”
What seems like daring project today could be prescient decades from now. The campus at Naryn is on the main route to China, the dominat economy and emerging giant of the region. The campuses at Khorog, Tajikistan and Tekeli, Kazakhstan are similarly positioned at strategic and potentially important junctures of commerce and trade. The Aga Khan organization never takes the easy road and its decision to establish centres of higher education in the most remote and poorest areas of Central Asia speaks to its commitment to bring health, education and economic opportunity to challenged parts of the globe.
In a determined, impressive effort to seed students for the University of Central Asia, the education arm of the Aga Khan Development Network has worked for the past 12 years upgrading education in the region through a network of continuing education and remote learning centres. In Kyrgyzstan, a one-year-pilot project involved a van that served as a mobile digital library to being education to the remote jailoos, parking alongside yurts. Early childhood education centres run by the Aga Khan network in remote areas have a 50 per cent attendance rate, compared to 10 per cent overall.
Although the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, a progressive Shia branch of Islam, the Aga Khan’s fundamental ethic is to improve health, education and economic opportunities for people in some of the poorest regions of the world without respect to race, creed or gender.
“What impresses me is that he has a 50-year plan,” says Gray. “That is absolutely profound. I sincerely believe that without education there is no hope, and the Aga Khan is providing that hope. It is a wonderful example of what we need in this world. We will prevail.”