The Economist on the University of Central Asia 


Highly regarded British politics and economics magazine The Economist is a reliable source of news and tongue-in-cheek humorous bylines about what’s happening in the world. I was delighted to see a short article on the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan in this week’s edition, complete with silly/witty byline “Aga saga”. This refers to the Aga Khan, the much revered living spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims who can be found dotted around the world and make up almost all of the population of Badakhshan in south-east Tajikistan. It is also a play on words of a particular type of British light fiction written about domestic trials and tribulations –  Aga being the type of oven traditionally found in certain middle/upper class houses. 

The article itself is on the University of Central Asia and is regrettably brief. But at least it is being written about, and in a well read and respected publication. I hope The Economist’s interest is piqued so they will follow up on the university, which in just a few weeks is to open its doors to its first cohort of undergraduate students, well over a decade after it was formally launched. 

Read the story at:

The ironic fate of Soviet nostalgia




Poster for the Soviet classic, “The irony of fate”, where the big joke is that all cities share the same street names

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the days of free education, jobs for life, and street names that were the same in every city, then it seems you’re not alone.

Sputnik News today reports the results of a poll of over 12,000 people across 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who were asked whether life was better in the USSR than after it collapsed in 1991. On average, over 50% of those aged 35-64 agree that life was better before. This compares to an average of just under 30% of those aged 18-24 who felt the same – though how they might know this without having been born during the Soviet Union escapes me.

The breakdown of the results by country is interesting, particularly looking at unlikely outliers Uzbekistan and Moldova. In Uzbekistan, apparently almost no one misses the good old days, in stark contrast to its extremely economically successful neighbour Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan purports to have similar levels of nostalgia as Kazakhstan, despite enjoying a reputation as “Central Asia’s most stable state”. I’m not saying that political and economic success/stability as an independent country necessarily affects results, but I do feel surprised by the lukewarm response from older Tajiks based on my own extensive research and contacts in the country.

Comments on the Sputnik News website express a similar range of confusion and scepticism. Indeed, Sputnik News – a Russian government spin-off – is regularly accused of spouting Russian-friendly propaganda. Certainly, the way the statement is worded is highly subjective: why not flip the question and ask whether life is better now than it was during the Soviet Union? And why are the voices of those who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed given equal weight to those who lived a good part of their life with a different passport – and where are the over 65s?

Revitalizing the idea that times were better in the old days is not new – just look at the ongoing “ostalgie” stories about East Germany. If you have the time to explore this further, I strongly recommend Alexei Yurchak’s absolutely beautifully named 2005 book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. It focusses on the 1960s-1980s, the many paradoxes of Soviet life and telling the story of the last Soviet generation – the very same people who now seem to be so nostalgic…

Life in USSR poll.png

(c) Sputnik News, August 17 2016


Kyrgyz athletes encouraged to “do it like Iceland” at Rio Olympics


Footballing minnows Iceland stunned the world (or at least the parts of it that care that much about the beautiful game) in June by defeating England and knocking them out of the Euro 2016 championships, in the process progressing to the quarter finals for the first time in the nation’s history.


Iceland’s fans performing the thunder clap at Euro 2016

Their victory instantly became part of modern footballing legend. When fellow underdogs Wales returned home defeated but triumphant after achieving a semi final place, their team led thousands of supporters in the “Icelandic thunder clap“, proudly echoing the stomps heard all over Iceland in the days before.

Word of Iceland’s triumph has spread far and wide, this week connecting with Central Asia as Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev counselled his small team of 19 Olympians ahead of their departure for Brazil. According to dpa/Europe Online, Atambayev told the sportspeople to “Do it with team spirit. Do it like tiny Iceland“. He went on to say “We have no oil resources, but we have our people who can accomplish great feats. May you be lucky in your pursuit for medals.”

Good luck to Kyrgyzstan, all the other Central Asian nations – and of course Iceland – at this year’s Olympics!

“We are losing our future”: Corruption in Uzbek higher education


I’m excited to share the results of new original research on corruption in Uzbek higher education, written by Albina Yun. Yun is a graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbek State World Languages University. She is a higher education professional currently working at Westminster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Yun’s research, written up as a policy brief for the OSCE Academy, is a hard-hitting account of the crippling effect of corruption on the quality and accessibility of higher education in Uzbekistan. It is one of very few works in this area: not only in its focus on corruption in the Uzbek context, but also generated by a locally based researcher.

