Don's Diary

June 30, 2000


Combination of catching up on piles of reading marked "not urgent", domestic matters put off for weeks; and preparation for a visit to Kyrgyzstan. It is here, in Central Asia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) that Westminster University is working closely with the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University through a Reap project to develop journalism and media programmes (Reap being the Regional Academic Partnership Scheme administered by the British Council).


Three busy hours in my office before going to Heathrow for the flight to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Plenty of time to read up on the country and go over papers for next week's meetings.


Arrive in Bishkek very early in the morning to be met by the rector of KRSU and Tom Ang from Westminster who is leading the Reap project. After a few hours' rest in the residence of the state president's compound as his guest, go for a walk - only to be arrested at gunpoint for straying too close to the president's palace. Thankfully this is resolved once my host arrives to take me to the university.


Spend the evening enjoying Kyrgyz hospitality, including many vodka toasts. Discuss the issues facing the university, its students and academics, and the state of the country after nearly a decade of independence from the Soviet Union. There is much to be done here to improve the economy.


Intensive series of meetings with staff at the university. Talking to students, I discover them to be serious and industrious, making the best of limited technical resources, much of which they have built themselves. One case study was the assembly of a radio station in the university to enable students to develop radio journalism skills. Collaboration with our university is clearly held in high regard, and we discuss possibilities for future developments. Meet with the president of the republic, Askar Akayev - a distinguished physicist and academic from St Petersburg, who has just published an absorbing book on ten years of transition economy interpreted through physics. Enjoy the opening of an exhibition by Tom Ang, of his photography of Central Asia, with much media attention.


Ten-hour flight home creates an opportunity to reflect on the dogged determination of this country to develop its higher education system and the ability to deliver high-quality work with a unit of resource that makes us look very generously funded. Each time I visit similar universities, I am struck by their ingenuity at overcoming problems in the face of a long history of serious under-investment.

Geoffrey Copland is vice-chancellor and rector, University of Westminster.

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