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His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor's Address at the First Convocation of the University of Central Asia



Your Excellency President Rahmon

Your Excellency President Japarov

Honourable Ministers

Honourable Governors

Chairman Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha and Members of the Board of Trustees

Rector, Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University

Parents, supporters, and distinguished guests and Graduates

It is truly a genuine pleasure for me to celebrate this milestone moment with you – the graduation of the first class of students from the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Central Asia. This event is also a very significant moment in my own life as it represents the culmination of more than two decades of effort in conceptualising, planning and building this institution with the valuable support of Patrons, Presidents and administrations of the Founding States.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and everyone at UCA, I extend deep appreciation to the Patrons of the University, the Presidents of the Republic of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republic of Kazakhstan and their administrations for their support and for creating an enabling environment for the University to thrive and achieve its mission and goals.

It was only in 2016 and 2017 that the campuses in Naryn and Khorog welcomed their students. And here we stand today to celebrate each of you graduates; and your parents and families who contributed to your success. Each one of you is here today through your sustained hard work. You needed to develop certain qualities of character and mind to face the challenges of university learning. With these qualities, you are now empowered to seek out new opportunities with confidence. As the first graduates you will always have a special place in the history of the University. As you go forward, you will be UCA's ambassadors, our envoys and representatives. This is a special responsibility that I am certain you will be able to fulfill admirably.

I offer my warmest congratulations to UCA's faculty, management, staff, Trustees and the very generous donors all of whose contributions made it possible to establish quality academic programmes and beautiful residential campuses. This was not an easy task, and UCA had to navigate uncharted waters. This new university demonstrated enormous resilience in rising to the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and capably re-configured the institution to remote teaching. During this period, UCA succeeded in receiving accreditation by educational authorities in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, putting the institution on a solid academic footing.

Today's event brings back some wonderful memories. Twenty-one years ago, I joined the Presidents of the Founding States in signing an extraordinary International Treaty that brought three countries together to establish the University of Central Asia as a single, multi-campus, regional institution of higher learning. Today's graduation event, held simultaneously in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is an example of the power of education and international cooperation. It is a power that can change people’s lives. It has always been the Founders’ hope that this power will come through the efforts of the class of 2021 and those which will follow, and from the research and civic engagement of the faculty.

In partnership with the Founding States, we established a type of institution that is new to Central Asia and the larger world. Planning for an original concept, and making it operational, was a complex process that involved purposeful architectural design, construction, detailed academic planning, training and recruiting faculty. All of this was accomplished in a decade, which is a fast-forward speed for most universities. The many who worked on the UCA project in the past and the University community today can take pride in this achievement and have our warmest appreciation.

However, a measure of a university's success is the quality of the education it delivers and the careers of its graduates. This starts with the recruitment of students, for without good students, a university will never achieve excellence. A key ingredient in this story has been our open-access philosophy, enabling us to enrol students on merit alone, with the vast majority of students receiving financial support. The result is that 70 percent of our students are from small towns and rural areas, and half are women. They gained admission through a transparent and rigorous selection process and completed a demanding course of study with rigorous standards of academic integrity.

Research is the other measure of a university's success. UCA defines itself as a “research-oriented” university. Central Asia and its mountain communities face many challenges, including the impacts of climate change, building reliant communities, alleviating poverty through quality economic growth and advancing technological innovation. These problems are analytically complex, and there are no easy solutions. The fundamental goal is to achieve levels of excellence in research, measured by global standards to bring genuine value to those we are committed to educating.

As we celebrate the first steps of a new university, we should also recall the past. Students of world history remind us how Central Asia, a thousand years ago, led the world in cultural and intellectual achievements. This region is where medicine was founded, where algebra got its name, where the earth's diameter was precisely calculated, where some of the world's greatest poetry was penned. This happened because the societies were open to new ideas, open to change, open to scholars and people from many backgrounds. That kind of openness can again unlock the doors to the future, and allows us to take on the great questions of our time and place.

It is in the context of this illustrious historical background that the Trustees and I see the evolution of scholarship at this University. We accept that the revival of this tradition of high quality and relevant research in Central Asia will need to be carefully charted and will require the requisite human and material resources over an extended period of time.

UCA has made a good start. Research output by the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences has markedly increased. And, of course, the Graduate School of Development, with its institutes, has achieved a significant presence on the Central Asian knowledge landscape and established international collaborations. The School is now collaborating with its sister institution, the Aga Khan University, in new research on maternal and child health and nutrition. I urge the faculty and students to give utmost attention to enhance the current learning and create new knowledge through research, which is a most important vector for improving the quality of life of those who live in these mountain ranges.

UCA is also a development university. And an essential aspect of this mission is its relationship with the host communities. The University is partnering with the local governments and its sister agencies in the Aga Khan Development Network to develop the host mountain towns into vibrant university communities and transform them by bringing new technology, innovation and entrepreneurship hubs. Over the coming decades, the University will expand as new areas of teaching and research emerge, and the towns that are home to UCA campuses will benefit from the new economic opportunities and attain a better quality of life.

Let me conclude by expressing again, to all of you, the deep sense of joy and gratitude I feel as we celebrate this historic day. To the graduates, I wish you a bright future. We look forward to working together with the Founding States, the Board of Trustees, the faculty and now the alumni towards the challenging and promising future of this University.

Thank you.

The School of Arts and Sciences

The Graduate School of Development

The School of Professional and Continuing Education