Whilst the Uzbek government took an important step forward by implementing its first anti-corruption action plan in 2015, Yun is quick to point out that corruption in higher education remains systemic, “a massive issue with prejudicial effects” (p. 15). The results of corruption lead to graduates entering the employment market with inadequate academic and professional skills, and hugely undermine the transformative role that higher education can play at individual and societal level. The normalization of corruption both by students and faculty members/administrative staff is a major concern.

Ultimately, as Yun observes, unless measures are taken from the top down to address corruption, the very future of Uzbekistan may be at risk.

Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia


After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.

I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:

I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.

How to pass exams in Kyrgyzstan


In my most recent post, I passed on some tips on how to get into university in Kyrgyzstan. Today I’d like to share some more advice, this time on how to pass your university exams, courtesy of Ernist Nurmatov at Radio Azattyk [Liberty].

In an article entitled “Osh: did students get grades without going to university?” [ru], Nurmatov recounts the experiences of a university instructor in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who didn’t give pass marks to students who didn’t actually turn up to class.


A cat meme is worth a thousand words (not dollars, of course)

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? You come to class, put in the hours, write your exam at the end, and hopefully pass. Don’t turn up, don’t submit assessments – don’t pass.

Apparently not at the Osh State Law Institute.

After the instructor failed some of her students for not turning up for the exam, she asked some to write an explanatory letter setting their reasons for absence. The letters she got back are shocking.

One student claims he was “cheated” by another instructor who didn’t let him pass even though he paid 6,000 Kyrgyz som (nearly USD$100) as a bribe. That’s not far off an average person’s entire income for a month.

Another, who had to stay at home to look after his parents, claims he paid the local equivalent of USD$75 to one of the university’s most senior officials, who then told him he didn’t have to come in to take the exam.

Naturally, the university completely denies the allegations. One senior official is quoted not once but on two separate occasions as saying “There’s nothing illegal about that” in defence of the university’s actions.

The instructor who bravely refused to pass these students has taken up her case with the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies but in the meantime she has been sacked, according to her because of this incident (again, the university denies this).

Whether you believe Mamatova, the students, or the university officials, there is so much that feels wrong about this situation. Why is that young people feel they have to get a degree so much that they’ll even consider paying for it? How has bribe-taking become so normalized and how might this trend be reversed? What are the implications for the quality of education and of the nation’s graduates? What is going on with the national economy that going abroad to work has become so common? Why are cultural and economic conditions in universities such that an instructor or official will accept a bribe? What happens to others who might now be too scared to shine a light on such rampant corruption?

The picture may be frivolous (and hopefully drew you in to read this far – if so, please read the original article in Russian or my edited translation below) but the issues it belies are serious. The cat in the picture may be saying “don’t ask questions” but I am encouraging you to do just the opposite.

====The article====

“Osh: did students get grades without going to university?”

Loosely translated by Emma Sabzalieva; original article (c) Ernist Nurmatov for Radio Azattyk

An instructor at Osh State Law Institute Syuita Mamatova claims that 100 students are being allowed to progress to the next year of study without actually having been to class. These students are working abroad in Russia and paying to receive grades instead of studying. The university administration completely denies these allegations.

Mamatova says that the number of students who take the final exam but don’t turn up for classes is growing. She teaches a class in Banking law where she says around 20 fourth year (in a five year system) students never turned up. When she asked the administration to remove from the class, she got no answer.

Mamatova says that as a rule, instructors aren’t able to record these students as absent, but that she did. Mamatova also took her quest for justice one step further by informing the Rector’s office in writing that these students were being expelled from her class. Yet instead of expelling them, Mamatova claims that the Rector Egemberdi Toktorov and First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov told her to give the students marks.

When Mamatova refused, she was fired. She then turned to the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies. Claiming she was put under pressure, she gave marks to students who did produce final assignments or other work in lieu of attending class. However, she refused to give grades to anyone who had not come to class at all and says that this is why the Rector fired her. As a pretext, the administration claimed they didn’t have enough hours for her to work.

Mamatova is convinced that senior administrators and other instructors are covering for these students and that they took umbrage at her interfering with them receiving money from students for grades.

As insurance, Mamatova took statements from students who did not attend in which they explained their absence. Some students admitted that they were working abroad and paying for their grades instead of studying.

