Dr Kavita A. Sharma, is the President, South Asian University (SAU), an international university in New Delhi established by the eight member nations of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Classes began from the academic year 2010 and the first SAU Convocation was held on 11 June 2016. The establishment of such a university was proposed by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka in November 2005. The objective of SAU is to provide world-class facilities and professional faculty to students and researchers from SAARC countries.
The "Inter-governmental Agreement for the Establishment of the South Asian University" was signed at the 14th SAARC Summit. SAARC member states decided that the university be established in India. SAU degrees are recognised by all SAARC countries. India provides approximately 79 percent of the total cost of the full establishment of SAU.
In conversation with IR&A's Rashmi Saksena(RS), Dr Kavita Sharma (KS) said she is working overtime to oversee the early construction of SAU's new campus. She has been a recipient of Indo Canadian Shastri Fellowships twice and the Fulbright Fellowship New Century Scholar (2007-08) for research on 'Higher Education in the 21st Century.' She taught at Hindu College, Delhi University for 37 years and was also its Principal for ten years (1998-2008).
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: The South Asian University is an experiment and an important aspect of India’s foreign policy. What is the objective for which it was established?
KS: The mandate of the SAU, as set out in the Agreement of the SAARC member states under which SAU has been established, envisages that the programmes of studies at this University should:
– enhance learning in the South Asian community that promotes an understanding of one another's perspectives and strengthen regional consciousness;
– provide liberal and humane education to the brightest and the most dedicated students of South Asia so that a new class of quality leadership is nurtured;
– enhance capacity building of the South Asian Nations in science, technology and other areas of higher learning vital for improving their quality of life such as information technology, biotechnology and management sciences, etc.
Q: SAU is among those regional initiatives that have shown steady progress. What do you think are the reasons behind this success?
KS: It is an instance of regional cooperation for sure, but what SAU has managed to instil more than anything else a collective sense of belonging. Students have created a sense of bonding over a variety of issues. It is interesting to witness cooperation between students; disagreements have not been many. In short, there has been a transformation and change of mind that students have taken back home and applied in their own contexts.
Q: How has the University been promoting regional cooperation?
KS: The syllabi of the University, to begin with, have been structured in a way that promotes regional understanding. Through its syllabus, SAU has ensured that while country-specific issues are understood and discussed, it also consciously promotes a dialogue on concerns that are essentially cross-cutting. For instance, the issues of gender, poverty, development are experienced by all the eight countries alike, and all of these have fostered empathy and ensured collective discussion.
Q: So the University has managed to create little ambassadors of their countries?
KS: Ambassadors of regional thinking, I would say.
Q: What makes teaching different and unique at SAU?
KS: The pedagogy followed at this University is in itself very unique and different. SAU has been a fairly idealistic and a brave experiment, and we have not fared too badly at that. We have a specific course that is taught to all the students of the University – 'Introduction to South Asia'. In this all the departments are expected to tailor their modules to reflect on the region from their perspectives – like the Computer Sciences department discusses advances in ICT in the eight South Asian countries; the Math department talks about South Asian traditions, and the like. We are planning to make this into a compulsory credit course and cross-disciplinary so that a student from the Legal Studies department, for instance, will be required to do a course in a discipline different from hers.
Q: Are the teachers oriented in a specific way to handle the diversity in the classroom?
KS: Faculties in SAU are led by academics who are experienced teachers. There are professors from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka teaching in different departments in the University. Students make teachers adapt to the diversity in the classroom. Student feedbacks at the end of each semester have become the norm. Cautious, careful and empathetic thinking has been a by-product of teaching at SAU.
Q: SAU is an important part of regional integration; it must have thrown some challenges. What were some of the major challenges you faced in your tenure so far and how did you tide over them?
KS: People from eight different South Asian countries, which are not necessarily on the same page politically, makes it challenging for us to run this experiment smoothly. Although there have been no issues as such, but one has to be conscious to the sensitivities and sensibilities of all.
Q: This must be rough going since there is no model to fall back on.
KS: True. We are generating our own model!
Q: What are SAU's plans for 2017?
KS: To get the infrastructure ready in time. SAU is currently functioning on a temporary basis from Akbar Bhavan campus in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. We had to turn down many students due to lack of space. So, getting up the University buildings at our new campus is my priority right now. Eventually the University has to move in to its 100 acre campus in Maidan Garhi, South Delhi where the construction is going on.
You see, the post of the President is taken-up on rotational basis. The one to follow me will be from Maldives and we still have many issues related to land acquisition to deal with. So, my number one priority is to get the 12 buildings which are currently under construction completely ready for use.
We are planning to introduce under-graduate courses in 2020 to create our own catchment of post-graduate students. The Institute for South Asian Studies and Science Departments are what we are focusing on right now.
The University now offers post-graduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines that include Development Economics, Computer Science, Biotechnology, Mathematics, Sociology, International Relations and Law. It will ultimately have 11 post-graduate faculties and a faculty of undergraduate studies. SAU attracts students from all member nations and when it runs at full capacity the main campus of SAU in New Delhi will cater to nearly 7,000 students and have an international faculty, with linked campuses in other South Asian countries.
We are even planning to celebrate our own SAU day on March 7. This will be an addition to the SAARC Charter Day we celebrate on December 8.
( Transcipted and researched by Chayanika Saxena)