The world's first university devoted to mountain studies is to be set up in one of Central Asia's most remote and rugged regions to focus international academic attention on mountain cultures, environments and economies.
The University of Central Asia, which got the go-ahead last month when the leaders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan signed its founding treaties, will offer unprecedented opportunities for research into the societies and ecosystem of vulnerable and barely explored regions.
Its academic year will run from February to November, partly to avoid the difficulties of winter in the high mountain region.
Backed by the Aga Khan Development Network, the Pounds 70 million campus will be based 2,500m above sea level in Khorog, capital of Tajikistan's Pamir mountain region of Gorno-Badakshan. Running costs for the first two decades are estimated at Pounds 130 million.
Drawing on the experience of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, the AKDN, a private aid agency active in many parts of the world, foresees a staged development of the institution over five years. Practical, vocationally oriented continuous education programmes aimed at the local population will come first, followed by graduate and undergraduate courses.
Students and staff will be attracted from Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and northern Pakistan. People from mountainous regions of China's Xinjiang province, India, Nepal, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus and Turkey will also be encouraged to apply.
Tom Kessinger, the Geneva-based general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, said: "Over the past generation, economies and social development have been democratised. With help from public and private agencies, people around the globe are seeking a path out of poverty. But not everyone has been included in this campaign for development. Mountain communities in general and the 30 million people who inhabit the vast mountain zone at the heart of Eurasia in particular, remain all but neglected."
The idea followed a visit to Tajikistan five years ago by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims. A 12-member international commission found that the ancient mountain communities stood at a historic crossroads, facing the risk of ethnic and civil strife, religious tensions, under-investment in education and health, reckless exploitation of natural resources, erosion of traditional cultures and values, and migration to urban centres in the lowlands.
"Mountain populations experience extremes of poverty and isolation as well as constraints on opportunities and choice," said the Aga Khan in announcing the launch, "but at the same time, they sustain great linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism, and show remarkable resilience in the face of extraordinarily harsh circumstances."
Within a year, thousands of regional people will be offered courses in computer repairs, English, financial management and training for work in NGOs. A masters level programme with a wide, interdisciplinary nature drawing mature students from NGOs, development agencies, oil companies and government agencies with an interest in mountain cultures will be launched within three years.
Student numbers for the two year programme would be set at around 15 to 25 per year, with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, Mr Kessinger said.
An undergraduate programme modelled on American liberal arts courses with an emphasis on the physical, natural and social sciences and humanities of mountain societies would come later. Engineering, biology, ecology, resource management and appropriate business skills would also be key disciplines.
"The focus of the institution makes it different. We need quality, meritocracy and committed people," Mr Kessinger said.
Masters and undergraduate courses will be taught in English - with foundation courses offered to students to bring them up to speed. An "aggressive use" of computers, information technology, the internet and email will be central to the concept of regional focus and international reach.