Final year student Aybek Taalaibek uulu said in his letter: “I didn’t attend any of the 22 hours of teaching or any of the 14 seminars for Banking law. I was in my village. But I gave 6,000 som [a little under USD$100] to the teacher Gulzirek Anarbayeva and asked to be let through the course. But she cheated me and didn’t let me pass. This year I had to go to Moscow to earn for my family and Aysinai Alymbayeva promised to let me pass, but she didn’t. I was cheated.”

Nurlan Asanov, another final year student, wrote: “I didn’t attend because I was at home looking after my parents. I gave 5,000 som [USD$75] to First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov and asked him to let me pass. He told me it was all sorted out and I could skip the state exam. I apologise for not attending the Banking law classes.”

The university management refutes Mamatova’s allegations. First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov had the following to say: “We don’t have any students who don’t attend exams. Everyone comes and studies. If there are students who for some reason or another can’t make class, they make up for it either through independent work or reports. Nobody takes money from anyone. All students go to class and take exams by themselves. In the specific case Mamatova is referring to, the letters she presented were written under duress. These students had various reasons that they weren’t able to attend. Their parents have come to me and complained. It’s true that I phoned Mamatova and asked her to give them marks for the catch-up work the students did. All of them had written up to 20 short projects and she gave them marks. There is nothing illegal about that.”

Mamatova also claims that the university gave out documents to 120 Kazakh students who were not studying at the Institute. Again, First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov denies this and accused Mamatova of incompetence: “We had an agreement with a university in Almaty [Kazakhstan] for 120 Kazakh students to join our courses by distance learning. I went to Almaty myself to oversee the admissions process. After six months, they all decided of their own accord to transfer to a different university. We didn’t give them documents saying they’d completed their studies with us, just a letter explaining what they had done during that time. There’s nothing illegal about that.”

Osh State Law Institute’s Rector Egemberdi Toktorov was not available for comment.

Around 5,000 students are enrolled at the Institute. As two undergraduate courses are being wound up this year, a little over 3,000 students remain.

How to get into university in Kyrgyzstan


Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]

With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.

If, however, you didn’t score highly enough on the test to gain a scholarship, you can still go to one of Kyrgyzstan’s 50 universities (more than most countries with a similar population – Denmark has 8, Scotland – 19)… but you have to pay fees. These students are known as kontraktniki (контрактники) because of the contract between the institution and the student.


Translation from Russian: “The teacher joked… Funded students [on the left] and fee-paying students [on the right]”

For students in Kyrgyzstan, a recent article from news agency Sputnik has some top tips for those seeking to avoid becoming the angry fee-paying cat [ru] and still get to university. These include:

  • Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
  • Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
  • Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person

But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?

– elephantinthelivingroom2

Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.

Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.

It’s hard to be a punk in Tajikistan (repost)


Ostensibly about punk and heavy metal cultures in Tajikistan, the article I’m reposting today from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting also serves as a fascinating insight into the ways that individuals and states respond to change from the outside.

Think about the conscious choices that individuals who have adopted punk or heavy metal are making in living their lives in ways that are not usual in Tajikistan or indeed the “norm” (whatever that is we’re measuring against) in most societies.

Think also about the choices that the Tajik government is making in both formally and informally responding to expressions by individuals and groups in society that do not conform with their (increasingly strictured) ideas about how Tajik citizens should live their life. The recent mass arrests following the Indian Holi-inspired colour celebrations in Dushanbe [ – ru] are indicative of the state response.

Here’s the article, which is (c) IWPR. The original is at

It’s Hard to be a Punk in Tajikistan

Economic troubles and official disapproval takes its toll on a dwindling subculture.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Bike Opening 2016: Bikers ride along Dushanbe's avenues with Tajik flags. (Photo courtesy of Tajik bikers)
  • There is a tiny community of about 50 punks in Tajikistan. They are mostly based in the capital Dushanbe. (Photo: Maina Schwarz)
  • A rock gig in Dushanbe. (Photo: Maina Schwarz)
  • Punks, heavy metal heads and rockers get together in a handful of bars and clubs. (Photo: Konstantin Parshin)
  • Jack Rock is one of Tajikistan's few remaining "monsters of rock". (Photo: Konstantin Parshin)
  • Not many Tajik youngsters are into alternative music like punk and rock. (Photo: Maina Schwarz)
  • Bike Opening 2016: Bikers ride along Dushanbe's avenues with Tajik flags. (Photo courtesy of Tajik bikers)
    Bike Opening 2016: Bikers ride along Dushanbe’s avenues with Tajik flags. (Photo courtesy of Tajik bikers)
  • There is a tiny community of about 50 punks in Tajikistan. They are mostly based in the capital Dushanbe. (Photo: Maina Schwarz)
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People stare when Mahina walks along the streets of Dushanbe.

