Asian University for Women (AUW): the first regional, liberal arts institution in South Asia


  • Why create a single-sex university?

    Throughout much of the developing world, girls and women are often subject to unequal treatment and have limited access to education compared to boys and men; the disparity increases significantly at higher levels of education (i.e. worse at secondary, but worst at tertiary). Women from rural and poor populations are particularly disadvantaged in their educational opportunities. AUW aims precisely to address these disparities: to respond to the lack of sufficient opportunities for higher education for women across the region.

    An institution devoted to women can offer its students a safe and supportive environment for learning, in which no doors are closed and the most ambitious endeavors are encouraged. It is also important to note that in communities that do not permit young women to live away from home in coeducational institutions, the unavailability of women’s-only options could mean entirely foregoing the education of these women. AUW provides an alternative option as an all women’s-institution.

    Effective leadership by women is essential for establishing equality of the sexes in terms of status and opportunity, and in redressing the social, political and institutional barriers to the advancement of women. A university that helps its students become critically aware of women’s issues can produce graduates who use their understanding, self-esteem, and leadership skills towards women’s empowerment in all aspects of society. Moreover, it is known from ample evidence in many of parts of the world, including in the U.S. in particular, that women who attended single-sex institutions have been extraordinarily successful. They occupy positions of leadership in their chosen fields in far higher proportions than women graduating from similarly ranked coeducational institutions.

    While the key mission of AUW is not to provide “women’s education” but to educate women, it is important to recognize that promoting women’s education and focusing on increasing women’s access to the larger academic system are not mutually exclusive goals.

    Why focus on higher education?

    The critical importance of primary and secondary education is undeniable. Thanks to the efforts of governments, organizations and other agencies, enormous progress has been made in this sector in the last few decades. In fact, most of the countries targeted by AUW now have very substantial (if not 100%) enrollment of girls in primary and secondary schools.

    A neglect of higher education, however, can in many ways impair the otherwise forceful drive toward universal enrollment of girls in primary and secondary schools. Where parents see that their children have no option but, for example, to return to the farm after schooling, they lose the incentive to send children to primary schools in the first place; this has indeed been the case in many areas. Higher education serves as an aspirational magnet for parents to send their children to primary and secondary schools. Moreover, in the absence of robust higher education, the quality of primary and secondary education suffers for lack of good teachers, as well as inability to reform curriculum and other educational practices.

    It is important to realize that this is not a question of investing in higher education instead of primary and secondary education. As Mamphela Ramphele, Managing Director at the World Bank, reminds us: “tertiary education can no longer be viewed as a discrete subsector of education. Rather, it must be seen as but one critical element that buttresses a holistic system of education—a system which must become more flexible, diverse, efficient, and responsive to the knowledge economy.” There is considerable unmet demand for quality higher education across Asia – a demand that is only a consequence of the rapid change of societies in a competitive world economy. Unless there is adequate response to this demand, we risk failing to uphold the integrity of the entire education system.

    What makes AUW unique? Aren’t there plenty of other options for higher education already available to women in the region?

    Yes, but the vast majority of these other colleges and universities focus more on technical preparation than on liberal arts education. We have conducted preliminary studies of universities in the region (both co-educational and single sex) to determine what AUW will add to the landscape of higher education in South and Southeast Asia. Our conclusions indicate that, although aspects of AUW’s program can be found at other institutions, AUW’s blend of a liberal arts curriculum with professional graduate training, together with its emphasis on regional development issues, will make it unique. AUW’s commitment to small class size and low faculty-student ratio, as well as the focus on “critical learning,” will allow the University to transform more conventional modes of learning.

    AUW stands out in its explicit mission to graduate leaders and change agents. The University seeks to foster in its students a sense of tolerance, the ability to frame and develop debates on the basis of critical thinking, and the inspiration to envision large-scale change. AUW’s distinctive curriculum – the combination of three years of liberal arts education and two years of graduate/professional study – ensure that alumnae will have the knowledge and skills to have an immediate positive impact on their respective societies.

    Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that many other universities in the region have encouraged the formation of AUW and have been cooperating in its establishment. Such enthusiastic support suggests that these other institutions view AUW as a complement to them, and not as redundant in the work that they are already doing. As mentioned in the response to the previous question, the demand for higher education in the region has been only increasing in recent years, and this will require many new and innovative approaches in this sector.

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    Why is AUW introducing a traditional Western-style liberal arts curriculum? What relevance does that have to Asia?

    AUW’s liberal learning curriculum is only partially based on the Western tradition: the curriculum draws heavily on regional content. AUW’s program will encourage students to apply the analytical tools they acquire in the classroom to the problems and concerns of their own communities and countries, as well as the region at large. Indeed, the liberal learning curriculum does not separate education from professional training, or learning from action in the real world.

    AUW does not seek to be an “ivory tower.” Rather, it will take the best of the liberal arts tradition and integrate it with professional training for careers and leadership. This combination, reinforced by an integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree, is relevant to the region because it emphasizes both the history and contemporary context of South and Southeast Asia, as well as pertinent development issues. Students will leave AUW prepared to become active and committed participants in furthering the social and economic development of their societies.

    The kind of education that AUW seeks to offer will lay the foundation for a life of learning and critical thinking in a rapidly changing world. Coupled with well-designed master’s programs focused on career preparation, the liberal education planned for AUW can provide perhaps the strongest known foundations not only for personal growth but also for a life of participation and leadership in one’s community and in the broader social and economic spheres.

    What do you mean by a “broad-based curriculum with substantial Asian content”? Is that realistic or practical?

    Broad-based curriculum is a reference to AUW’s comprehensive education. It includes focus on: critical thinking, historical studies with emphases on Asia, literature and the arts in cultural context, issues in development studies, leadership roles in society, research methods in the sciences, and essential mathematics and computer science.

    AUW students will certainly receive a ‘practical’ education, since adequate career-preparation is a key aspect of the curriculum. Indeed, AUW brings together the best of existing models of education. The program is ‘realistic’, because it requires students to learn to think critically both about regional problems and issues of greater importance at the international level.

    In an era of increasing globalization, AUW will avoid the limitations of a curriculum that remains focused solely on the local. At the same time, AUW can also help redress problems of global inequities and “brain-drain”, by cultivating students who learn to appreciate and critically understand issues and problems of local and regional concern.

    Won’t English-language instruction exclude a large number of applicants?

    English is a pragmatic necessity: it is the only language common to a great many people throughout the region. AUW’s focus on instruction in English is, in fact, one of its major strengths. The emergence of English as the primary international medium of global communication has made competence in the language an increasingly important prerequisite for educated professionals and leaders in most countries. As an institution dedicated to cultivating the citizens and leaders of tomorrow, AUW will ensure that its students graduate not only with a sufficient command of English, but with the ability to use it on a practical level. In addition to the Access Academy, entering students without adequate preparations in English will have the opportunity to take tutorials to address their needs.


    How expensive is it for students to attend AUW, compared to other institutions?

    The comprehensive fee structure for students at AUW is currently being developed, but projected tuition, room and board expenses are around US $10,000 per year. By committing to provide scholarships and financial aid to those who are unable to afford the such costs, AUW guarantees talented young women’s access to education without regard to their financial abilities. AUW will therefore target its resources for the education of those who need support, in contrast to many public universities where subsidy is provided to everyone irrespective of financial need.

    It is also important to note that since most public universities receive significant state subsidies, tuition and fees at these institutions do not reflect the actual costs of programs. The biggest recurring expense for most universities is faculty salary. While some public universities are able to withstand fiscal constraints by renouncing competitive wages for faculty members, quite often this causes the best teachers and academics to flee for better paying pastures, which leaves a reduced quality of education and training offered in these settings. AUW hopes to create a highly qualified, world-class faculty.

