The University of Central Asia: Educational Innovation in the Mountains of Rural Kyrgyzstan

Naryn campus in summer of 2017, at the end of the inaugural year. Credit: UCA

Before I joined New Markets Advisors as an Associate, I was on the team that opened the University of Central Asia’s Naryn campus in Kyrgyzstan for its inaugural 2016–2017 school year. It was one of the most incredible experiences in my life and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

With the insights I’ve since gained at New Markets, I’d like to examine the University of Central Asia (UCA) through the lens of disruptive innovation and Jobs to Be Done, two concepts popularized by Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. Now more than ever, these concepts are crucial for universities globally, which must innovate to stay relevant and serve real student needs.

The Need for University Innovation

A central strand of Christensen’s 2011 book, The Innovative University, is that each university has a “DNA”, core institutional traits that define its identity. The genetic code comprises many features: department organization, degree programs (2-year, 4-year, advanced degrees), residences and residential life, student admissions, and the role of athletics, to list a few.

Universities around the world have attempted to clone the DNA of elite institutions, consciously or unconsciously. For much of the 20th century, according to Christensen, this emulation helped the typical American university and college succeed. State universities and community colleges offered more subjects of study and advanced degrees, increasing accessibility to higher education.

But today, this aspirational cloning has become a detriment to the relevance and sustainability of universities. In the arms race to advance academic rankings, foster Nobel-prize winning research, and procure eye-catching amenities, many universities have actually overshot the performance needs of their target students. The competition among institutions to outdo each other has contributed to the ballooning sticker price of tuition, which has greatly surpassed what is affordable to most families.

The sustaining trajectory of most US universities has surpassed the performance needs of the mainstream. Meanwhile, players like Coursera or coding bootcamps are disrupting traditional education. Credit: HBR

The sky-high cost of university education is exacerbated by trends such as:

  • the development of online platforms like edX and Coursera where students can cover the same curriculum from elite universities but from the comfort of their homes and at their own pace,
  • the rise of technical bootcamps, which advertise guaranteed job placement and average salaries starting at six figures,
  • the increased blurring between non-profit and for-profit business models, such as Purdue University’s purchase of Kaplan University.

The current university system is being disrupted, and this is only the beginning. Universities need to find innovative, cost-effective ways to address educational Jobs to Be Done (fundamental tasks consumers are trying to address), or risk extinction.

Challenges facing most existing Central Asian universities

Naryn State University, the public university closest to UCA. Credit: Ekrem Canli

When we look at the university in the Central Asian context, we see that the challenges are distinct from those in the US. Like its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has no shortage of universities; in the capital city of Bishkek alone, there are 28! The issue is not about the quantity, but about the quality and underlying DNA of institutions.

University buildings, often from the Soviet era, are overdue for major renovations — cracked concrete walls, dim lighting, and dingy odors are commonplace — and resources like libraries and computer labs are underfunded. Limited dorms mean most students commute, stifling campus student life and community. Bribes for better grades are common and with the salary of professors at a barely livable rate (~$500 per month), that problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Though Central Asian universities favor pre-professional programs over liberal arts ones, the degrees offered are still not market-driven. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, a significant oversupply of law students means that most will never apply their law-related knowledge. Schools are accredited within each country, but students have trouble getting accepted into international graduate schools. For all these reasons, many of the top students leave Central Asia and go to Russia, Turkey, the US, or other European countries for a chance to earn a more valuable degree.

The DNA of UCA

To avoid the pitfalls that undercut US and Central Asian institutions, UCA is guided by several core principals that each address real Jobs to be Done for students and their communities.

  1. Create a high-quality, liberal arts undergraduate program in Central Asia
Students and faculty doing a group brainstorming activity. Credit: UCA

UCA is the first fully-residential liberal arts university in Central Asia and the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher education. The residential model offers Central Asians a student life experience and holistic learning environment found nowhere else in the region. The university also believes that in the long run, a liberal arts degree backed by internationally-recognized credentials will serve students better than pre-professional training, especially as the job landscape rapidly evolves.

