Which is then,
Completed by others.
– Bodhisatwa in Adhoora-Poora
|Photo: Bilash Rai|
Complexities of a dream scheme begin to unfold as soon as its realisation appears imminent. As long as a South Asian University (SAU) was only an aspiration, it was easy to talk about it in idealistic terms. But now that it has a website, a ‘chief executive officer’ and 100 acres of prime land near Mehrauli in New Delhi, the shape that the institution may take has started to create yearnings and fresh desires. SAU was first envisioned as something of a descendent of the Taxila, Nalanda or Sompura centres of learning in ancient India. What finally emerges from ongoing exercises, it seems, will be little more than a hoped-for ‘new, improved’ form of various universities that dot the landscape.
The hope was that a Southasian university would pave the way for the creation of a community of scholars and academics that would see the region as one entity consisting of many states and nationalities, and share its collective heritage and knowledge with the rest of the world. The fear now is that SAU will turn out to be no more than an intergovernmental body like its parent institution, the SAARC. At least that is the way it appears to be headed, with multinational taskforces discussing the curriculum, governance, infrastructure and business plan of the university, expected to be partially operational from next year. The 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka appropriated the idea of a SAU in December 2005, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tabled a conceptual proposal. It was then formalised with a consensual decision at the 14th Summit in New Delhi, from where the Indian government took it upon itself to see the project through. Consultants were assigned, officers appointed and an initial budget allotted. Perceived as a prestige project and the brainchild of the prime minister, the South Block bureaucracy marshalled its considerable resources to see the scheme through in double-quick time.
In keeping with the tradition of not stepping on anybody’s toes, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was correct to a fault while laying the foundation stone of the university in the presence of diplomats from member countries of the SAARC in May 2008. “This moment, which has the potential of deeply influencing the collective future of Southasia, represents also the collective will of Southasia’s leaders to pursue projects aimed at promoting harmony among the future generations of this region,” Mukherjee gushed at the dedication ceremony. But at best, political correctness can build nothing more than world-class training institutes. More is required of a university before it earns the right to be called one.
Doing things right
Defined as a ‘project’, no effort has been spared to make the idea of the SAU as sophisticated as possible. Gowhar Rizvi, an academic manager who has built a formidable reputation for efficiency and effectiveness by his association with the Asia Foundation and Harvard University, prepared the concept note. The CEO of SAU is G K Chaddha, a member of Prime Minister Singh’s Economic Advisory Council and a former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. From professionals of their stature, nobody expects anything less than world-class.
Planned to be set up on the lines of the American Ivy League universities, SAU discussion papers bristle with management-speak: infrastructure cost, institutional cost, operating cost, public-private partnership, participatory approaches and so on. The logical extension of such a line of thinking would be what are called user fees, fundraising and cost recovery in development-speak. If this is what ‘institution of excellence’ means, does Southasia really need one more university, when existing elite academies of member countries can easily serve the purpose by admitting students from the region and exchanging faculty on a regular basis?
That is a ‘doing the right thing’ kind of question, however, that only leaders can address. At the moment, the assignment for professionals is to envisage a sustainable – in the economic rather than academic sense of the term – institution. In order to ensure financial viability, courses to match the market demand are at the top of the agenda. Peace studies, information technology, biotechnology, globalisation …. To fill in the blanks, just take a look at the flier of any private university of the region. Another consideration is that no multi-government taskforce can afford to ignore the sensibilities of the SAARC member states. So even if the central campus is to be located in the Indian capital, Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Kathmandu will have to have affiliates to make sure that they do not feel slighted. Kabul, Male and Thimphu too will stake their claims later. In the end, SAU may end up as an affiliation and degree-dispensing institution, rather than a centre of learning devoted to the tiring, thankless and sometimes futile task of seeking ‘knowledge’.
In any business model for the building of a marketable institution, site selection is of utmost importance. Even though the Internet has slightly modified marketing guru Philip Kotler’s famous observation that the three most important factors of successful retailing are ‘location, location, location’, the site remains central to the idea of a centre of learning. The only difference is that a lane with heavy traffic is more suitable for businesses while the search of wisdom requires a certain degree of distance, detachment and an indefinable sense of solitude. Unless the express purpose of an institution is to produce those aspiring to become power elites, as in case of Jawaharlal Nehru University (which was established for “the study of principles of national integration, social justice, secularism, and democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach in solving the society’s complex problems”, which was an academic way of saying that it is meant to be a nursery for the administrative and political elite), it makes little sense to put the SAU at the heart of the National Capital Region of India. Even more bizarre is the pride in the suggestion that land prices in the areas cost “upwards of two lakhs per square yard”. Expensive premises do not ensure better ‘education’ in any way.
And the right things
Local, national or regional universities are so called based on their funding mechanism, admission strictures and administrative structure. Those who pay for the university set the agenda for the institution. But in essence, a university is by definition universal. Unlike schools, training centres or other educational enterprises, universities are expected to extend the boundary of knowledge through teaching, research, contemplation, deliberation and discovery. Such exercises are expensive, frustrating and time consuming. That is perhaps one of the reasons why so little original work is being done at the universities in Third World countries, where problems of the day force these institutions to concentrate on training functions. Land-grant universities of the West have more freedom, but most private universities there too have to pay closer attention to market realities than to existential issues facing humanity.
A pooling of the resources of Southasian governments should have resulted in the establishment of an institution able to pursue subjects other universities find un-renumerative, uninteresting or plain unfashionable, especially in the social sciences and liberal arts. It should also have focused on teaching and researching the pure sciences, areas vital to the survival of applied science and technology but which individual governments of the region find increasingly hard to fund. But listening in on a recent discussion on SAU, it became clear that, from CEO on down to the advisors and consultants everywhere, the planners have none of this type of vision.
It is the time for election-year manna from New Delhi, and India will soon have 15 new central universities, 12 of them in states that currently do not have any. Perhaps these institutions could be assigned to do what the SAU seems unlikely to do – pursue knowledge for its own sake rather than for the mass production of marketable skills. An Asian-Indian University is being talked about at Nalanda in Bihar, to keep the spirit of the place alive. A Trans-Himalayan University also seems to be in the pipeline, with the International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu taking the initiative. SAU is undoubtedly a bold beginning, but the need to think beyond it will remain.
It is said that when the quality of scholarship at Nalanda University began to decline, King Dharmapala established another university at Vikramsila in the 8th century AD to energise the continuous search of knowledge. Southasia does not need to wait to see how the SAU turns out; if its concept note is anything to go by, we should already be looking elsewhere.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).