From where I sit - New hopes raise old questions

December 11, 2008

When the creation of a university for 5,000 students makes headlines in an area of the world where 90 per cent of the billion-strong population do not have access to higher education, cynics must wonder what all the fuss is about.

The extensive - and positive - media coverage of the Indian Cabinet's approval, on 31 October, of a new South Asian University therefore requires explanation. Its powerful proponent, Manmohan Singh, happens to be India's Prime Minister and a former academic.

But the unusual character of the university is another reason for the headlines. This will not be a national university, but a transnational institution set up by the eight member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

SAARC was founded some 23 years ago, making it 18 years younger than the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and eight years older than the European Union. Yet this must be the only regional grouping in which governments have come together to create a university.

Its objectives are fundamentally different from those of "normal" universities. While their founding charters focus on the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, this university seeks to strengthen the South Asian identity. It is not that a liberal and humane education does not figure in its objectives - it does. It is just that advancing a sense of South Asian community is more crucial.

This is not unexpected. South Asian nations share geographies and histories - but also a legacy of conflict and war. But as the region reels from the terror attacks in Mumbai, can education encourage Pakistan and India, for example, to stop seeing each other as the enemy, or indeed mitigate fears that India usually bullies its neighbours?

And, as sceptical observers of Indian higher education ask, what type of curriculums would help promote regional peace and security? And why should these objectives be likely to succeed when governments in South Asia have usually proved themselves to be champions of low-grade education?

Strangely, no media sceptics seem to be bothered about such questions. What is more surprising is that while the South Asian University aims to be different from standard universities, nothing is known about its curriculums.

There is a host of recommendations in the almost 40-page Future Course of Action charted by its steering committee, the body that is overseeing its birth, but none of them concerns its academic programmes.

But those who have bothered to look beyond the hype will have noticed that the mechanism for creating the new university is, to an unnerving extent, an imitation of old structures. This was evident some months ago when a retired vice-chancellor was appointed as its chief executive officer.

Plum positions in India are, after all, known to be the roosting places of retired bureaucrats and ageing academics. The fact that the bulk of the steering committee's recommendations on the Future Course of Action show no sense of academic direction - instead it sets out in minute detail salaries, perks and compensation packages for the university's CEO, experts, consultants - reinforces these fears.

If the idea is to create a new kind of university of excellence, a necessary first step would be to ensure that the South Asian University's creation does not become stymied by the old model of bureaucratic management that has succeeded in spawning substandard universities.

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