Vice-Chancellor Prof Sunaina Singh on the "Nalanda way" of doing things

"The guiding principle for me during the building of the campus has been to design it in harmony with the natural environment and the climatic conditions," says Prof Singh
An aerial view of the University | Pic: EdexLive
An aerial view of the University | Pic: EdexLive

Professor Sunaina Singh, who is well-known as an institution builder and for the multiple roles and responsibilities that she continues to undertake during the length of her academic career, has now been given the honour of rebuilding the renowned Nalanda University in Rajgir, Bihar. 

The list of accolades of Prof Singh doesn’t end with just being an institution builder. She was the first Indian woman President of Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute and was also the former Vice-Chancellor of The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU). While her stint with EFLU was not one without challenges, it was during her tenure that the institute unfurled the national flag on a 108-feet flagpole which was touted as the “tallest flagpole among all central universities in the country.”

EdexLive brings to you an exclusive conversation with Prof Singh who sheds light on how the new carbon-neutral and zero-waste campus of Nalanda is home to students and scholars from 30 plus nationalities. The University which has up to six schools and more than 20 academic programmes, also strives to instill sustainability in young minds by teaching courses on Sustainable Development and Management, Environment and Ecology, Nalanda Heritage, History and Archaeology among others. 

From the new interdisciplinary programme at Nalanda, incorporation of Buddhism into its teaching methods and its green campus, let’s find out from Prof Singh what the “The Nalanda Way” is. Excerpts from a conversation:

You had mentioned after your appointment as VC of Nalanda that developing cultural excellence will be your top priority. How far do you think the university has come when it comes to cultural excellence?

The rebuilding of Nalanda University has been a prestigious project of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India as a niche international university that is engaged in reviving the glorious knowledge traditions of Ancient Nalanda. The dream of envisioning Nalanda has become a reality today. The University has embarked on the path of ‘vidya-daan’ with its vision to be universalist in its outlook as per the motto ‘ano bhadraah kratavo yantu vishvatah’, open to currents of thought and practice from around the globe and respond to the needs of a changing world. The hallmark of this ‘Sui Generis’ Nalanda is also its East Asian collaborative seventeen participating countries, with the extraordinary mandate of promoting regional peace and cooperation.

One of the core competencies of the Eastern world, particularly India, has been its extensive experimentation and expertise in the inner domain through its knowledge and reflective traditions of over five thousand years. The shared spiritual, historical, cultural heritage and wisdom has been a hallmark of our East Asian connections and linkages. At Nalanda, we have envisioned a few courses that emphasise the common link between our traditions as well as the rich cultural heritage and philosophical traditions which have been handed down to us as a result of centuries of research on our dharmic traditions. Since the mandate for Nalanda University is the recovery of the centuries-old civilisational dialogues, the University at present supports new models of scholarship and intellectual enquiry that will shape the emerging dialogues on cultural excellence in the future too. Cultural excellence will hopefully give way to cosmopolitanism and there can be a better understanding of how ideas travelled via culture or religion or region and how this transmission or interaction was not just one way but had multiple strands that are waiting to be explored.

While celebrating diversity is a core component of cultural excellence, you would be happy to note that Nalanda University, despite being a young University, is home to a diverse community of students and scholars from 30 plus nationalities at present enriching its diversity and pluralism on campus with borderless learning paradigms, which substantiates its intellectual, cultural, international, spiritual confluence and the multi-cultural fabric. A more strategic approach to mentoring and networking of cultural excellence has been reflected in its knowledge bank through a new academic framework which I have architected and implemented in 2018 which consists of interdisciplinary courses, a cafeteria model of learning, credit bank, extra credit courses, experiential learning and so on. 

What essence of the past, in terms of design, curriculum and so on, is like and different from Nalanda of the yore.  

Character, Creativity and Competence are the keys to success and to enriching India’s intellectual presence in this ever-changing world. I am a strong believer in “तत्कर्म यन्न बन्धाय सा विद्या या विमुक्तये” (which means education leads to liberation). I look at education from the lens of India’s ancient ‘Gyan Parampara’ (knowledge tradition) which involves a wide spectrum of human development and the unbroken tradition of knowledge leading to the creation of a knowledge society.

In the process of renewal of this ancient seat of learning, I am constantly guided by the rich history of Nalanda. The sprawling 455-acre campus’s construction commenced by end of 2017 from ground zero and with 95 per cent of the building infrastructure already complete, the new Nalanda campus has been fully functional since December 2019. It combines state-of-the-art net-zero technologies with planning principles of the ancient Nalanda Mahavihara to create a carbon-neutral and zero-waste campus. The guiding principle for me during the building of the campus has been to design it in harmony with the natural environment and the climatic conditions. It not only helped lessen wastage but also lowered carbon footprints. The University is today recognised as 'Green University'. The logo of the Nalanda University is emblematic of "The Nalanda Way" – man living in harmony with man, man living in harmony with nature, and man living as part of nature.

