Thursday, 24 November 2016

Privatize Nalanda

Update- George Yeo has, very sensibly, resigned as Chancellor. Singapore is off the hook for the 5 million library.
One reason Yeo mentions for resigning is that he thought the Indians would amend the act relating to Nalanda such that financial contribution is taken into account when giving seats to foreign countries. Thus Laos gets a voice because it has actually given some money, but not Japan or Singapore because they haven't kicked in any money at all.

In 1957 India and China were great chums. As a symbol of their eternal friendship, the Chinese gave the Indians some money for the construction of a Memorial Hall in honor of a Chinese scholar who had come to Nalanda to study Buddhist scripture a dozen centuries previously. Within a few years, India and China were at war. Thus, it wasn't till 1984 that the Hall was actually built. But it served no purpose and remained empty till, in 2001, it was handed over to the Buddhist Pali College of Nalanda. They have done a good job of decorating it with official Chinese help.

In 2006, a wholly new Nalanda International University, not specifically Buddhist, was mooted. Japan and China were vying for 'soft power' and identified Buddhism as a possible vehicle to claim leadership of South and East Asian countries not locked into either Islam or Christianity. The Japanese, who had previously built a highway to Rajgir (near the original site of Nalanda) and who have a Monastery and a Pilgrim Hotel already in that town, were in a strong position to push the project through by themselves and promised to shoulder the whole cost. Later they scaled their offer down to a 100 million dollars, out of an envisaged final sum of one billion dollars, to get the job done. This was by no means infeasible. The Japanese could have used Nalanda to make their investments in India more productive. Indian students would have paid up to 10,000 dollars for courses tailored to secure them good jobs in Japanese Companies.
The sensible course would have been to let the Japanese get on with it. However, the Chinese were alarmed at Japan entrenching itself in this manner and came up with some actual cash- a million dollars- with the result that Japan paid nothing and let the project wither on the vine.
Perhaps this was inevitable once the global financial meltdown got under way. However,  the fact remains, a Japanese run University could have succeeded. What couldn't succeed was a multi-lateral effort such that no country's actual interests were advanced.

The Singaporeans- proud that they have 2 world ranked Universities of their own- saw an opportunity to put their own stamp on Nalanda. Unlike Japan and China, Singapore is fully integrated into Anglo-Saxon Academia though, it must be said, its strength is in STEM subjects. Indeed, Singapore is the only country in the world where an Econ Degree from Stanford is considered a Liberal Arts qualification! They have promised 5 million dollars for a library and, perhaps to encourage them to pay up, the new Chancellor is a well-regarded former Finance Minister of theirs. The problem here is that this new Chancellor has a more attractive offer from the Pope (he is Catholic). If the new University taught STEM subjects then the Indian bureaucracy would be prepared to let the Singaporeans take over and do things their way. But Singapore- very wisely- doesn't go in for hippy dippy 'soft subjects' such as those Nalanda has confined itself to. Even if Singapore builds the Library, it will remain empty- like the Chinese Memorial Hall for the first 20 years of its existence.

Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar (the State where Nalanda was located) was enthusiastic about the project. He wanted an international airport to be sited near the new Nalanda but this idea has been quashed as impractical. Still, in those heady days before the meltdown, the pipe dream of a new Nalanda located next to an international airport, financed by Japanese money, and attracting 'clean & green' knowledge based industries to Rajgir was hugely seductive.
Now, sited a couple of hours down a potholed road (that portion not built by the Japanese) from a domestic airport, Nalanda is an uninviting prospect.

What- apart from Location, Location, Location- went wrong?

1) Money. The Ministry of External Affairs views the thing as a money-pit. About 7 million dollars had been spent by the time the place started with just 13 students and 11 faculty. Fees  had to be slashed but even now, two years later, the place only has a 100 odd students. .
There are successful Private Universities with far smaller budgets in India- that too in remote places- but they don't have to pay 'internationally competitive' salaries. Furthermore, they can concentrate on bread and butter courses for which there is a huge demand.
Nalanda is like the proposed Vedanta private University in Orissa. During the early oughties boom time, these visionary projects looked appealing. Also they were an excuse to grab land from peasants. When the economic climate turned chilly, the money- whether promised by Governments or a private Company- disappeared
2) Subjects on offer.  Ashoka University, like Nalanda, is Liberal Arts but it has concentrated on building itself up as an Undergrad institution. It is far more favorably located but its fees are very much higher than Nalanda. Will it succeed? 20 million dollars isn't a great deal of money to start off with. Surely, its chances of success would have been higher if it had just the one corporate sponsor? It's early days yet, but Ashoka might succeed in a qualitatively different way precisely because it is a network of like-minded, tech savvy, individuals rather than a corporate behemoth. Rather than turning out whining Lefties conversing in horrible Po-Co jargon, it might produce articulate young people who can think for themselves. The recent brouhaha over its 'illiberal' handling of student and faculty protest about Kashmir has probably sent its stock up because, after all, a private College has the right to assert its own values and credo just as students have the right to transfer to a more congenial campus. In this sense, Ashoka has remained true to its original mission.
Nalanda, by contrast, has no such ambitions. It remains a State sponsored project with a rapidly eroding multi-lateral veneer. At best, it could have been a post-grad version of A.C Grayling's New College of the Humanities in London which had about fifteen million dollars in seed capital. N.C.H will probably be profitable once it is licensed to accept foreign students at which point big name Professors can be retained for an equity share. N.C.H could succeed because London already had expensive private Universities awarding American degrees not recognized by the U.K. Furthermore, London has benefited from 'flight capital' escaping volatile parts of the world. Oligarchs have bought hugely expensive properties here and can easily afford to pay double or triple the going rate for their children's tuition.
Still, N.C.H couldn't have succeeded if it had aimed to be a P.G College ab ovo because even very Rich people, who send their kids to tony 'Party Schools', don't want those kids getting Post-Grad credentials from a Vanity Institution.

3) Amartya Sen was Chancellor. He quite rightly put the then PM's daughter's chums in charge but had no interest in presiding over the shit-show once that PM was gone. Still, this meant that only the former PM's chum was left with any interest in the institution. Unfortunately, the University's statutes didn't permit her being retained for ever. So, by a decision by the President, she has to go. But, who in their right mind would take over now? Nobel laureate Sen vouching for you is one thing. It makes you academically credible. What protection can Yeo offer? Yes the pay is good but tenure isn't permanent. The thing isn't a CV builder, it is a tombstone.

There are other problems. Bihar's Nitish Kumar- who grabbed land from the peasants for this project- will pull the plug if a native Hindutva nutjob is appointed because that will give the BJP a permanent hold on Nalanda District. The new Buddhist Studies school may attract a decent person but China might take umbrage because of its hardening line on the Dalai Lama. Yeo isn't likely to stick around much longer because 'soft power' is now dead in the water. So, what happens next?

My suggestion is privatize Nalanda. Let the market find a use for this White Elephant. It could run courses in Yogic foxy-boxing and hydroponic-Gramscianism. That last might turn a profit.



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