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Every woman must be given a chance to succeed. Prof Nirmala Rao of the Asian University for Women

About this Episode:

Every woman must be given a chance to succeed. Vice Chancellor of the Asian University for Women (AUW), Prof Nirmala Rao, shares the impact of Bangladesh’s (and region’s) only liberal arts institution.

An inspiring conversation for anyone interested gender equality. The Asian University for Women (AUW) was first established in Bangladesh in 2008, with a specific mission to recruit young women who have promise and potential, regardless of their background, and to offer them high quality education.

It's a liberal arts institution — the only one of its kind in the region. It's very global in outlook and rooted in the context and aspirations of the young people of Asia, designed to address some of the inequalities endemic to the region.

The idea for the university grew out of the World Bank and United Nations Task Force on Higher Education and Society.

About Prof Nirmala Rao:

Prof Nirmala Rao is Vice-Chancellor of the Asian University for Women (AUW), Chittagong, Bangladesh. She formerly served as the Pro-Director at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) between 2008 and 2016 and prior to that as Pro-Warden for Academic Affairs at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Nirmala took her first degree in Economics at Delhi University in 1979, Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and PhD from the University of London. She has published extensively in the field of urban politics and some of her books include Reshaping City Governance; Cities in Transition; Governing London; and Transforming Local Political Leadership.


Nirmala has extensive experience of public service and served as an advisor to a range of bodies including the UK Audit Commission and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). For a number of years she was a lay member of the General Council of the Bar, a non-executive director of Ealing Hospital NHS Trust and member of the Architects Registration Board. She is currently a member of Governing Body of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and a Trustee of United World Schools. Nirmala was elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2003 and awarded an OBE for services to scholarship in 2011.

The following is a full transcript of the podcast episode:

Alberto Lidji: A big heartfelt welcome on to The Do One Better! Podcast, Nirmala.

Nirmala Rao: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Alberto Lidji: Tell us a little bit about the Asian University for Women.

Nirmala Rao: The Asian University for Women was first established in 2008, with a specific mission to recruit young women with the promise and potential, regardless of their background, and to offer them high quality education. It's a liberal arts institution, the only one of its kind in the region. And it's very global in outlook. It's rooted in the context and aspirations of young people of Asia, designed to address some of the inequalities endemic to the region. The idea for the university grew out of the World Bank and United Nations Task Force on Higher Education and Society. It was in 2000 that the taskforce published its findings in a report on higher education in developing countries. Which actually concluded that these countries must improve the quality of the institutions of higher learning, in order to compete successfully in an increasingly globalized knowledge based economy. And this inspired our founder, Mr. Kamal Ahmad to create this university.

Alberto Lidji: Wonderful.

Nirmala Rao: So it was established in 2000.

Alberto Lidji: How many students did you start with? And, how many students do you have today?

Nirmala Rao: We started with 125 students, predominantly Bangladeshi students enrolling for a one year access program. Over the years we've grown, both in programs and student numbers, and today we have over 1,000 students enrolled on various programs.

Alberto Lidji: I guess it's similar or based on a US model, would you say?

Nirmala Rao: Oh, yes. It is a US style liberal arts model, where students are allowed to study a whole range of subjects, while retaining the core aims of developing well rounded individuals. The programs are designed to address a wide range of subjects for the students with a mastery of a range of transferable skills. Our academic programs are quite unique. They are designed to foster a student's resilience, leadership, enterprise and responsibility. Something that cuts across all liberal arts institutions, even in the US, but we give a greater emphasis to equipping students to make a positive contribution to society.

Alberto Lidji: I was doing a little bit of research. There is a strong undercurrent of social responsibility that seems to be instilled within… irrespective of major you're focused on.

Nirmala Rao: Everything we do practically. So, for us education is not just about getting a degree, but it's about making a difference for students in their own lives and of others, including their families and their communities. So, in addition to academic excellence, AUW places emphasis on students participating in community service initiatives, or other forms of volunteer work to develop the skills to become highly motivated and effective leaders and service oriented citizens, which is part of our mission statement. And the service ethic cuts across right from the time their recruitment takes place, where we are assessing certain competencies. It seeks to establish a young woman's desire and ability to make… to be a positive agent of change in the community she comes from. And we look for certain qualities like empathy, courage, determination, grit, and their motivation to be leaders of change in the future.

Alberto Lidji: Now, the institution is based in Bangladesh, and you mentioned initially your students were mainly from Bangladesh. That's not necessarily the case today. Is that right?

Nirmala Rao: No, initially, it started off from Bangladesh and a couple of other countries. Our charter requires us to take at least a minimum of 25% of students from Bangladesh. However, we have considerable flexibility. And today we have students from 19 different countries, including one from Senegal, most recently recruited two years ago.

Alberto Lidji: Wonderful. And what are the… in order to get into this university… you mentioned some of the things that you're looking for in students. What are the fees? Are there scholarships available? How is one able to access this university, which I'm sure is probably oversubscribed in terms of demand.

