Training for Local Development: University of Central Asia (Part I)

UCA defines itself as a development’ university. Its locations reflect this commitment. The campuses are in secondary towns among poor mountain communities where UCA becomes a significant driver of economic growth, providing quality employment during construction and ongoing operations and helping re-envisage mountain futures with the emergence of university towns’.



The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular, autonomous and not-for-profit university, which the respective parliaments sanctioned. This is the first regional university in Central Asia that has three campuses and runs a few programmes in Afghanistan. Its mission is to promote the social and economic development of the region, particularly its mountain societies, while helping its people preserve and draw upon their rich cultural heritage as assets for the future. In this endeavour, UCA brings the commitment and partnership of multiple agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, the world’s largest private development organisation.

The university’s flagship initiative is the construction and operation of fully residential campuses with world-class facilities in each of the founding states, offering international standard undergraduate studies in liberal arts with specialisations. The first campus opened in September 2016 in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan; the campus in Khorog, Tajikistan opened in September 2017; and the third, in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, is in the planning stage.

The UCA is organised into three schools – the School of Arts and Sciences (undergraduate); the Graduate School of Development (research and graduate education),1 and the School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPCE). In addition, UCA’s Central Asian Faculty Development Programme, launched well before the first campus opened, supports Central Asian students in doctoral programmes in Europe and North America to ensure a robust regional faculty cohort in educational and research programmes.

UCA defines itself as a development’ university. Its locations reflect this commitment. The campuses are in secondary towns among poor mountain communities where UCA becomes a significant driver of economic growth, providing quality employment during construction and ongoing operations and helping re-envisage mountain futures with the emergence of university towns’. Building quality campuses on green-field sites is a significant undertaking, and AKDN agencies are engaged in improving the quality of life in these regions (for example, medical services, parks, and schools). Since higher educational establishments are concentrated in the capitals or the largest cities, UCA offers unique educational opportunities (merit-based, need-blind admission) to those in rural areas. Some three-quarters of the population in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and 40 percent in Kazakhstan live in villages or small towns. Almost 70 percent of UCA undergraduates are from these areas; 50 percent are women. In the post-Soviet space with stark regional inequalities, UCA challenges the prevailing perception that the periphery is doomed to mediocrity.

For education to play a critical role in development, interventions are required at multiple levels. Research initiatives are launched to fill knowledge gaps and generate new knowledge, develop indigenous capacity for evidence-based analysis on issues relevant to the region that can inform policies, and enrich educational programmes; graduates from the undergraduate programmes emerge as leaders in their chosen fields, and there is an engagement of a broad spectrum of learners in the acquisition of new competencies and aptitudes. The SPCE was, thus, established as a permanent structure aiming to meet the ongoing and varied needs of young people and adults for skills development. The Aga Khan Humanities Project focused on university and college students in public institutions to facilitate an enabling intellectual environment through courses that cultivate thinking and inquiry. In 2020, the combined engagement of these two units was over 35,000 course participants across four countries. As Central Asia’s only regional university, UCA also responds to an urgent need to foster cooperation amongst the newly established states to facilitate economic development. Overall, UCA emerged as a university system meeting multiple development needs with an impressive geographical reach in the three countries of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Launching SPCE

Established in 2006, SPCE was UCA’s first operational division. It is a standalone structure with its staff, academic policies and facilities and is the torchbearer of the university’s engagement with the broader society. The school meets the immediate skills needs of communities for the improvement of livelihoods, employment and educational mobility by engaging the broadest possible spectrum of learners in courses offered in flexible learning formats.

In tackling its mission, SPCE evolved a model of an educational establishment that had no analogues in the region. It offered applied university-type academic rigour and quality assurance to short-cycle education while being responsive and inclusive in delivering its courses. Meeting needs often meant offering courses with no readily available learning resources. The school eventually published some 350 books and manuals, many of which were used by other institutions. It developed a comprehensive record-keeping that tracks learners’ educational progress, the effectiveness of instruction, and alumni surveys to gauge the impact of courses on learners’ goals. As a private institution, UCA has cost recovery targets. However, it was not feasible to offer quality instruction and at the same time recover the costs of programmes; SPCE was subsidised so that it was affordable for the population it serves.

In October 2006, SPCE launched its programmes at its three main campuses. It offered two programmes, English for Business and Accounting Technology, enrolled 389 learners and recovered only 5 percent of the costs. By 2021, it had 190 full-time and 300 part-time staff, 23,000 students, 15 Learning Centres across Central Asia (10) and Afghanistan (5) and had developed 450 course modules. Since its inception, cumulative enrolment2 reached 189,900 (52% women).