Dressed in denim and black leather accessoried with studded jewellery and facial piercings, the punk look cultivated by Mahina and her friends is a rare sight in the Tajik capital.

“Our style is very unusual, even a bit frightening for our country,” she said. “Many passers by tell us they have no idea where this alien culture has come from.”

Half the population of Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest state, is under 30. But most young people in this predominately Muslim nation live according to conservative, patriarchal traditions.

The few hundred, mostly in the capital, who have broken out of society’s conformist mores are immediately noticeable.

Punks, heavy metal heads and rockers get together in a handful of bars and clubs, while the odd breakdancing or parkour team can be spotted practicing in the streets.

“Music spiritually empowers us, it gives us hope for a better future,” said Mahina, who plays in a band and estimates that there are about 50 fellow punks in the capital.

“I wish people wouldn’t fear so much; we are not as scary as we seem.”

But stalwarts of this already tiny alternative scene say that an economic crisis fuelled by social pressures mean that their ranks are dwindling.

One Tajik heavy metal musician, who goes by the name Jack, said that there was only a handful of what he described as “monsters of rock” left in Dushanbe.

Many popular bands had recently split up, with no sign of a new wave emerging.

“Fewer people have been attending rock concerts lately,” he continued. “Two years ago at least 200 people could be expected to show up to a gig. Nowadays it would be great to attract 50 people.”

Fred, a stalwart of Tajikistan’s breakdance and parkour scene, agreed. Breakdancing first appeared in the country some 20 years ago and truly took off in the early 2000s, he explained.

“There were many [breakdancing] teams back then and championships took place several times a year,” Fred said. “We taught ourselves, learning from videotapes and clips.

Enthusiasts still gather in parks and other urban spaces to learn new tricks from each other. But out of the dozens of breakdancing posses in Dushanbe a decade ago, only a handful remain, he said.

As for the local music scene, it’s dominated by Tajik language pop and folk music, with religion and national values as prevalent themes.

“I wish there were more alternative people in Tajikistan, and somewhere to hang out together and create,” said Roman, a graffiti artist. Everyone, he said, “eventually gets tired of fighting against the system”.

Simply making a living remains the priority for most young people. The national somoni currency has plunged by 52 per cent in the last year, a situation exacerbated by the economic crisis in Russia, where many Tajiks travel to find work.

(See Russian Crisis Continues to Bite for Labour Migrants).

Social pressure demands that young people settle down, get married and start a family by the time they are in their early twenties.  A job that would allow time to pursue a hobby – let alone make money out of music – remains a distant dream.

Then there is the growing problem of Islamic radicalization, linked to poverty, unemployment and low levels of education. According to official data, 700 young people have so far travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq, with the real number likely to be even higher.

(See Tajikistan’s Jihad Tourists).

Some young people say that the government’s cultural conservatism doesn’t help the fight against extremism.

“The authority’s attitude, that they ignore or ban anything in the sphere of modern youth culture, risks turning the young generation into a resource for radical Islamic propaganda and unrest,” said a graphic artist and alternative music fan who asked to remain anonymous.

Official bodies responsible for granting permits for artists to use state-owned premises are said to generally ignore requests from performers from the alternative scene.

Martial arts such as wrestling and judo are wildly popular in Tajikistan, with state-sponsored classes and competitions. Tajik sportspeople do well on international level, bringing home medals in the last two Olympics.

However, more niche pursuits are off the state’s radar.

“There are many boxers, football players, wrestlers [in Tajikistan] – but what about our cultural development?” asked Bakhtiyor, a music producer and veteran of the Tajik hip hop scene.

He said that rap had the potential to be huge in Tajikistan, with several dozen recording studios already active in the capital.

SOR, one of the local scene’s most recognised and respected artists, explained that young Tajiks were familiar with hardship. The country went through civil war in the 1990s and has experienced one financial disaster after another ever since.

“Our young people identify with the music,” he said, adding that he had funded his own first recording by shifting cement sacks at the market.

SOR also argued that modern music could also be an outlet for patriotism, even if performers chose not to use the Tajik language.

