Friday, November 16, 2007

Nalanda, Asian universities and the former Yale dean

This opinion column by Jeffrey Garten (former Yale dean) in the New York Times is worth both reading and commenting. First, he acknowledges and appreciates the importance of Asia to the world in general. Second, he realises, unlike most other western policy-makers that countries like India, China, South Korea and Japan joining forces to create a state-of-the-art university could have a significant impact on Asia's future role in world affairs. As an external observer, he asks the many questions we tend to overlook in our euphoria about a potential superpower status in the near future. One important question is whether these countries, especially India and China can effectively cooperate and pool their individual strengths, given their obsession with national sovereignty. Not to mention that Nalanda is in Bihar, as Amit Varma puts it so effectively, and explains in the update to his post of November 14. In a state where there is no guarantee of safety of limb and life, can we honestly expect a world-class university. Ok, ok. I am not saying that Bihar is a horrible place. I am simply observing the apparent and total absence of any kind of government activity in the state. I know many of my readers will blame the state of affairs on the "neglect" of Bihar by the Central Government and lament that there are no national highways in that immensely large state. But still...

That does not solve our problem of founding a world-class institution in India. India has many universities, both private and public. I could not find the actual number of universities in the country, but this Wikipedia article gives you a rather exhaustive list of recognised universities in India. Given the ungodly number of universities that already exist in the country, what exactly is the need to found yet another "world-class" university? As if that is not enough, our beloved policy-makers want to revive the Nalanda University, which is one of the world's oldest universities. It is a Buddhist university. Need I say more? This is ample chance for the Hindutva brigade to appropriate credit for the existence of a university that disappeared in 1197. And also a chance for the wonderful "secular" forces to cry wolf yet again. I would seriously like to know why we cannot just improve the facilities in existing Indian universities, given that there are so many of them? Do countries like China, Japan and South Korea have any objection to contributing to the improvement of our IITs, IIMs and other universities? Maybe the name must change. After all, why would China want to contribute to the Indian Institute of Technology? But, what about others? What is stopping these guys from renaming the Jawaharlal Nehru University as the Pan-Asian University or something like that? Or improving upon existing infrastructure in any of the countries contributing to the task? This obsession with something that has been dead for more than 800 years is beyond my comprehension. As Garten says, we are simply not thinking big enough. We need to move ahead into the 21st century because great ideas are as important as tonnes of money.

No comments: