Educating A Region

Dr. Sameer Mani Dixit shares his experiences and  his thoughts on South Asian University in this first hand account after spending some time at the university as a Guest Faculty


South Asia continues to be a region of scientific and educational disparity. While India is starting to make substantial in roads into the science and technology arena, the same is not true for the rest of the region. In terms of science and technology education, there is still quite a difference in the quality of and access to education among countries of the region. Nepal sadly lags behind in both sectors. In order for South Asia as a whole to compete in the global science and technology area, this type of discrepancy must be reduced, if not removed entirely.
The Saarc Charter states that member countries will work together in science and technology and yet, very little concrete evidence of this has been observed to date. Granted, each country in the region needs to promote science and technology education within itself, but there is still a common cause that all universities in the region need to focus on—promoting the region as one strong power in science and technology. But we must also accept that this is easier said than done, as every nation will obviously promote its own internal institutions first. Therefore, the solution is obvious—build a university that is common to the region and will work for the greater benefit of South Asia.

A regional mix
It was through this line of thinking that South Asian University (SAU) was born in 2008, with a vision to empower the region with quality education, including that of science and technology. The Government of India has provided space in Akbar Bhawan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, to temporarily house SAU.
I spent two October weeks at SAU, also sometimes called the Saarc University, as an invited visiting faculty member in the Department of Life Sciences and Biotechnology, where I lectured Masters and PhD students in Infectious Disease Surveillance. It was an experience of a different kind and had a unique regional feel to it. Regional because, as a visiting faculty at this university, I was one of at least six different nationalities represented in various faculties (currently, about 12 percent of the faculty is from countries other than India). Regional also because in my class of 26, there were six South Asian students, representing Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Never in my life had I taught and interacted with individuals from almost all countries representing the Saarc region. Needless to say, it was a truly rewarding experience.
During my stay at SAU, not only did I interact with students from Nepal, but also had detailed interactions with faculty in the department I was visiting. Currently, of the total 437 students (366 in Masters-level programmes and 71 in PhD programmes) at SAU, approximately 10 percent is from Nepal and the rest in various proportions from all Saarc countries. The Nepali students I interacted with felt very positively about the university and how it was contributing to promoting their educational requirements. It was a matter of pride to learn that the SAU Gold Medal for Biotechnology in 2013 was awarded to a Nepali student. As with any academic institutions, there were few grievances from the students towards the university. However, I personally felt that the university wanted to reach out to students and was open to their suggestions for improvement.
Being a regional institution, the university has certain additional responsibilities, and a major one is ensuring that regional politics do not become an impediment to education. In order to ensure this, SAU appears to have laid out a zero tolerance approach to political activities on its premises. This is very necessary, since regional cooperation in an educational institution is bound to be affected if petty politics are allowed to continue unabated.

Similar settings
SAU has a setting similar to most universities in the region and the world. It has as qualified faculty members as can be found in any good university. It has a student population that is busy with academics and research, just like in any other university. It has laboratories, classrooms, and libraries comparable to what a good university should have. However, what makes SAU unique is that it has achieved all this in just over four years of inception. SAU has had to cope with the requirements of students representing not just various cultures and customs but also eight different nationalities. SAU has been able to expand its faculty and include a combination of young and senior academicians from all eight Saarc member nations. Any academic institution with students representing just one country has enough on its plate. SAU, thus, has a very big responsibility of imparting knowledge at a competitive level to students from eight different countries. SAU is fast developing as a postgraduate university with almost every international student enrolled having access to some form of scholarship for study.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Saarc region needs an academic institution of SAU’s stature, focussed on Saarc more so than on a specific country. While SAU is not just for science and technology, it does have a major role in ensuring that it promotes these fields in the region. SAU currently boasts five departments—Biotechnology, Mathematics and Computer Sciences, Legal Studies, Economics, and Sociology. The SAU Life Sciences and Biotechnology faculty is currently led by Professor Rajiv Saxena, who used to be Dean of the Biotechnology Department at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a reputed university in India.
Many faculty members in this Department are Indian but then, there are those from Nepal and Bangladesh, thereby providing the Department with input from three countries. In this scenario, research and academics would be streamlined to cater not just to the host country, as would be expected of most universities in India, but rather, to the South Asian region as a whole. Countries in this region have a lot to learn from each other and to help each other in education. SAU can be a bridge that can facilitate this interaction between countries that are already ahead and those that are lagging behind. This is a big responsibility.

Some way to go
However, SAU still has a long way to go before it is recognised as a top university in the region. The current approach and preparations by this university to develop its image as a regional university is fast gaining momentum. A new Institute of South Asian Studies, planned under SAU to act as a regional think-tank seeking solutions to common problems faced by all Saarc countries, is something the region can look forward to. The Government of India, as the host country, has provided a 100-acre plot of land in South Delhi free of cost to build the SAU campus. In addition, the Indian government has also committed to meet all capital costs incurred in building the university campus and providing furnishing and equipment.
The Governing Board of SAU has constituted an Inter-Governmental Committee to start planning for the University’s Phase II (2017 to 2021). Furthermore, SAU has recently advertised the intake of more faculty members from different Saarc countries in various departments and has continued to make efforts to attract a continuous flow of visiting senior-level faculty. There is no doubt that with all these activities and the energy shown by its leadership, supported by academicians, politicians, and all well-wishers of Saarc nations, SAU is well on its way to being what it needs to be—Saarc’s University.