“I began rapping in English to make Tajikistan known abroad and enter an international market. Some people serve their country through diplomacy, some through scientific contributions and some through art, creativity,” he said.

Bakhtiyor agreed that the alternative scene was making a vital contribution to the country’s development.

“Culture is as important as air, without it our young people degrade,” he said. “They thrive though self-expression and self-development. We are not a very rich country, and many people here had difficult childhoods, so we must help find ways to entertain, educate and develop in a positive way.”

This article was produced under two IWPR projects: Empowering Media and Civil Society Activists to Support Democratic Reforms in Tajikistan, funded by the European Union, andStrengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between: Ten defining moments of Congress 2016


The big news in the Canadian academic world at the moment is Congress 2016 (on Twitter: #congressh), taking place right now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Congress – or to name it in full, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – is the annual gathering of 75 Canadian scholarly associations, with around 8,000 researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the public converging on a university site for a week every year to:

…share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow. (source:

As you can imagine, it’s a huge undertaking for the organizers, the host university – and also for participants navigating their way around the many different associations (most people are connected with one or more society but in principle are able to attend sessions organized by other groups) as well as Congress-wide events.

This was my first experience at Congress, and specifically as a member of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education Conference (Twitter: #csshe2016). The CSSHE conference organisers did a fantastic job, so a big thank you to Kathleen Moore and Michelle Nilsen.

This post is an attempt to distill some of the ideas, conversations and experiences of the past few days. Here goes…

1. Listening and learning

2016-05-30 08.39.24

Social cartography in action

What a wealth of presentations at CSSHE! I learnt about nurturing professional identities, mental health support at Canadian universities, the implications of league tables for the structure of university systems, elite interviewing, the sociology of expectations, quality assurance, immigrant pathways, “alt-ac” (alternative academic) career prospects, the ethics of employing graduate research assistants and much, much more.

One session I found really stimulating was Vanessa Andreotti’s presentation of research undertaken as part of a cross-national ethical internationalism in higher education (EIHE) project. I loved how they’d used social cartography, a visual technique to represent multiple ways of seeing and knowing. I thought it was ingenious to use social cartography not just for the research but amongst the team to map out their own perspectives. This is a really innovative way of working with discomfort and dissonance.

2. Sharing what I’ve been doing


Me in action (my hands are very demonstrative!)

I gave two presentations at this conference, one (pictured) on connections between universities’ histories and their contemporary engagement with their local communities, the other with my supervisor on our recent research project investigating the public policy framework on international students in four countries.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about these projects, to share what’s been in my head these past months and see what others think about what I’ve got to say.


3. Becoming a better writer and thinker


Writing your “tiny text” aka abstract… your ten minutes start now…

Just before the CSSHE conference, there was a full day of sessions for graduate students covering important topics from teaching to publishing, and surviving your PhD along the way. George Veletsianos‘ use of memes made the somewhat more serious topic of crafting your research agenda that much more palatable!

This set of topics were substantiated by Congress-wide sessions on skills development, such as “How to write that journal article in seven days” – the room was understandably packed for that one. Here I would particularly highlight the wealth of contributions made by The Thesis Whisperer, also known as Dr Inger Mewburn. What a privilege to make a 3D connection after following her blog for so many years!

PS For those of you who were not at the journal article writing session, the title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at trying out one of Hartley’s “12 types of title” that Inger talked about. Category: definitely a bid for attention of some sort!

4. Random encounters

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Deanna Rexe skilfully employing historical images to illustrate interview methods

Of course, these meetings are not entirely random when you start off in a conference of other researchers… But within that frame, I talked to and swapped ideas with some fascinating folk. Critical race theory? Governance in Kazakhstan? Employing photos from the Calgary stampede to illustrate methods? Yes to all of them.

Best of all was the five minutes spent talking to the people sitting next to me at Inger Mewburn’s journal article session. I don’t know who they are or what they research, but they offered me a couple of incredibly useful insights for an article I’m working on at the moment that will help me substantially improve it.

5. Building virtual communities


Canadian humour on the #congressh Twitter stream

As well as the face-to-face encounters, there was a great buzz on the CSSHE and Congress Twitter hashtags. I believe we were even “Trending in Calgary” at one point (though I’m not sure what the competition is…).