In addition to developing hard infrastructure, I have ensured building soft infrastructure as well by creating centres of learning and new schools which have already started offering courses and contributing to research work. The University has scaled up to six schools and more than 20 academic programmes consisting of Master's, Global PhD, short courses and so on from just three in 2017. All courses are designed in an interdisciplinary cafeteria model; hence, open to students from any stream. 

Interdisciplinary innovative courses with a focus on cutting-edge research in new frontiers of learning have also been introduced. It is ensured that the courses are audited every year. The master's level courses are restructured as Foundation, Bridge, Advanced and Specialised courses with a research dissertation at the master's level. The University has also initiated a Credit Bank where the students can add to their credit banks with extra credits from additional courses. While some international faculty teach courses, there are a number of visiting faculty both national and international along with industry experts teaching/addressing students.

Since you were inviting bids for a solar project for the University, could you tell us what progress has been made so far? Could you also tell us about Nalanda going green and how else are you planning to reduce its carbon footprint?

The campus combines state-of-the-art technologies with planning principles of the ancient Vastu Shastra to create a carbon neutral and zero-waste campus. The whole master plan in itself is transitional, as it demonstrates the integration of the campus into a large ecosystem of the site. To recreate the erstwhile Vishwaguru in the form of an avant-garde international University, I have taken up its infrastructure development works on a war-footing basis. The world-class sustainable green infrastructure is being created as a benchmark of its scale and magnitude. 

The University Campus is a net zero sustainable green campus. The key sustainability features for developing net zero Campus include net zero energy, net zero water, net zero waste and net zero emission. This hybrid concept featuring renewable energy sources with the indigenous approach and its integration with various innovative technologies may exemplify rational approaches to the construction of other upcoming projects/campuses and community construction models in future.

To power the net-zero campus, a five-megawatt solar energy farm is being installed. When solar energy is not available, green energy is provided by a 1.2 MW biogas-based Combined Heat and Power Engine (CHP), designed to run on the biomass collected from the neighbouring villages. Smart integrated controls run the integrated systems and balance the renewable energy dynamically on a real-time basis.

Building materials use a lot of energy in manufacturing and transportation. To reduce the embodied carbon of the buildings, the campus is consciously adopting low environmental impact construction materials and technologies. Most of the buildings are made of compressed stabilised earth blocks (CSEB), blocks made on-site using the soil excavated from the lakes and buildings. These earth blocks use 11 times less energy than the common burnt clay brick and don’t need to be transported resulting in a very low carbon footprint.

Keeping in mind your efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainability, how do the courses offered by the university provide education and research among students about the same?

I am a strong advocate of "man-making" education. I believe in the confluence of our ancient wisdom with modern state of art technology to pursue fundamental questions, tackle emerging challenges and translate ideas into action. To enable such an environment, efforts were made to build international fellowships for research and studies supported by the Government of India and other participating countries and institutions. As stated earlier, all the courses at Nalanda are interdisciplinary. Hence, more emphasis is given to academic audit of courses in each year to add new knowledge systems and emerging areas of research to the course curriculum.

I also focused on interdisciplinary approaches in instruction that, together with the cafeteria model, furnished the base for not only igniting young minds but also encouraging critical thinking. We at Nalanda offer courses like Sustainable Development and Management, Environment and Ecology, Nalanda Heritage, History and Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology & Ethnoarchaeology, Nalanda through the Ages, Learning from Ruins, Energy Studies and Climate Science, Energy Modelling, Management and Auditing, The Nālandā Tradition in Buddhism, Introduction to Major & Minor Upaniṣads, Nāgārjuna and the concept of Śūnyata, The Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya and so on, to name a few. 

Earlier, Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe had conducted talks and agreed to revive Nalanda as an international university. Keeping in mind Shinzo Abe's demise and honouring his efforts, can you elaborate on his initiatives to redevelop the university?

During the visit of the former PM of India to Japan in December 2006, Dr Singh and Shinzo Abe agreed that recalling the important role of Nalanda in the ancient period as a leading international university contributing to Buddhist studies and the two sides will explore the idea of re-development of Nalanda as a major centre of learning with the establishment of an international university on the basis of regional cooperation.

The idea of the rebirth of Nalanda was first shared by the former President of India, late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Around the same time, inspired by the ethos of the ancient Nalanda, the East Asia Summit member countries supported the creation of Nalanda University under the aegis of the Ministry of External Affairs by signing an intergovernmental memorandum with India. The University heralded its second coming as an avant-garde international university of “national importance” in 2010 through an Act of Parliament. The University is presently engaged in forging academic collaborations and linkages with higher educational institutions in Japan.

The way Buddhism was taught and studied at Nalanda University, rooted in reason and logic, represents the zenith of its development in India" - The Dalai Lama said recently. Tell us about Buddhism today in the context of Nalanda. 

