South Asian University juggles cooperation and education

The South Asian University, or SAU, hopes to promote a shared understanding of the region, and pool resources and academics for research. With its main campus in New Delhi, it will eventually have linked campuses in other South Asian countries.

But the ambition of SAU to become a centre for academic excellence in the region is facing huge challenges in its third year of existence, as it tries to implement both educational and regional cooperation aims.

In particular, the institution faces problems with permanent premises, how it should be managed and balancing the recruitment of students and academics from across the region’s eight countries.

After the idea of a university was announced by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh at a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka in 2005, a taskforce was set up made up of representatives of each member country: Afghanistan Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Its role was to devise the university curriculum, governance, infrastructure and business plan. But there has been a disconnect between the academic community and the governments involved, say experts, and the university may not be functioning as well as SAARC idealists would like.

Damning parliamentary report

This was highlighted by a parliamentary standing committee report on external affairs presented to India’s Lok Sabha – the lower house of parliament – in May.

The committee said it was “dismayed” that the university was yet to have its own campus, student hostel or standardised curriculum. And in another damning criticism, it said that the curriculum did not inspire a “sense of South Asian consciousness”.

SAU is currently running from a temporary facility in Akbar Bhavan, a former hotel converted into a government office complex. A portion of Akbar Bhavan has been turned into student housing.

A Nepalese architecture firm was selected to design the campus master plan, which has been submitted to local authorities for approval. “The process of approval is inherently long, but we hope to start the construction of the campus by early 2013,” said the SAU president, GK Chadha, responding to the parliamentary committee’s concerns.

Dual educational and political aims

Criticisms about the curriculum are more difficult to address, and in part are related to the project’s dual educational and political cooperation aims.

D Suba Chandran, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi think-tank, said prime minister Singh might have planned a South Asian University at the regional level to engage regional leadership. “But it will end up as rhetoric.”

According to Chandran, education has never been a focus of SAARC political cooperation, and he pointed to the track record of individual countries.

“They spend less than 1% of their GDP on education. The academics who run the university will not be able to take one step unless it is agreed and funded by all the SAARC countries and this could prove to be a big handicap,” he told University World News.

The project falls under India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which has little experience with higher education, although it consults the University Grants Commission and the Human Resource Ministry.

It might have been better to start small, Chandran said. “Instead of creating a new university, we should have helped existing universities tie up with each other and encouraged student and faculty exchanges.”

From just three courses in its first year, the university currently offers eight masters degrees: in development economics, international relations, sociology, law, computer science, applied mathematics, biotechnology and computer applications.

Such courses are available at other Indian universities, critics argue, and some of them are not designed in a way that enhances cross-border understanding.

The parliamentary committee said courses relating to heritage, performing arts and major languages of SAARC countries should be introduced as a matter of priority.

“Cultural studies will be a big part of the university but all that will develop over time,” Chadha told University World News. He said there were plans for 12 faculties including art and design, communications and film studies.

From this academic year all students will have to study a compulsory two-credit ‘Introduction to South Asia’ course, he said.

The regional cooperation aspect is something academics have to grapple with constantly. “What does South Asia mean?” asked Professor Sasanka Perera, head of the sociology department at SAU and a Sri Lankan.

Although SAARC has geographical boundaries, there is little sense of South Asia as a region, Perera said, adding that dedicated effort was needed to promote the idea. “If we want a seamless [South Asian] area, then this is not reflected in SAU’s mandate.”

Students are enthusiastic, diverse

Students are more enthusiastic. The chance to interact with students from across South Asia is a big attraction.

“I chose SAU because I like the curriculum. My programme has teachers and students from across South Asia,” said Manoj Dhakal from Nepal, a first-year sociology student who said he also qualified for Jawaharlal Nehru University, a prestigious postgraduate institution in Delhi.

And not everyone is dissatisfied with the courses.

“The faculty is very good and we have an excellent lab where each student gets individual equipment,” said Parul Gupta, a first-year masters student from India studying biotechnology.

But the diverse student body in itself poses problems. In its first year, with a focus on getting started, SAU was not too selective about the students it recruited, leading to concerns about quality.

An entrance exam was instituted from the university’s second year of operation and is held in each of the member countries. But a majority of foreign students have had difficulty following classes in English.

“The academic backgrounds and proficiencies of students coming from various SAARC countries may indeed vary substantially, and this is a challenge,” admitted Chadha.

For example, Afghan students enrolled in the economics masters did not have mathematics at undergraduate level and had been taught in Persian in Afghanistan, explained Partha Sen, an economics professor at SAU.

“We had two different academic levels within the same class of students. Do you lower your standards to accommodate students with a weak academic background or cater to the brighter lot?”

The university has brought in a voluntary remedial English course from this academic year but only 50 students have enrolled.

“A remedial course at this point does not solve the problem entirely,” maintained Perera. He believes students should be given an intensive English course before they join. Teachers should also be allowed to recommend students they feel require English language support.

But there is also a need to work harder to attract top students, particularly as many young people prefer to study in the West rather than at a fledgling institution.

“We have not done enough to spread awareness about SAU in the member states. We need to strengthen our outreach and attract the best young people,” said Perera.

Indians make up the majority of the intake. As of September 2012, of around 320 students, 51 were from Bangladesh, 32 from Nepal, 31 from Afghanistan, 15 from Pakistan and a dozen from Sri Lanka.

Political tensions have an impact

This month SAU announced that it would push forward with a PhD programme starting from next year to research South Asian regional issues, underlining regional cooperation as one of its key roles.

SAU “can be a cementing factor between the South Asian neighbours,” said Salma Malik, a professor of defence and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. An educational institution can “go a long way in promoting regional cooperation and discourse,” she said.

However, political tensions are never far from the surface. Pakistan participated actively in all the taskforces and committees before the university became operational, but is now silent.

“Pakistan was most vociferous when details were being hammered out, including infrastructure, faculty salaries and recruitment rules,” said SAU President Chadha.

SAARC countries have nominated members to the university’s board of governors but not Pakistan, which has also not contributed its share of funds, nor helped SAU conduct entrance exams in the country.

“We have written several letters to the SAARC secretariat but to no avail,” Chadha said, admitting that the reason could be political – India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past 60 years.

More recently, terrorist attacks on Indian territory by Pakistani nationals led to a tightening of the visa regime. But Pakistan wants a special mechanism for students that would bypass India’s strict requirement for police verification.

“By nature home ministries across countries are conservative. They want to control borders and the movement of people across the borders. The borders between India and Pakistan and India and Bangladesh are tightly regulated.

“Given the current environment of mutual distrust, easier visa rules and geographic mobility that a regional university demands will not be a priority among governments,” Suba Chandran said.

A future challenge could lie in the rotation of the leadership of the university among member states.

The SAU rule book states that the first president of the university "shall be nominated by the host country. Subsequent presidents of the university shall be nominated by the respective member states of SAARC on the principle of alphabetical rotation."

India is paying the lion’s share of the university’s setup costs of US$70 million until 2014, including all capital costs. It has also offered 40 hectares (100 acres) of land and will invest a total of US$234 million, including US$34.42 million or half the cost of the US$70 million first phase.

So far, it has spent US$9.85 million on the establishment of the university that will eventually have 7,000 students and 500 faculty members.

Despite the challenges, experts still maintain that the idea of a regional university is excellent. But Chadha said: “We should have been given three years to set up the structure. We are only three years old. It will take time to put systems in place.”