Sunday, December 7, 2014

Now You Can Study at the World’s Oldest University

Back in September, a cadre of prominent Indians, including Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, trouped down to Rajgir, Bihar, to mark the opening of a new university. Given the recent rapid expansion of higher education in India, a nation with almost 700 universities, you’d expect that only some new mega-facility could draw the attention of luminaries. Yet this institution, Nalanda University, boasts less than a dozen faculty members and 15 students, all huddled into the local convention center while their meager campus awaits completion. The new facility has drawn attention as a symbol of national pride and pan-Asian ambition because it’s not really an entirely new facility; it’s an attempt to resurrect an ancient school of higher education—one of the wonders of old India and perhaps the first university in the world—which once stood nearby.        
Nalanda University Seal. Photo by Tabish q/Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Nalanda emerged in the 5th century A.D., about 400 years before the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez and 600 years before the University of Bologna in Italy, often credited as the world’s oldest universities. A Buddhist institution down the road from Bodh Gaya, the revered site of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment, Nalanda had 10,000 students from all over Asia (some say even from as far as Greece), at its height, studying both secular and theological topics. When Muslim invaders burned Nalanda University to the ground in 1193, legend claims its nine-story library burned for three months turning every book to ash.         

Ever since the end of colonization, India and other Buddhist states have discussed reviving the university, not as a theological school but as one specializing in pan-Asian Buddhist culture and international humanities. But the project only really picked up steam in 2006, when then-Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam endorsed the project, helping to establish an international panel led by Amartya Sen. (In 2010, Parliament passed a bill supporting the project.)         

From the start, plans for the university were ambitious. Some wanted 4,500 students and more than 450 academics within five years of the ribbon cutting. So having only 15 students in the first class (less than the desired 40) in an unfinished complex, starting a year later than expected—not to mention Kalam’s disagreement and break from the project in 2011—has led some to wonder if this isn’t all just a showy folly. After all, it’s difficult to attract professors and students to an unproven and underfunded institution in a relatively isolated part of India.
Proposed Nalanda University Campus. Photo by Radharani11/Wikimedia Commons

But Sen and others at the helm have their eyes on Nalanda's long-term development, pointing to reputation-boosting partnerships with Beijing, Seoul, and Yale universities. And they have support from the government of Bihar, which, despite the area’s relative poverty, is working towards rapid development, believing the university can help power the region’s rise. Within years, the university hopes to have seven fully operational faculties on subjects from Buddhist studies to ecology to information technology. And maybe, if they keep their ambition and pride going, one day they will be able to revive the full glory of ancient Nalanda.
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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Classes Begin in Nalanda University, After Over 800 Years !!

After a break that lasted about 800 years, classes began today at the Nalanda University in Bihar with 15 students.

The  ancient Nalanda University, which  functioned from 413 AD to 1193 AD, was renowned internationally as a centre of learning and attracted research scholars from all over the world.  It was destroyed in the 12th century by an invading Turkish army.

For now, classes are being held at a conference centre about 100 kms from the state capital of Patna, but in about three years, the university will move to Rajgir, 12 kms from where the original once stood proud.

The revival of the university was mooted by former president APJ Abdul Kalam in 2006.

From over 1,000 applicants, just 15 have been accepted so far for two disciplines - Historical Sciences and the School of Environment and Ecology.  Defending the tiny student population,  Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal said, "We are a research university and we wanted only the best."

"I think this university will offer an excellent research opportunity and that's why I am here," said Jyotirmayee, a research scholar from Vijaywada.

Foreign students include a Bhutan University dean on study leave and a postgraduate in Buddhist Studies from Japan

The formal inauguration of the university will be held later this month by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

The fully-residential university, to be completed by 2020, will eventually have seven schools, all for post-graduate and doctoral students, offering courses in science, philosophy and spirituality, and social sciences. Each discipline will have a maximum of 20 students.
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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nalanda University 1st Batch Orientation

Nalanda University on Friday readied to embark on its quest for knowledge with the orientation programme of its first batch.

Vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal and dean, academic planning, Anjana Sharma apprised the 15 students of the first batch of the mission and vision of the university. Five faculty members and other varsity officials were also present in the one-hour-45-minute event that was followed by high tea.

The classes of two schools — School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences and School of Historical Studies — of the international university would start on Monday. “Today’s event has been organised to orient the students towards the educational journey ahead,” Mihir Deb, a faculty member of School of Ecology and Environment Sciences, told The Telegraph minutes before the orientation programme started at 2.45pm.

In a lighter vein, VC Sabharwal said the varsity was starting its journey at an auspicious time — a day after Teej and on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi.

The event began with the book signing by Nalanda Pioneers — the first batch of students — at the first floor foyer of the Rajgir Convention Centre, around 5km from the varsity’s upcoming new campus and around 2km from the Rajgir bus stand. Then the venue of the programme shifted to the ground floor auditorium, where dean Sharma welcomed the students. Lighting of the traditional lamp followed at 3.05pm.

