South Asian University: A Success Story That Can't Be Allowed to Fall Prey to Apathy

An ad by the Ministry of External Affairs, inviting applications from Indians for the post of the SAU president, has triggered controversy.

The South Asian University (SAU) – an international university established in 2010 by the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries – is a unique experiment that demonstrates cooperation in the south Asian region, which is otherwise marred by regional conflicts and differences. 

In a short span of less than a decade, SAU has brought together students from all the eight SAARC countries to study under one roof.

When the university started its operations, only a few hundred students applied. But this number has increased significantly over the years, touching around 7,000 for 180 seats in the various Masters courses in 2019. This increasing number of applicants is testimony to the university’s success, and its academic reputation. 

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The success of any university is generally measured by the performance of its alumni. The SAU alumni are doing very well. Some teach in leading universities in the south Asian region, some have gone abroad for higher studies in prestigious universities like Oxford, Cambridge, European Central University, and so on. Yet others work in leading think tanks, while some are serving their governments and judiciary.    

The mainstay of SAU is its highly qualified faculty who have inspired and motivated students to do well.

SAU has been able to attract talented faculty members who have been trained at leading international and national universities in India and south Asia and have an impeccable research record. SAU faculty members are well known for their research work.  

However, a recent advertisement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) inviting applications for the post of the SAU president from Indian nationals has triggered some controversy.

The university’s rules say “the first President of the University shall be nominated by the host country. Subsequent Presidents…shall be nominated by the respective Member States of SAARC on the principle of alphabetical rotation.”

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The advertisement is thus being seen as an example of Indian hegemony in the south Asian region.

I do not wish to speculate on the reasons for this advertisement.

However, it is a fact that at a time when the SAU campus is still under construction, it might be prudent to have an Indian as the president. Any other SAARC national may find it difficult to deal with various levels of government and regulatory agencies that are needed for the construction of the campus.

Students celebrate at the first South Asian University convocation. Photo: PTI

While the rotational principle for the selection of the president would help cement the university in the academic life of all south Asian nations and not just India, it is more essential that an accomplished academician with an impeccable track record who can take the university to greater heights should lead SAU at this stage.  

In any case, the principle of rotation for the post of president has already been violated when it came to the first and second presidents of SAU – G.K. Chadha and Kavita Sharma are both Indian.

Moreover, the argument that all-important positions in SAU are occupied by Indian nationals is also misleading.

A Sri Lankan national held the position of one of the vice-presidents of SAU for almost three years. Likewise, a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan have held the positions of director finance, a very important administrative post, in the past.

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In the current administration, the position of two deputy registrars, one assistant registrar and assistant director (infrastructure) are held by a Pakistani, a Bhutanese, a Nepali and a Sri Lankan respectively. SAU’s small but useful library is very well managed by a librarian who comes from Bangladesh.

The current dean of the Faculty of Mathematic and Computer Sciences is also from Bangladesh. Of course, SAU needs to do more to have greater diversity in its faculty and staff.  

It is also a fact that India is the biggest financial contributor in running SAU.

It is bearing 100% of the cost for the construction of the SAU campus and has contributed more than 50% of the university’s operating expenses. It has been learnt that for the current funding round of the university, only India has paid its share. Other SAARC countries are yet to pay their dues. Pakistan has still not paid its full share even for the previous funding cycle of the university. 

SAU is a dream university that has served and is serving all the eight SAARC countries really well.

As an alumnus of this unique, diverse and cosmopolitan university, I only hope that this university goes from strength to strength.

India’s role is critical in ensuring the continued success of this wonderful project. India has to play the role of a regional leader in ensuring that SAU’s unique international character is fortified.

True to its neighbourhood first policy, it is critical for India to continue supporting this project with greater enthusiasm in building academic excellence that would have a generational impact in the south Asian region.             

Pushkar Anand is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, and an alumnus of the South Asian University, New Delhi, from where he obtained his LL.M. in 2015.