The historical trajectory of Buddhism as a system of living practising philosophy has a unique position and place in contemporary times. As stated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the major emphasis at Nalanda is on projecting the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist thought. 

All the non-residential buildings of Nalanda were to be operational by December 2021. But has the process been delayed further due to the virus?

Times of crisis also function as the touchstones and testing grounds for resilience. The building construction was to commence as early as 2013-14 as per the funding provided but in reality the construction commenced by the end of 2017, after I assumed office, a nearly four years delay cannot ensure the keeping of time. Despite the delay, the non-residential buildings of Nalanda are ready at present. 

Since the University falls under the Ministry of External Affairs, do you think the international intake could be impacted now that we are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The support of MEA and the Government of India is highly appreciated and valued in my journey in these five years in rebuilding Nalanda. As far as student enrollment is concerned, to ensure that the academic career/future of a student is not hampered in any way, the Admission Committee of the University continued with its process of online admission, interestingly the intake for various courses increased. The University had a better strength of students in the previous two years.

As stated earlier, Nalanda University despite being a young University is home to a diverse community of students and scholars from 30 plus nationalities at present. During this academic year as well, Nalanda is proved to be a preferred destination for students across the globe as evident from the applications received from student aspirants as of now and it is expected a better the intake this time as well, just like the previous two years.  

What are some major impacts COVID is going to have on education?

I think the foundations of a unique ecosystem, which are evident in higher educational institutions, have been impacted significantly by the COVID-19 outbreak, creating uncertainty regarding the academic calendar and loss of time. One of the biggest concerns for the sector at large is the percentage of international students that make up the domestic higher education markets and measures are required to be taken by all stakeholders in this regard. Though the most effective tool in keeping student retention and maintaining access to learning has been online courses and teaching, educational institutions must strive to reach out to all students across the community and geographical locations and move the traditional campuses to virtual settings. The institutions must try to enrich blended learning and access to technology and to mental health too. 

What is your opinion on the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020?

In my opinion, the National Education Policy (NEP) has moved away from the Macaulayian education paradigm for the first time after independence with its emphasis on flexible learning options, exploring Indian knowledge traditions and skilling has created the new India of the 21st century. The NEP 2020 is a guiding philosophy for changing the learning landscape, making education holistic and building strong foundations. The multiple entry/exit, academic credit bank, online education, and infrastructure development as enlisted in the NEP 2020 will certainly create benchmarks in education in the coming days. 

How do you think the multidisciplinary curriculum of Nalanda is different from the one proposed by the NEP 2020?

The new academic framework at Nalanda was implemented in 2018 which aligns with the new National Education Policy 2020 of the Government of India, resonating with its core idea of developing “the creative potential of each individual” through developing their “cognitive, social, ethical and dispositions.” The pursuit of knowledge (Jnana), wisdom (Pragya), and truth (Satya), as built into the ancient Indian education system combined with Asian wisdom and emerging knowledge paradigm globally, with the aim to build intellectual capital has been a guiding principle.

The reinvented learning process at Nalanda focuses on interdisciplinary approaches in instruction that, together with the cafeteria model, furnished the base for not only igniting young minds but also encouraging critical thinking. There is an effort to balance the ancient Indian education system combined with Asian wisdom and emerging knowledge paradigms globally with the aim to build intellectual capital has been a guiding principle by keeping the Nalanda tradition of learning intact. Apart from having two years master’s programmes and four-year global PhD programmes, the University has an MBA programme in Sustainable Development and Management which is open to both Indian and International students/professionals and the incumbents have the option to exit after one year with a diploma.

The processes are set to assess existing academic structures, innovate on them and create new academic structures through a range of globally relevant programmes. We have established Centres like the globally-accessible Common Archival Resource Centre, Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies, Centre for Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies as well as a library of proportions that would mirror the famed repository of our illustrious predecessor.

How does the university plan to update its curriculum and teaching methods in accordance with the NEP 2020?

Building a sustainable ecosystem of academic culture has been of prime concern for me, therefore, in the spirit of what the Buddha had laid down, an academic institution is a place “to meditate and think at ease, in safety and in peace” (The Cullavagga VI, I, 5). This indeed, is a cornerstone towards realising the mandate “for the pursuit of intellectual, philosophical, historical and spiritual studies”, as per the Nalanda University Act, 2010. Thinking ahead of curve, I focused on building a global academic architecture with interdisciplinary approach and introduced new courses including global PhD, master's and short programmes. The NEP envisions an education system that contributes directly to transforming India into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society. Nalanda echoes and strives toward this mission.

To boost research in the country, various amendments have been carried out to the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship Scheme. Nalanda being a research-intensive university, do you think this boost is enough for research in India. What do you think research here really needs?

The Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship is an excellent initiative. Research and innovation propel humanity forward and therefore, funding for research is critical. We need to get corporates and government to fund cutting-edge research and build more research institutions. I also think we should invest in young scholars to build an enquiring mind. Research in new areas of knowledge needs to be encouraged. 

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