SPCE ‘Town’ Campuses opened in 2006
Khorog, Tajikistan (1,407, m2), Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic (1,100 m2), Tekeli, Kazakhstan (1,458 m2)

Societal context

The societal contexts in which SPCE operated played a critical role in shaping the evolution of its institutional design and its programmes. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where SPCE activities are concentrated are poor, land-locked, Muslim countries dominated by mountain terrains with all the attendant problems. Around three-quarters of the population lives in rural areas. (In fact, the rate of urbanisation in both countries was higher in 1970 than in 2020, except in Kazakhstan.3) In Afghanistan, SPCE operates in the Province of Badakhshan, one of the most impoverished areas of the country. Since independence, the Central Asian economies have experienced economic setbacks of extraordinary proportions. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the GDP of the Central Asian countries contracted by almost 50 percent. In recent years, these countries reeled from the aftershocks of global and regional economic downturns, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the two most remittance-dependent countries in the world with labour migrants (most of whom are in Russia) contributing a quarter of GDP in 2021.4 The annual per capita household income in 2020 was $602 in Tajikistan, $872 in Kyrgyzstan and $3,269 in Kazakhstan.5 Economic growth took a battering in 2020 with a 10 percent drop in Kyrgyzstan, 3.8 percent in Kazakhstan and 2 percent in Tajikistan (which had 7.4% growth in 2019).6 While growth rates have rebounded by two to four percent depending on the country, their impact is mitigated by high inflation rates that range from 8 – 13 percent (2021).7 Social strain is growing because of the demographic boom these countries are experiencing – a 2.2 percent annual population increase in Kyrgyzstan and 2.3 percent in Tajikistan.8 Under these conditions job creation is minimal.

The economies of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and the under-developed regions of Kazakhstan, are characterised by informal employment. In Kyrgyzstan, only 13 percent of the total working population has formal, contractual employment in the private sector; 17 percent in the public sphere. The remaining 70 percent work informally based on a patent’ obtained by paying a lump sum monthly tax.9 The same holds for Tajikistan. In Kazakhstan, in the case of ethnic Kazakhs, the figure is around 50 percent. The dominance of the informal economy is the result of economic policies – high taxes on the formal sector and corruption practices that deter entrepreneurship.10

Economic forecasts show slow growth for the next decade or so. The youth bulge will increase the size of the able-bodied workforce and Russia is contracting the intake of migrants. The only real possibility for job creation is the growth of micro-small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the missing sector’ of Central Asian economies. The SMEs in most economies around the world account for the largest share of employment, make the largest contribution to GSP, are the most dynamic and adaptive, and are critical in giving jobs to youth. In Central Asia, this sector is significantly underdeveloped. The SMEs share of GDP in Kyrgyzstan is 32 percent and share of employment, 20 percent; in Tajikistan they provide 22 percent of employment, and in Kazakhstan, it contributes 29 percent of GDP and employs 32 percent of the workforce.11 By contrast, the European Union’s average SME contribution to GDP is 63 – 67 percent, and in terms of employment, 65 percent.

Apart from the lack of an enabling environment for SME development, a critical factor is the absence of the diffusion of technological knowledge and other relevant know-how which results in a failure to adopt readily available technologies. The growth of SME means adding value, which in turn, means technological innovation on an incremental basis. The SME growth today is dominated by the serial growth of retail and low value-added services – owning one store the entrepreneur opens another. Entrepreneurs outside big cities have limited knowledge of new business ideas. They base their business ideas mostly on what they hear from relatives and neighbours.12 Knowledge of English and internet connectivity would expand their horizons.

When SPCE opened in Naryn and Khorog (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast- GBAO, Tajikistan) they were towns with a population of some 40,000 and 30,000 respectively and which had seen little growth because of out-migration. The public sector was the largest employer since these were the administrative capitals of oblasts, except in Khorog where Pamir Energy provides some 1,000 in the oblast.13 Each town has a state university with some 3,000 students. Other than retail trade, there are only several score small (non-farm) businesses in each of the oblasts. The average monthly wage of those holding jobs is $234 in Naryn oblast, and $131 in GBAO (2021). The need for job creation is acute in those oblasts given that two-thirds of the population is under the age of 34 years. Naryn and Badakhshan oblasts have untapped economic potential. Naryn oblast, for example, has a large number of livestock yet not a single slaughterhouse, meat processing plant, dairy or creamery. It is rich in inputs used in producing construction materials, such as gypsum, clay, crushed stone, lime and marble. Yet there is no construction materials production, not even bricks. Tourism offers much promise in both oblasts.

