Prashant K. Nanda & Elizabeth Roche
New Delhi: It was conceived as an institution with world-class facilities that would enable the best and brightest of students from the eight member-states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) to appreciate each other’s national perspectives and, at the same time, promote a regional consciousness.
Yet, seven years after it was proposed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and in the third year of its existence, the South Asian University (SAU) has found it difficult to gain acceptance among students and is struggling with infrastructure bottlenecks.
The New Delhi-based SAU offered admission to 542 students in 2011 and only 156— 81 of them from India and none from Bhutan—joined, according to the university’s annual report for 2010 and 2011, available on its website. In 2010, 28 students from other Saarc countries were offered seats and only 14 accepted them.
A portion of the land in south Delhi set apart for the SAU campus is mired in legal problems, and in the last two years less than 10% of the budget for the initial phase (2010-14) has been spent. And now a parliamentary report has rapped the government for hurriedly “launching the university without looking into the standards and quality”.
A government official with knowledge of the project said the Indian government is committed to bearing 100% of the capital cost for the establishment of the university. In 2010-14, it had budgeted for spending $239.93 million (around Rs.1,332 crore) besides providing 100 acres of land.
“So far, India has spent $9.85 million on the establishment of the university,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “Major items of expenditure are to be incurred over the course of this year and next year.”
The university is now running from two make-shift facilities—one in Jawaharlal Nehru University and the other in Akbar Bhavan, a former Indian Tourism Department Hotel converted into a government office complex. The run-down Centaur hotel is doubling up as hostel for outside students; a portion of Akbar Bhawan has started housing students as well.
Still, university president G.K. Chadha claims he is “hugely satisfied” with the progress of the institution given that it has been in existence for less than three years while conceding that it’s facing issues relating to research and development on the academic front. “A university cannot come up overnight,” Chadha said. “We are just two-and-a-half years old.”
SAU offers eight master’s degree programmes in development economics, computer science, applied mathematics, biotechnology, international relations, sociology, law and computer applications. Students pay a fee of $440 per semester.
The parliamentary standing committee on external affairs said in a 30 August report that the university had been “envisaged as an institution of academic and intellectual engagement to forge a sense of South Asian consciousness in the future generation”.
The committee, however, thought the project had been launched in a hurry. It was “dismayed to note that Saarc University was yet to have its own campus, hostel and a standardized curricula in place, library and books for issuance to students” and was dissatisfied with the pace of construction of the university.
Saarc groups Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Chadha said civic agencies tend to take their time in giving various clearances related to campus development which is beyond his control. Student enrolment, however, has improved this time, he said. Ten per cent of the seats have been set aside for students outside the Saarc region and “I don’t think that we will get those students for next four-five years,” Chadha said.
“People want to see you, test you and then feel satisfied about you,” he said.
An education expert, who declined to be named, said that in the last four years the Central government had been in a rush to open several higher new educational institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) without sufficient planning.
“Like these institutes, South Asian University too suffers from government’s poor planning and foresight,” the expert said. “But the sad part is that this institute with strategic importance and international nature is even worse off and needs urgent attention.”
Srinivasan T., a student of SAU from Tamil Nadu, said inadequate library and hostel facilities were issues. He added: “I am not satisfied but I am not complaining too. We understand that it’s a new university and in five to six years it will be of international importance.”
The diversity of the classrooms make up for some of the inadequacies. “We have students from all eight countries in the region and when we discuss a topic in the classroom, we get several perspectives on it. It’s really good,” said Srinivasan.