Shamsh Kassim-Lakha: Education is Not Instant Coffee - Vecherniy Bishkek
Construction of the University of Central Asia’s (UCA) main campus, which opens next year in Naryn, is nearing completion. Thanks to the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan will host a world-class University. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, AKDN Diplomatic Representative and Executive Chairman of the Board Executive Committee, UCA spoke to Vecherniy Bishkek (VB) on how this initiative was undertaken. Below is an excerpt reprinted with VB’s permission.
Question (Q): How does AKDN choose where to initiate its work and to locate its offices?
Answer (A): We launch our socio-economic development programmes only when we are invited by a country. For example, we came to Kyrgyzstan at the invitation of the government. The Kyrgyz Government appreciated the outcomes of our efforts in Tajikistan. In the 1990s which was a difficult period for Tajikistan, there was a famine in the Gorno Badakhshan Oblast (GBAO). The AKDN delivered food and the only delivery route for humanitarian aid was through Kyrgyzstan territory. In 1995, together with His Highness the Aga Khan, we arrived in Bishkek to thank the Government for its assistance. It was at this time, that the authorities addressed His Highness with the request to help the newly independent country with economic, social and educational projects. His Highness responded that he would kindly support the request of a friendly nation.
The first AKDN programme to begin in Kyrgyzstan was the inauguration of the Kyrgyz Investment Credit Bank (KICB), with the Kyrgyz Government as one of the co-founders. AKDN also opened a school (the Aga Khan Academy) and a microcredit company (First MicroCredit Company) in Osh. This was when the vision to initiate the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn was conceptualised. In 1996-97, I was the Co-Chair of the Commission, which examined the feasibility study of such an endeavour.
After the study was completed, it was presented to the government, and in 2000 an International Treaty to establish UCA was signed by the governments of the Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and His Highness. As I was the President of the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan and six other countries including the United Kingdom, and had extensive experience in establishing a university of a similar standard, I was appointed to lead the planning and building of UCA. AKU has launched branches in many countries, and it is not only a university in its traditional sense, but also a major research centre. It is also planned for UCA to become such a centre. Whilst UCA’s academic programmes are designed to meet international standards, they are adapted to meet the specific needs of Central Asia.
Q: Why was Naryn chosen as a UCA Campus?
A: Naryn is mountainous region and economically depressed. Usually, inhabitants of such areas have less access to resources and are more socially vulnerable than their fellow citizens living on the plains. Therefore, in the mountainous regions there is a high level of poverty, largely marginalised populations, which is a favourable environment for radicalism to take root. Therefore, in all three countries, where UCA campuses are being built, we have selected such locations. The UCA campus in Tajikistan will open in Khorog; in Tekeli, Kazakhstan; and in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan
Q: Will UCA’s faculty comprise of foreign or local experts?
A: Three years ago, we selected 35 candidates from our three campus host countries. They were selected competitively and were sent to study at the leading universities in the world. They will form the backbone of the University’s teaching staff, alongside experts from abroad.
RETURNING HOME IS NOT A BAD THING
Q: What the incentive for graduates to return to Kyrgyzstan to work, in such a remote setting? Would they not pursue prospective jobs abroad and not return?
A: This is a real dilemma for all developing countries. The AKDN faces similar challenges. There have been occasions in the past where students who were supported with high quality education, later left to work in different spheres. We do accept there is a risk that a certain percentage of graduates will return to their country; this is human nature.
In any case, we should attempt to attract them to return, after they achieve success in their new abode. In my experience, we faced similar circumstances in Pakistan; however, we were able to attract citizens back to their homeland. And you will be surprised, we did not use wages as an incentive. We could not afford to pay them such salaries as compared to the West. There is however, another incentive which is the natural human desire to be recognised in their own communities. In a foreign country, one is always one of many who have achieved success. But at home, it is a different experience to be treated well by your own people as one who has reached great heights, thanks to their diligence and intelligence.
Within, the first decade of launching AKUin Pakistan, 60 percent of the faculty consisted of those who came returned from abroad. And they did not work for US dollars, but instead for the Pakistani rupee.
Q: Where did you receive your education?
A: My first degree was in food technology from Britain. I then completed my Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota, USA.
Q: Were you too among those who returned to their homeland?
A: Yes, the first 19 years of my career I was devoted to the economic sector in my country. I managed a large manufacturing company producing and exporting textiles and other goods. I also worked with other AKDN projects, in particular, I was leading the construction of the AKU campus in Pakistan. When the University was opened, I was offered the task of leading it.
This is how my transition from business to education occurred. At one point after my retirement from AKU, there was a period I was appointed as Minister of State and then Minister of Education and as Minister of Science and Technology, I was given the responsibility to lead the reform of higher education and our recommendations were successfully implemented.
Q: What are AKDN’s plans AKDN in Kyrgyzstan after launching the University of Central Asia in Naryn?
A: The opening of UCA is just one of the phases. The next phase is to assist with the improvement of the public school education system through UCA. Our university will offer a five year Bachelors education compared to four in most parts of the world. This is because students are not adequately prepared.
The first year will provide students with the opportunity to improve their knowledge, to fill in the gaps of school programme. We need a phased approach to this, and here we are working closely with the Ministry of Education and Science.
As His Highness has said, [establishing a] university, and a system of education in general, is not like preparing instant coffee, which is ready immediately. For UCA, to become mature and prominent in the international arena, it will take at least 15 to 20 years. So we do have long- term plans to achieve this goal.