UCA currently only offers 5-year undergraduate degrees. The first year is a rigorous Preparatory program to make sure all students are on relatively equal footing in English, math, and science, regardless of academic background. UCA also only offers six majors, each selected due to their practicality and market need in Central Asia. Students also participate in a co-op program for real-world work experience over three summers.

In contrast to the global rush to become the latest and greatest, roll-out has happened incrementally. Only around 70 students were enrolled the first year to keep class sizes small and minimize the operational load. The campus is being built in phases, with the initial facilities built for a couple hundred people and spaces designed to be multi-functional and modular.

2. Serve and develop mountain societies

Aerial view of the Naryn community. Credit: UCA

Most top universities in Central Asia (and globally) are located in cities or suburbs and disproportionately attract students from those areas. With half of UCA’s students coming from rural areas, the school benefits a previously underserved population.

Central Asia is very mountainous. Kyrgyzstan’s average elevation is over 9,000 feet and 97% of its land is covered by mountains; Tajikistan has an even higher average elevation of 10,455 feet and is 93% mountains. Rural mountain communities are more vulnerable to climate change, natural hazards, and extreme weather. Many face limited livelihood options and increased health risks.

To address the economic and social marginalization of mountain societies, UCA has planted campuses in the heart of the mountains. This was not an obvious or easy choice. Nearly all the infrastructure (roads, electricity, telecom, water) has to be built from the ground up, and the day-to-day operations are significantly more complicated. However, this hard work is putting rural communities on the map, kick-starting new entrepreneurial ventures, and inspiring local students and their families.

3. Offer a distinctly Central Asian education

UCA students with their national flags and clothes at a cultural show. Credit: Anisa Abibullaeva

While UCA aims to offer a globally-competitive education, it doesn’t just clone a top Western university. Instead, it maintains an identity firmly rooted in Central Asia through its approach to student admissions, curriculum development, and faculty and staff hiring.

In its first year, UCA’s enrolled students from 5 countries — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While faculty and staff come from around the world, Central Asian faculty and staff are prioritized. The curriculum is contextualized to Central Asia and the topics are integrated into all subjects. For example, students read about the Aral Sea ecological crisis in English class, collect water samples from the Naryn River (which flows into the Aral Sea) for Science, and then calculate water volume loss in Math. Students study the history of Central Asia and local languages. The minor programs offered — Central Asian Studies, Globalization Studies, Development Studies — also tackle some of the region’s greatest issues.

4. Offer an internationally-recognized and competitive education via partnerships

Students in the wet lab with a science professor. Credit: Gary Otte

Universities too often attempt to build everything internally and fail to leverage outside resources. In contrast, partnerships are integral to UCA’s survival. Its most important have been within the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), one of the world’s largest non-governmental development organizations. As an agency of the AKDN, UCA is able to leverage staffing, experts, and insights from the other agencies. The AKDN also provides most of the funding critical to operations, including generous financial aid packages for students, very few of whom are from wealthy families.

In order to offer high-quality course material and curriculum, UCA developed and maintains a network of strategic partnerships with universities around the world. This includes leading research institutions such as the University of Toronto and the Stockholm School of Economics. It also includes Seneca College, a public college in the Toronto metro area. Seneca specializes in preparing students for other 4-year institutions, making it the perfect partner for the Preparatory curriculum.


Author (far right) hiking with students in the foothills above UCA, with the campus, Naryn River, and local community in the background

Universities need to establish their own DNA, driven by their unique missions and underlying student needs. Each institutional decision — the types of students it serves, degree types, the majors offered — needs to be purposeful.

The University of Central Asia’s DNA was the result of deliberate decisions to establish it as an institution devoted to the development of the region. Its mountain location, practical majors, demographic composition, and strategic partnerships all greatly contribute to its unique identity. As universities around the world re-engineer in the face of disruption, institutions like UCA are proof that university innovation can unleash exciting and new possibilities, to the great benefit of students and society as a whole.

Story by Jonathan Chang.

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A special thanks to Sylvia Brown, an Associate at New Markets, for her thoughtful edits.



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