Academic Connectivity Op-Ed Published in MyRepublica

Academic Connectivity
Op-Ed
Originally Published in MyRepublica
By Cathryn Bennett
23.11.2014

Beyond governments, connecting best practices
Scholars need multi-disciplinary networking to create and share regionally and culturally appropriate best practices.

SAARC nations are becoming better supported through governmental cooperation. However, connectivity can be maximised by university connections beyond the Himalayan University Consortium including more lenient mobility regulations for academics.

Government is one facet of regional connectivity to be considered in light of the upcoming SAARC summit, albeit an important one. As the regional leaders convene to address energy, transport, and travel, another area of as-yet untapped potential for improved connectivity emerges in higher education networking and mobility.
SAARC countries’ education needs.

As more scholars study and teach away from their home countries, the regions’ education needs are not so different from education needs elsewhere. Scholars are becoming more active in seeking opportunities to engage in academic dialog such as publishing in scholarly journals. Academics are also participating in conferences to share experiences. These activities increasingly require domestic and international travel.

Beyond these unifying pursuits, the SAARC region presents singular academic matters. In this corner of the world people are experiencing and engaging in a unique phenomenon where traditional cultures are rapidly meeting the forces of modernisation. As can be seen at Bhutan’s border with India, where the immense and majestic rise of the Himalayas is visibly distinct from the placid, far-reaching Indian plains, this kind of rapid gathering can create beautiful, yet rugged terrain requiring an attentive approach.

Each SAARC nation’s distinguishing qualities from each other, but more importantly, from the world, indicate that even the most perfunctory research and scholarly pursuits must become regionally and culturally appropriate. These must be observed to protect and conserve the different features of this region, ranging from ethics and values, national dress, indigenous flora and fauna, regional dialects, and food culture endemic to each place.
When these topics are included in the planning for regional connectivity and academic relationships representing each place are nurtured around them, university networking becomes a powerful asset to serve the needs and goals of the SAARC area.

How these needs are being addressed.
One laudable project supporting the sustainability aspect of these regional needs exists in the Himalayan University Consortium (HUC) under the auspices of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). This initiative’s outcome, as published on the ICIMOD webpage, indicates an intention for “Enhanced collaboration and networking among Himalayan universities leading to increased capacity of professional women and men for sustainable mountain development through mountain-specific education.”

While exemplary, the HUC addresses only one area.
The HUC project is necessary and commendable. However, it does not go far enough to address all of the SAARC area’s higher education needs nor should it. This limited focus is not a misstep. ICIMOD’s agenda primarily addresses environmental issues, not the full gamut of higher education priorities. The HUC is a remarkable starting point to build relationships and share best practices among Himalayan academics for sustainability.
Ideally this cooperative model can become a springboard to a broader collaboration agenda among SAARC area institutions to address the many pressing issues relevant to the region, not only sustainable development. To become a supportive mechanism for regional connectivity, university collaboration must expand beyond the trail-blazing example of the HUC toward a multi-disciplinary approach. What is needed is networking that accommodates many facets of society and culture represented in the various SAARC nations.

What Bhutan offers.
As a centrally-located and ever more accessible country that is currently experiencing rapid development while maintaining cultural preservation, Bhutan can play a strong role in facilitating further expansion of university networking. While it is part of the Himalayan University Consortium and is contributing toward knowledge development in the HUC focus areas, Bhutan also has much to offer to support the other aspects of higher education networking.

The academic culture in Bhutan is shifting toward greater respect for and understanding of the purpose and role of research. The Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) is undertaking many research-supportive initiatives. Several constituent campuses within the RUB have domain-dedicated, peer-reviewed academic journals. Paro College of Education bi-annually publishes a journal conducted by the Centre for Education Research and Development. Additionally, Gaeddu College of Business Studies intends to publish its inaugural peer-reviewed journal, the Bhutan Journal of Business and Management, next May.

Also, several programs are on offer to the RUB’s faculty to hone their research methodology skills and understanding. Gaeddu College of Business Studies hosted a qualitative research seminar last spring and is currently conducting a professional development series on quantitative statistical analysis methods. By emphasising the need for national and regional research, the RUB is demonstrating its desire to develop regionally- and culturally-based best practices for education within Bhutan and also to support its academicians to collaborate with other regional institutions and scholars.

Furthermore the country is becoming progressively more accessible. The ongoing expansion of Paro International Airport to allow for greater air traffic as well as greater variety and frequency of flights into and out of Bhutan both serve to support greater mobility of people into and out of the country.

While Bhutan is taking active measures to improve its academic capacity for research and ease of travel, an issue of mobility continues that is largely pervasive in the SAARC area. While infrastructure in Bhutan and the region are rapidly improving, the ease of movement for academicians has not grown to meet the rapid improvement of transportation potential. For most scholars, airfare, visa fees, and other ancillary travel costs make even regional cooperation nearly insurmountable.

Conclusion
Although remarkable effort is being currently made at the governmental level to support collaboration of SAARC nations, higher education networking stands to support these initiatives specific to cultural knowledge creation and especially sharing of regionally specific best practices. If this concept of grassroots collaboration is to come to fruition, however, mobility supports are needed which allow for improved ease of movement for the region’s scholars.

By Cathryn Bennett
23.11.2014
Former Lecturer
Gaeddu College of Business Studies
Royal University of Bhutan
Gedu, Chhukha, 21007
Bhutan

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