Kyrgyzstan is a lower-middle-income country and Tajikistan is a low-income country. Kyrgyzstan’s GDP per capita was $1,174 and Tajikistan’s $859 (2020). However, there are significant differences between the endowments for the development of the third world’ and Central Asia that the latter could use to hasten economic growth. Central Asia inherited from the Soviet era a relatively advanced built environment, a social welfare system, and a social consensus that would not tolerate slums, marginalisation of significant sectors of its society, and places a high value on education, including that of women. Universal literacy, for both men and women, was achieved long ago. Primary education is near universal, and secondary school enrolment rates are equal to some high-income countries. Tertiary enrolment rates in Kyrgyzstan (47%) were higher than Mexico’s that ranked 70th in GDP per capita and Kyrgyzstan 184. In the case of Tajikistan, the rate was 31 percent, similar to the rate of middle, upper-middle-income countries.14

Education, especially higher education, can be a driver of economic development. However, neither governments nor international organisations have understood the potential of higher education. For example, international assistance was for many years focused on Millennium Development Goals, that is, universal access to primary education. For many years, organisations such as the World Bank never had explicit strategies for higher education and only recently has its role been seriously assessed.15 Governments, on the other hand, responded to pent-up social demand for higher education that followed the removal of Soviet policies restricting the movement of the titular nations of Central Asia to the cities and university admission by expanding the number of higher education institutions and student places.16 Tajikistan (9.7 million population) has 35 universities and approximately 196,000 university students. Kyrgyzstan (7 million people) with 51 universities has 160,000 students (2018).

Higher education can significantly impact economic development if it responds to social needs and its graduates can use their potential in the labour market. An education system in which the primary performance indicator is the number of diplomas delivered, rather than outcomes, leads to a deadweight loss. The higher education system under Soviet rule was instrumentalist, serving an economy that largely vanished with the 1991 economic crisis. In the post-Soviet period, while playing an essential role in meeting the social aspirations of youth and keeping them engaged during vulnerable years, the connection between higher education and labour market demand was weak, and its role in knowledge production. Looking at the annual output of graduates by fields of study, one would think that higher education exists in a parallel universe. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, a country of seven million people, in 2018, there were over 5,600 law graduates. 13,000 (27% of all graduates) completed economics and management programmes, yet there are hardly any enterprises to manage.17 In a country where agriculture is the largest employer, universities graduate just 300 students in agriculture and veterinary sciences yearly.

Employers in the region complain about the absence of skills of university graduates. It is not just a question of the shortage of graduates with substantive knowledge of relevant fields. They are disappointed by basic literacy and numeracy levels, analytical ability and problem solving, and soft skills, such as communication and the ability to work independently.18These skills are not cultivated in universities. A survey found that most students state that the goal of education is to obtain a diploma, not to receive knowledge, skills or know-how’19

Young people in Central Asia have limited options to acquire relevant knowledge and skills. Most students who continue studies after completing secondary education enrol in universities because post-secondary non-tertiary institutions (vocational and technological schools and other training organisations) are poorly developed. In Tajikistan, for example, in 2017, there were 39,000 students in post-secondary professional institutions (colleges, technical schools, etc.) and 196,000 in universities. Throughout the region, professional-technical education has low prestige. In Kazakhstan, whose government is trying to advance this sector, studies found that only 22 percent of Kazakhs see vocational-technical education as a respectable professional pathway compared to 71 percent of European Union citizens.20 However, recently, enrolments in higher education are declining as a growing number of young people enter colleges with two-year programmes. This change is driven by the increasing low return on investments in higher education. A 2017 household survey in Kyrgyzstan found that the monthly salary of households headed by someone with higher education is only 4.1 percent more if the person has only primary vocational training.21

Continuing and adult education is recognised worldwide as critical to economic growth, employment, and occupational mobility. Although labour market volatility is a permanent challenge for young people and adults, opportunities to obtain skills beyond the formal years of education are few and far between. By its very nature, SME development requires an assortment of skills best provided through a variety of short courses. Adult education systems are largely non-existent in Central Asia. Only a few universities in the region have continuing education programmes limited mainly to a few business schools. Tertiary Short Cycle (TSC) Education, a vital part of higher education institutions worldwide, is the fastest growing education sector. It caters to mature, part-time students looking for recognised professional or vocational qualifications. Finland, for example, has more students involved in TSC (200,000) than in traditional degree courses (150,000).22 TSC has considerable potential for promoting development in Central Asia since it is an effective way of developing the skills of young people and adults in a short period. SPCE was the first institution to offer programmes in this educational spectrum.


  1. The Graduate School organized in 2011 is comprised of the Mountain Societies Research Institute, the Institute of Public Policy and Administration (that will shortly offer a master’s degree); the Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit, the Civil Society Initiative, and the Aga Khan Humanities Project which, delivers interdisciplinary courses at some 80 partner universities and colleges in the region.

  2. Defined as course participants.

  3. In the case of Tajikistan, in 1970 the urbanisation rate was 37% and in 2020, 27%; in the case of Kyrgyzstan, 37% and 36% for the respective years. Only Kazakhstan saw a growth of the rate – 51% in 1970 and 57% in 2020

  4. https://​emerg​ing​-europe​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​r​e​m​i​t​t​a​n​c​e​s​-​t​o​-​e​a​s​t​e​r​n​-​e​u​r​o​p​e​-​a​n​d​-​c​e​n​t​r​a​l​-​a​s​i​a​-​s​e​e​-​f​a​s​t​e​r​-​t​h​a​n​-​e​x​p​e​c​t​e​d​-​r​e​c​o​very/

  5. https://​www​.ceic​da​ta​.com/​e​n​/​i​n​d​i​c​a​t​o​r​/​a​n​n​u​a​l​-​h​o​u​s​e​h​o​l​d​-​i​n​c​o​m​e​-​p​e​r​-​c​apita

  6. https://​data​.world​bank​.org/​i​n​d​i​c​a​t​o​r​/​N​Y​.​G​D​P​.​P​C​A​P​.​KD.ZG

  7. https://​www​.gfmag​.com/​g​l​o​b​a​l​-​d​a​t​a​/​e​c​o​n​o​m​i​c​-​d​a​t​a​/​w​o​r​l​d​s​-​h​i​g​h​e​s​t​-​l​o​w​e​s​t​-​i​n​f​l​a​t​i​o​n​-​rates

  8. https://​world​pop​u​la​tion​re​view​.com/​c​o​u​n​t​r​y​-​r​a​n​k​i​n​g​s​/​b​i​r​t​h​-​r​a​t​e​-​b​y​-​c​o​untry

  9. Government of Kyrgyzstan. (2020c). National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic – Statistics of the Kyrgyz Republic. Retrieved February 12, 2020, from http://​www​.stat​.kg/en/

  10. See Roman Mogilevskii, Labour Market and Technological Change in Central Asia’, Institute of Public Policy and Administration (IPPA), UCA, Working Paper, #582020

  11. Data from statistical agencies of the national government, 20192021.

  12. Kanat Tilekeyev, Micro‑, Small and Medium Enterprises in Tajikistan: Drivers of and Barriers to Growth,’ IPPA, Working Paper, No. 312014

  13. Pamir Energy is a public-private partnership between the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the Tajik Government.

  14. World Bank data, 2020

  15. https://​open​knowl​edge​.world​bank​.org/​h​a​n​d​l​e​/​10986​/​26486; https://​eli​brary​.world​bank​.org/​d​o​i​/​p​d​f​/​10​.​1596/0 – 8213-4630‑X

  16. For background see: Emma Sabzalieva, Higher Education Policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan”, IPPA, Working Paper, No. 512019

  17. The economics specialisation in Kyrgyzstan is a mixture of economics, accounting, finance and business.

  18. Lars Sondergaard and Mamta Murthi, et​.al. Skills, Not Just Diplomas: Managing Education Results in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, World Bank, 2012, p.40; Kanat Tilekeyev, et. al. The Garment Sector and Youth Employment in Kyrgyzstan: A Value Chain Analysis, IPPA, Working Paper, No. 572020

  19. B.Rakisheva, Youth in Central Asia [Молодежь Центральной азии] http://​library​.fes​.de/​p​d​f​f​i​l​e​s​/​b​u​e​r​o​s​/​k​a​s​a​c​h​s​t​a​n​/​14109.pdf

  20. GoKZ (2012), Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic Social, and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development, http://​adilet​.zan​.kz/​e​n​g​/​d​o​c​s​/​O​1200000010

  21. Integrated Household Survey, National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, 2018

  22. http://​www​.ncee​.org/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2010​/​04​/​F​i​n​l​a​n​d​-​E​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​R​e​p​o​r​t.pdf


Bohdan Krawchenko is Dean, Graduate School of Development, University of Central Asia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan

Read Part-II here