As well as being able to share images and soundbites with colleagues not at the conference, it was exciting to see what other people were doing and thinking. And also indulge in some of the less serious commentary, as the picture accompanying this point shows…

6. Dreaming up hashtag projects

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A candidate image for the (already in existence) #refreshmentswillbeprovided hashtag

Speaking of Twitter, and inspired by Inger Mewburn’s #phdemotions project, we had a lot of fun thinking up new hashtags that might be popular. OK, I know hashtags aren’t going to save or change the world, but there is a little bit more to this than just photos of food.

Using and sharing hashtags is another way to bring people together, which for PhD students working by themselves and possibly not even on campus very much can be an easy and lighthearted way to connect with others and overcome feelings of isolation. And if you’re into ed tech research, it offers a mine of potential data to play with! See, I told you this wasn’t all (totally) irreverent…

7. The Mayor of Calgary’s purple shoes

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Look carefully at that footwear

Being at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities meant not just sharing space with 8,000 other delegates but the chance to attend some cross-disciplinary lectures.

Hence the chance to hear Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary and something of a local legend. He is a great storyteller. And he wears purple shoes.


8. The vibe in Calgary

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Can you bear it, Calgary? Bear made of felt roses, Glenbow Museum.

Canadians are generally pretty friendly people, and the friendliest Canadians I’ve met (so far, at least) can be found in Calgary. The University’s volunteers stood out in rain and sun to help conference delegates; members of the public we spoke to downtown were similarly happy to assist. I even heard a bus driver apologise to a passenger that she couldn’t taken him where he needed to go!

I was also very taken by the University’s speedy and holistic response to supporting evacuees from the devastating fires further north in Fort McMurray. As well as housing 1,400 people (and countless pets) on campus, their sports department is organising courses for children, their food services team are packing lunches every day, and their nursing and social work faculty and students are providing support for physical and mental health needs. Oh and the vet students are getting some hands on experience with all those pets!

9. Marvelling at the campus

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Looking up, or: how to present concrete in novel ways

I do love a good 20th century modernist/brutalist building, especially if there’s exposed concrete or Soviet-esque public art (see David Trilling’s photos or my own from Kyrgyzstan) involved… So I very much enjoyed indulging my passion for buildings at the University of Calgary.

PS Before anyone from Calgary writes in to complain, I should point out that they also have some delicious new builds on campus as well.

PPS This might well be where my next hashtag project is headed…

10. Touching at the edges of something bigger

Back from the ridiculous to the sublime with this last point.

Every now and then, during a presentation, in a conversation or at a lecture, there was a spark of something touching on some of the sector’s big questions: What is higher education for? What is our role in societies? Where do we go from here?

Rightly, nobody was offering easy answers – these are huge philosophical and practical questions – but it was exciting to sense the atmosphere and think that we have all, in our very different ways, taken on responsibility for breaking down those questions and looking for ways forward.

Higher education in the high mountains of Central Asia


Regular blog readers will know that I am passionate about higher education and about Central Asia. You may also know that I have been following the trajectory of some of the region’s newest institutions with great interest, in order to better understand the motivations behind the creation of these universities and to observe what these institutions mean for the people who are directly affected by them (through being students, faculty or staff there) or those with more indirect connections (local communities, employers, families of students etc). How do these universities change the societies around them? How do the societies around them change the institutions?

One project I have a particular attachment to is the University of Central Asia (UCA), which I first learned about in the early 2000s when I worked in Tajikistan for a path-breaking project that has now become linked to UCA. After an arduous journey – which is still only just beginning – UCA will admit its very first undergraduate students this autumn/fall and the buzz around it is steadily growing. The idea behind the university is to bring high quality higher education to three remote and mountainous regions in three countries of Central Asia: Tekeli in Kazakhstan, Naryn in Kyrgyzstan, and Khorog in Tajikistan. Whilst the mountains tell much of the story, there is also an undercurrent of social and economic justice: this is also about bringing three diverse but neighbouring states together and about creating opportunities for these regions and the states they are in to prosper in the 21st century.

In this post I would like to share a recent lecture by Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, UCA Board Executive Committee Executive Chair, given in London to share the university’s vision. The webcast of the lecture is below. If you enjoy that (or don’t have time to watch it in full), take a look at this 5 minute BBC news story and UCA’s photo reportage of the lecture.

We need to find opportunities, and that comes out of the intellectual application of minds, creating research and fostering socio-economic development of Central Asia’s mountain based societies, and helping societies preserve and draw upon their rich cultural heritage.

Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, May 2016