Is Bihar and the country proud of what Nalanda University in its new avatar has achieved ?
Is Nalanda University on its way to emerge as a ‘world class’ centre of learning? Who are benefitting from the project? Has Bihar gained?
Nalanda University was set up in 2010 under an Act of Parliament. The objective was to revive the glory of the ancient university, which was an eminent centre of learning long before Oxford, Cambridge and Europe’s oldest university Bologna were founded.
Nalanda University drew scholars from all over Asia, surviving for hundreds of years before being destroyed by invaders in 1193. Founded around the 5th century, Nalanda once had over 10,000 students, mostly Buddhist monks, many of them from China, Japan, Korea and countries across south-east, central and western Asia. The ancient Nalanda University existed for 800 years. Turkish military General Bakhtiyar Khilji finally destroyed it in 1200 AD. During its eight century long existence, the university had braved several foreign invasions.
The decision to set up a world class residential university in a backward area of Bihar had triggered scepticism. Could the university attract world class scholars was a doubt which was expressed by many. But an undaunted Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen had then said, “Our job is to get the new Nalanda University going and establish the teaching. This is just the beginning - the old Nalanda took 200 years to come to a flourishing state. We may not take 200 years but it will take some decades.”
Prof Sen had said there would be active cooperation with Yale’s school of forestry studies, Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University department of history, Seoul University in South Korea and Peking University in China. Ministry of External Affairs is the nodal Ministry responsible for all about the new University, its upkeep, expansion and modernisation.
N.K. Singh, former bureaucrat and chairman of the 15th Finance Commission, associated with the project from the beginning, had then hoped the university would help to develop the region, working with some 60 surrounding villages to improve livelihoods in agriculture and tourism.
Is it too early to evaluate the project? Eleven years after it was first mooted and seven years after Amartya Sen was forced to resign, what has the project achieved?
The very idea of the university in the initial stages had enthused countries in South East Asia, East Asia and some European countries that had pledged financial and other support to the new university. The idea was that the new university would help integrate Asia and would emerge as a centre of excellence and sustainable research. But after the initial contribution, the countries appear to have lost interest in the project.
Till 2020, Nalanda University has received a cumulative budgetary grant of Rs. 904 crore from the Union Government. It also got a little over Rs. 18 crore endowment funds from foreign countries, which seem to have lost further interests in varsity’s affairs.
From 2014, when the courses of studies commenced, to 2020 the varsity enrolled 710 regular students, 97% of whom successfully completed their courses. Currently, the university has 172 regular students, 24 teaching staff, 18 visiting or guest faculty and 40 non-teaching staff.
At the outset, the budgetary grant looks high. But inquiries reveal that the bulk of the grants have been incurred on infrastructure development. At a total of 710 regular students, per student expenditure comes to a whopping Rs 1.38 crore. If 992 students, enrolled in other programmes, are included, per student expenditure comes down to around Rs.57 lakhs.
There is little evidence to suggest that the university has significantly benefitted Bihar or helped develop the areas around Rajgir. And against the initial thrust on economics, management and Asian integration, the focus has shifted to Sanskrit, English, Philosophy and Hinduism.
A decade is indeed too short a period to assess a university. But it is long enough to show promise and direction. The performance, let us say, has been disappointing till now