At a time when the Union government is trying to encourage international education in India, an existing international institution is facing a crisis of leadership. The Delhi-based South Asian University, established by all eight SAARC countries, has not had a president for over a year, while its executive council and governing board have not met for almost two and three years respectively. After a decade of existence, the university has yet to appoint a non-Indian president, despite rules stipulating a rotation among the member countries.
Faculty members have now written to the chair of the Board, currently held by Nepal, as well as to the acting president of the university, complaining about interference by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and a dilution of the university's international nature. Acting president Ranjan Kumar Mohanty told The Hindu that the MEA’s involvement was justified as India is the biggest funder of the institution.
“One of the reasons for the uniqueness of this University is its mandate, as reflected in its Rules and Regulations, for a South Asia-wide representation among all the constituents of the University, with the President being appointed in accordance with Rule 5 of the SAU Rules,” said a letter dated November 17, sent by the South Asian University Faculty Association to Bhim Prasad Subedi, chairman of the governing board who also heads Nepal’s University Grants Commission.
Out of a faculty strength of 58, only six are not from India, although half the student strength is from the other SAARC countries. The two letters were signed by 42 faculty members, who also raised concerns that the lack of a full-time president has led to administrative apathy, with salaries and promotions frozen, while research grants have been suspended.
“According to the agreement signed by all the SAARC countries, the first president should have been from India, and then rotated among the other countries in alphabetical order. So the next president should be from Maldives. But the MEA has put an advertisement calling only for Indian applicants, but there has been no appointment after one year,” said one professor who did not wish to be named.
“MEA interferes in day to day activity. They send queries to faculty asking why a particular software or database is being purchased. This kind of interference by any foreign affairs ministry dilutes the institutional autonomy and international mandate of the university,” said another faculty member. “There is a mindset [in the MEA] that we give the money, so we control the university.”
India, as the host and largest country in the SAARC group, bore the entire capital cost for setting up the university, and also pays 50% of the operational costs. The MEA did not respond to The Hindu ’s requests for comment on the faculty letters, but the university’s acting president defended the Ministry’s stance. He stated, “The MEA is asking a lot of questions because they are spending a lot of money. Ninty-nine per cent of the money comes from India. So they have every right to ask questions, and the faculty must answer”.
He said three candidates have been finalised by the MEA for the president’s position, but would not comment on their nationality. A final appointment could be made by only the governing board of the university, which included representatives from all countries. “I have written twice to the chairman to convene a meeting of the governing Board, but have not received any reply,” said Dr. Mohanty.
“Whenever foreign faculty apply for a position, the recruitment is cancelled and only Indians are hired. In order to get a research grant as a foreign national, I need a clearance letter from the university, but they make me wait more than six months,” said a non-Indian faculty member. “Non-Indian faculty face psychological torture here, with the administration repeatedly telling us that we do not have a say because India is paying the bulk of the money. In a truly international organisation, even those who pay one per cent should be an equal stakeholder. They should not be misusing the taxpayer money from poor countries like this.”
Previously, one argument for appointing an Indian national as president has been that it would ease the construction of the university’s permanent campus in Maidan Garhi. Although the shift was due to have been done in summer 2020, delays due to COVID-19 mean that the move would not take place till July 2021, said Dr. Mohanty. During the lockdown, students unable to return home were crowded into the temporary quarters at Akbar Bhawan, but only 30-40 students still remained, he added.