    There have been concerns as to why attending AUW is so much more expensive compared to institutions like BRAC University or others in Bangladesh. It is important to note that AUW is not a local but a regional university, and so its peer group is comprised of the leading institutions across Asia, such as the National University of Singapore and Hong Kong University. Tuition and fees for foreign students at these schools are comparable to those at AUW. The cost of education at AUW is significantly lower than that at universities in the USA, Canada, UK or Australia, as well as other premier regional institutions like the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo.

    Even if you aim for a 50/50 mix of students paying tuition and students on scholarship and financial assistance, what makes you think that families of certain socioeconomic backgrounds will pay for their daughters to attend school with students from other backgrounds?

    AUW will offer a first-class education in a safe and secure environment within a reasonably ‘moderate’ country in terms of sociopolitical and religious demeanor. And AUW education will remain competitive in terms of price and quality in comparison with other excellent institutions.

    Leading universities in many parts of the world successfully integrate students from diverse ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. By committing to provide scholarship to at least half of its student body, AUW will ensure that promising young women are not denied education due to lack of financial means. Given its relatively modest projected size (2,500 students), AUW is easily able to appeal to a requisite number of parents and students from many parts of the economic spectrum. In its recruitment efforts, AUW will work with schools, families, and parents to help them become familiar with the kinds of opportunities that AUW will provide.

    One of AUW’s principal aims is to attract students from diverse backgrounds and allow them to live, learn and work together. AUW will create a campus culture of tolerance across all classes, ethnicities, and religions, through its curriculum, residential life and extra-curricular activities. The ability to work effectively with a diverse group of people is an essential skill for anyone who wishes to participate in the real world or become a leader in her community.

    How do you expect girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and with deficiencies in education to be able to function in English and to perform well in such challenging and unconventional work?

    AUW will provide pre-matriculation programs appropriate to the students targeted and the pedagogical style emphasized. AUW will also provide students with ongoing support throughout their time at AUW. Students who lack adequate secondary school preparation will enter the university through the Access Academy, designed to bring their English, mathematics and computer skills to a level commensurate with meeting the demands at AUW. The Access Academy will also introduce students to the kind of curriculum that they will experience at AUW, including participatory, project-based learning with a heavy emphasis on writing, speaking and group work.

    Because of its social commitment, AUW does not intend to accept only the best-prepared students; AUW will also include students who show great promise but have not had good preparation. Preliminary investigations have indicated that AUW may need to provide up to one year of remediation for some students, in addition to ongoing support during their tenure at the University. AUW is committed to providing an appropriate level of support to help students in their path from being confident learners to becoming successful graduates.

    AUW will maintain rigorous standards even as it makes its program accessible to a broad spectrum of students.

    You say that you want to recruit girls of “demonstrated ability or significant potential.” How will you identify the potential in girls who cannot demonstrate their ability?

    The success of AUW’s admissions program will depend on its success in building effective support networks in the primary target areas for recruitment. This includes setting up partnerships with local NGOs that can assist with recruitment and creating relationships with “feeder” schools where outstanding potential students can be identified. Such efforts are ongoing.

    Promising young women from underprivileged communities may indeed be difficult to identify, as their backgrounds may not have prepared them well for conventional university entrance examinations. AUW will rely on a host of criteria other than just test scores when evaluating students, such as portfolios and teacher recommendations.

    In terms of long term aspirations, AUW will of course need to identify outstanding young students early in their careers, provide them with periodic guidance, and assist them in making the transition to life in a rigorous academic setting.

    How can you run an effective recruitment and evaluation effort in so many countries?

    AUW will initially launch formal recruitment efforts in a number of countries and then, over time, expand the roster of target areas. During this roll-out process, AUW will, of course, be accepting students from elsewhere even if recruitment resources are not concentrated in those areas. Also, as noted above, AUW will develop regional support networks and relationships with local NGOs and feeder schools that can assist in the recruitment program. In addition to helping with recruitment, such relationships, together with the regional support networks, will help to identify potential faculty members, provide access to productive internships, and locate placement opportunities for graduates.

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