Thereafter, Sabharwal addressed the students. She made a PowerPoint presentation on the varsity, focusing on its vision and mission.

Dean Sharma then took over the microphone. She delivered an inspirational speech for 15 minutes.

From 3.55pm, the five faculty members introduced themselves to the students. Mihir Deb and Somnath Bandyopadhyay of the School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and Samuel Wright, Kashshaf Ghani and Yin Ker of the School of Historical Studies, took to the dais one after the other.

Students were allotted 20 minutes to give their introduction. After concluding remarks, all the participants proceeded to the exhibition hall for high tea.

Sipping a cup of steaming tea, Daniel Machare, a student of School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, said: “I am looking forward to the field trips, talked about in the orientation programme. We also learnt how this university would be different from the others.”
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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Foreign Scholars Keen to Join Nalanda University

A large number of foreign scholars and teachers are keen to join the upcoming Nalanda University in Bihar as its faculty members, an official said Thursday. The process of appointing faculty for the varsity has begun and 500 applications have been received for the 20 posts that will initially be filled.

"Around 22 percent of the applicants for faculty posts, including professors, assistant professors, are foreign scholars and teachers," Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal said. 500 applications have been received for the 20 posts: Officials The university plans to start with two schools - School of Historical Sciences and the School of Environment and Ecology - by August-September.

"The recruitment is for 20 faculty members posts - 10 in each school," she said. Sabharwal said the recruitment process will be complete by March-end or early April. The university will then advertise for student enrolments. "Initially, only 15 to 20 students will be enrolled in each school," she said.

 The university is set to come up on 446 acres in Rajgir, 10 km from the site of the ancient university in Nalanda, about 100 km southeast of Patna. The university will be fully residential, like the ancient Nalanda university. It will offer courses in science, philosophy and spiritualism and social sciences.

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Nalanda University Gets Global Status Now

The Union cabinet today agreed to provide Rs 2,727.10 crore to Nalanda University to meet its financial requirements till 2021-22 and extend tax exemptions to the institution which will ensure it enjoys international status. The decision comes within days of an interview Chancellor Amartya Sen gave to The Telegraph in which he spoke out over bureaucratic hindrances that were holding up the funds. Sen, an economics Nobel laureate, had also raised concerns over attempts by some mandarins in the finance ministry to alter the international character of the institute by questioning the privileges to be accorded to the university and its staff.

The university, coming up near the site of the ancient seat of learning in Nalanda, about 100km from Patna, is scheduled to begin classes in autumn this year.The cabinet had in June last year approved the Nalanda University (Amendment) Bill, 2013. After it was tabled in the Rajya Sabha, it was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee which submitted its report recently. The matter was again brought to the cabinet as the government wanted to accept a few suggestions of the committee.

The cabinet today approved expenditure of Rs 2,727.10 crore that would help the university meet its capital and recurring expenses till 2021-22. However, there is no clarity about the funding for the institution after 2021-22.

The university board of governors is confident the institute will become much more financially robust by 2021-22. The blueprint for Nalanda University envisages that it will fund at least 50 per cent of its expenditure itself by 2021 — through donations. This, Sen and others are arguing, shows that Nalanda will not be a permanent financial drain on the government.

Vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal expressed happiness over the cabinet’s decision for funding and bringing amendments to the Nalanda University Act. “The amendments approved have retained the international character of the university,” Sabharwal said.

A media statement issued by the Press Information Bureau said the preamble of the University Act would include that it is a “non-state, non-profit, self-governing international institution having academic freedom for attainment of these objectives”.

To further buttress the international stature of the institution, the cabinet also gave the go-ahead to the Headquarters Agreement, which has been signed between the ministry of external affairs and the Nalanda University for giving privileges and financial immunity like tax exemptions to the university and its staff. The agreement has been partly notified pending clearance from the cabinet.

Section 21 of the Nalanda University Act says members of all academic staff and their dependents shall enjoy privileges like exemption from taxation in respect to salaries, honoraria, allowances and other emoluments in connection with their services.

However, the central government had to enter into an agreement with Nalanda University to ensure such privileges are made available. The MEA had prepared a Headquarters Agreement in this regard which was signed in July last year.

Under this, the foreign academic staff will get appropriate visas and be exempt from foreigners’ registration.

The agreement said the foreign faculty and staff members will enjoy the freedom to maintain within India movable and immovable properties. They can purchase, hold or dispose of any currencies, securities and funds through authorized channels.

Such privileges are extended only to the personnel of other international organizations such as WHO, Unesco and Unicef.

The Act will have a provision to extend similar immunities to the university. This means the assets of the university and its income will be exempt from all direct taxes, customs duties and prohibition and restriction on imports and exports in respect of articles imported or exported by the university.
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