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




    The story of AUW began well before its inaugural Access Academy class entered in 2008.  The idea for the University grew out of the World Bank/UN Task Force on Higher Education and Society.  In 2000, the Task Force published its findings in a report entitled “Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise” (more information available at, which concluded that developing countries must improve the quality of their institutions of higher learning, in both governance and pedagogy, in order to compete in today’s increasingly globalized, knowledge-based economy.


    In January 2004, the Government of Bangladesh granted more than 100 acres of land for the construction of AUW’s permanent campus in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

    Fundraising and planning efforts for AUW officially began in November 2001, when the AUW Support Foundation was incorporated as a non-profit institution under section 501(c)3 of the United States Internal Revenue Code.  AUW’s Support Foundation is governed by a Board of Directors, which was established upon the group’s incorporation as a non-profit organization.

    The AUWSF Board of Directors published a Plan of Operations in May 2005, laying out the basic plans for AUW’s curriculum, target student population, and sustainability efforts.


    Grants from the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2005 and 2006 provided the start-up funds that enabled AUW to become operational in 2008. In September 2006, the Parliament of Bangladesh ratified the University’s charter, which guaranteed full autonomy and independence to AUW in its operations and academics, a unique arrangement in the region.

    AUW began operations in Chittagong in March 2008.  Its first cohort of students consisted of 130 young women from six countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  This inaugural class attended the Access Academy, AUW’s year-long bridge program designed to prepare underserved students for the rigors of university education.  After completing the Access program, 128 of them continued into the first year of their undergraduate studies, and were joined by a number of direct-entry students who began the undergraduate program in 2009.


    Also in 2009, AUW’s initial Board of Trustees was elected by the International Support Committee of the Asian University for Women in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the Asian University for Women.

    The University appointed its first Chancellor in January 2011: Mrs. Cherie Blair, international human rights lawyer and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. AUW continues to enjoy a strong and dedicated team of leaders and administrators, as well as a faculty from well-known academic institutions in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.


    In April 2011, AUW held a foundation stone laying ceremony at the site of its permanent campus in Pahartoli, with the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the Chief Guest.  The Government of Bangladesh has now granted over 140 acres for the University’s campus, which has been designed by Moshe Safdie and Associates.

    The summer of 2012 marked the University’s first Summer Term, which offered 20 courses on campus taught by AUW professors and visiting faculty.  Also that summer, the University hosted two leadership training seminars co-sponsored by the United States Department of State: the Women in Public Service Institute, also co-sponsored by the Seven Sisters Women’s Colleges, took place in August; the Grassroots Women’s Political Leadership Forum was held in September.


    In May 2013, University graduated its first class of 132 students. The 2012-13 academic year saw AUW’s first full complement of classes — a total student body of 535, with cohorts in the Access Academy and all four undergraduate years. They represent 15 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Vietnam.

    As of May 2015, AUW had graduated over 370 alumnae all of whom plan to go on to graduate studies or begin careers in the public sector, non-governmental organizations, and private enterprise.


    AUW’s enrollment hits a new high of 605 students from 15 countries. In May, the fourth batch of students graduated, bringing AUW’s alumnae population to more than 440. Pathways for Promise program is introduced, offering garments workers and Rohingya women an additional year of English and Math preparation ahead of the usual Access Academy year.


    Professor Nirmala Rao joins AUW as Vice-Chancellor. Professor Rao is a distinguished political scientist who most recently served for eight years as Pro Director of at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

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