Friday, 2 March 2007

South Asian University: Organisation and Planning

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed

The idea of a South Asian University caught the imagination of the people of this region ever since it was mooted some 15 years back, incidentally at a conference organised by the International Studies Association, Bangladesh in Dhaka. The idea got reenergised when Dr Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, committed India to the establishment of a university of this kind in the last SAARC Summit in Dhaka. Since the idea is very much on and is likely to be on the agenda in the next SAARC Summit in Delhi, there is a need to concretise some of the critical issues related to the establishment of such a university. A meeting, presided by Professor Emajuddin Ahamed and attended by educationists, scholars, government and military officials, on February 13 at the Asiatic Society, Dhaka, deliberated and highlighted the following issues:
Firstly, location. South Asian University by definition cannot be placed in one location or even in one country. There has to be a sense of ownership on the part of all the SAARC member-states if it is to succeed and become meaningful in reorienting and revitalising the education of this region. In this light, issue-based faculties spread throughout the region and based on the expertise and interest of the sponsoring country is deemed credible and certainly the most rational option. To provide some examples and in the light of the proven expertise of the respective countries, the faculty of water management could be located in Kathmandu, the faculty of poverty alleviation and micro-credit could be located in Dhaka, the faculty of electronics and telecommunications could be located in Bangalore, the faculty of oceanic resources could be located either in Colombo or Male, the faculty of comparative religion could be located in Karachi, and so on. All these faculties would then be linked to a network and collectively called South Asian University. Furthermore, in terms of student admission, a faculty would be allowed to enrol 40 per cent of the students from the country where it is located; the rest must come from other South Asian countries. In a similar vein, 60 per cent of the faculty members would be from the country where the faculty is located while the rest 40 per cent would be from outside the country. This would not only deepen the ‘sense of ownership’ on the part of the member-state sponsoring the faculty but would also strengthen the regional bonding amongst the students of South Asia.
Secondly, the registrar’s office and the visa regime. The need for a registrar’s office for coordinating the activities of all the faculties of South Asian University cannot be minimised, particularly at the initial stage of its development. Once the faculties of South Asian University start functioning in different countries of South Asia, a sub-registrar’s office could be established within the office premise of each faculty to continue the coordination. At the initial stage, the sole consideration for housing the registrar’s office ought to be for the reason of having the most convenient visa regime. Given that both Nepal and Sri Lanka have successfully put into practice the provision of having on-arrival visa for the citizens of all the South Asian countries, the registrar’s office may be housed in either Kathmandu or Colombo to get the balls rolling. A flexible visa regime is essential for the proper functioning of South Asian University.
Thirdly, the teaching community and the nurturing of South Asian mind. The SAARC Social Charter in Article V champions the cause of ‘regional consciousness’, implying thereby the lack of it, thanks to the post-1947/post-1971 education policy practised by the member-states. Creative efforts therefore ought to be given in fostering ‘South Asian mind,’ without which the faculty members would remain ill-equipped in fulfilling the goals of South Asian University. Keeping this issue in mind, the university must first begin with post-graduate training courses and run them for at least 3-4 years before entering into the business of providing undergraduate/post-graduate degrees’. At the same time, the university must initiate post-graduate research, mainly with the purpose of cementing South Asian scholars and creating space for the latter to work collectively on issues critical to South Asia. Speakers also opined in favour of continuing post-graduate degree and research for a considerable number of years before opting for undergraduate degrees.
Fourthly, curricula. Curriculum building is a painful task and cannot be done overnight. One good example is the Franco-German Curriculum Board that began working immediately after World War II, mainly with the purpose of getting rid of each other’s hate literature and sending young bright school students to live with a host family across the border. The European community is now reaping benefits from an exercise initiated some 60 years back. Also noteworthy is the initiative undertaken in 1996 following a Ford Foundation grant to the idea of South Asian University when three South Asians – Ashis Nandy of Indian, Ajaya Dixit of Nepal and Imtiaz Ahmed of Bangladesh – got together to work on the faculty of water management. One direct outcome was the publication of a ‘South Asian Manifesto on the Politics and Knowledge of Water’. The latter was a challenging and time-consuming task, to say the least, mainly because each of the scholars had to overcome their respective ‘nationalist prejudices’ and think from a ‘South Asian’ standpoint. A regional water forum, namely SaciWaters, whose secretariat is now based in Hyderabad, has made good use of the Manifesto. Keeping this experience in mind, there ought to be creative and sustaining efforts in organising the curricula and any suggestion that the current set of curricula found in different universities across the region are good enough for South Asian University ought to be ruled out. This is true for all kinds of disciplines, related to both hard and soft sciences.
Fifthly, public-private partnership. This is as much an issue of fund creation as it is of the role of existing public and private universities. Funds for the South Asian University could be collected from three sources. One, state funds. This could be based on demographic or GDP calculations. A country could of course provide funds over and above such calculations without strings attached to it or receiving special attention. Two, domestic private sources. Some form of credits could be given to individual endowments, again without the latter having any discretion as to how the funds would be utilised. And three, international donors, both private and governmental. One has to be careful in receiving such funds, lest the latter start putting their ‘experts’ and dictating the terms of reference for utilising such funds. Since the goal of South Asian University is qualitatively different from the established universities there is a critical need for preserving its autonomy and independence from governmental, private and international donor influences and interventions. Existing public and private universities, however, could play a formidable role in the organisation and planning of South Asian University, particularly at the initial stage of its development. In fact, the existing universities (both public and private) could sponsor one of the proposed faculties of South Asian University in the light of their known resources, both human and material. They could even house the training workshops and the first few batches of students, including providing faculty members, without, of course, having a say in the running of the faculty. Once the faculty has reached a certain stage of development, it can contemplate in having its own ‘campus’. This would certainly reduce the initial cost of establishing the various faculties under South Asian University.
Finally, library. Modernity could not have come about without the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the first public library in modern times. Similarly, the libraries at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the MIT have made what the United States is all about in this century. South Asian Library, with branches having thematic specialisation and spread throughout the region, could connect South Asians on a scale beyond comprehension. South Asian scholarship would at once cease to suffer from want of knowledge. Since the building of a fresh library would require funds on a scale beyond the capacity of South Asian governments, there is certainly a need to pull resources of the existing libraries spread throughout the region. Thematic specialisation could be built on the existing facilities and a network could be developed under the banner of South Asian Library. The latter would cater to the students and researchers of South Asian University while benefiting other existing universities as well. This is a region of more than a billion people and there should not be a paucity of newer networks with imagination and insights all working on a regional yet decentralised scale. Let us keep our dreams alive!
Professor Imtiaz Ahmed teaches international relations at Dhaka University and can be reached at:
(Courtesy: The Daily New Age, March 2, 2007)

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