Nirmala Rao: Yes, because the mission is to recruit students, young women from very marginalized communities and give them the opportunity to come forward and study. It started off predominantly as a scholarship University. Every student admitted was given a scholarship. And over the years, as the student numbers grew, and students from all walks of life, even the wealthier students wanted to join AUW, so introduced fees in recent years. Which becomes necessary enough to a point as student numbers grow, it becomes very difficult to provide for scholarship for every student. Scholarship per student is about $15,000. And that's largely because we have over half our faculty recruited from the United States, Europe, New Zealand, Australia. So we get the very best faculty. And in order to be competitive, we need to maintain our competitiveness, both in terms of salaries and getting the right expertise. So today, we have around 20% of our students paying fees.

Alberto Lidji: The balance… the rest are on scholarship.

Nirmala Rao: Yes. They are on scholarship, on full scholarship.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. That can't be that easy to do, when you're dealing with that volume of students in Bangladesh, and you're dealing with high quality education, tertiary education.

Nirmala Rao: It is a huge challenge. Because we - students come... majority of our students come in the pre collegiate programs, which are two years access, pre access and access program before they migrate to the undergraduate three year program. So in all, we need scholarships for a student to complete either a four year study, one year access plus three years and the graduate or two year access programs, depending on the point of entry, and a three year. So, investment ranges from between $60,000 to $75,000 for each student. And yes, in this highly competitive world where there's a limited pool out there, it is extremely difficult. But we've been very fortunate to have a network, international network of supporters all around the world. So we have support foundations. The main one is in Boston. A support foundation where our founder is the CEO and the president of that foundation, and that foundation is the prime mover of funding. But we are supported by a foundation in Japan, in Hong Kong and Singapore, recently established in New York, Bay area. And we have a very committed group of individuals who raise funding for us.

Alberto Lidji: And it must be helpful to have someone like Cherie Blair….

Nirmala Rao: Of course, and yes. And Cherie Blair….

Alberto Lidji: Must be wonderful having her.

Nirmala Rao: Absolutely. She's very passionate about girls' education. And she's extremely supportive of AUW. And we can just simply call on her every time we have an event, even as far as in Mexico, and she's prepared to go. So she's present in most of our events, physically present in Hong Kong and Singapore, and comes regularly to Chittagong once a year to participate in our commencement ceremonies. So wonderful, her support is absolutely…

Alberto Lidji: Wonderful. Wonderful. And tell me a little bit about addressing some of the inequalities that manifest themselves out there in that part of the world. How is the university able to address these?

Nirmala Rao: Yes, I mean, in terms of what you rightly said, we do address both the SDG 4 and 5 Goals. As you know the Asian subcontinent presents a strikingly different context, in many ways for the Western countries that have been at the center of the dialogue on issues of equity and access. Asian context… it is still a context where there persists gender inequalities, women make less money than men, women don't hold positions of power as much as men, or cultural or religious traditions inhibit young women from attending co-educational institutions. And the last factor is a very important one, not just in Bangladesh, but even in the surrounding Muslim communities, particularly. Families are quite reluctant to send their daughters to coeducational institutions. So an institution like AUW, has successfully given access to these women who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to access any form of higher education. And we sincerely believe without these, their hopes and aspirations will have remained a distant dream. And I think equally important, is the fact that an institution like AUW, which is all female, does provide an environment, very conducive to growing strong and assertive leaders and developing self confidence, developing self esteem among young women. Because in Asian context, even now, whether it's India or Nepal, or any of these countries, women still are not seen as someone who has an independent mind, they're able to use their judgment and their traditions… It's still a very traditional society. So young women coming to AUW, it’s a liberal arts institution, and they grow within five years. They come as very different young women, very shy, very coy, submissive, and by the end of their fifth year, they're out there, very assertive, ready to take on the world.

Alberto Lidji: And where do you… now that you describe to me a little bit that journey and that transformation from the first day to the day they graduate… Where are they heading on after they finish at university?

Nirmala Rao: Yes, so we have more than 1,000 graduates worldwide. The majority, I would say about 75% of our graduates returned to their home countries, and they want to solve the problems of their communities. That's why they have come to AUW and they say that at their interviews, and they really want to go back and help their families, their communities. I would say all are infused with the passion to create a positive impact in the world. So, the majority of them join the NGOs or government sector. They also join teaching institutions, think tanks. And some of them have even set up their own enterprises in Cambodia, in Nepal, and so on. But 25% of our graduates progress to higher education institutions worldwide to pursue their highest studies. And some of them are in top elite universities. We have about 12, probably a dozen.… either studying in Oxford or have graduated from Oxford. We have five PhDs this year, coming out, two from Stanford, I’m proud to say. And we have students in Cambridge and University of London and Johns Hopkins. Name it and you have it. So, yes, I mean, but as I said, the majority of them go back to their home countries and they work in the government and NGO sector. So you asked about the service ethic, it cuts across, right through. Today we have about 62 graduates working for NGOs and international organizations like UNHCR, World Food Programme, UNICEF in the Cox's Bazar, which is very close to the camps, the Rohingya camps. And they are working out there to address the crisis, which, as in the last two years has intensified, with over a million Rohingyas from Myanmar coming into Bangladesh.

Alberto Lidji: And so it seems a wonderful journey, in terms of these girls being able to set foot on campus, having a year or two of access studies, then embark on the proper undergraduate degree. And many of them go on to doing extremely fruitful things, both career wise, or even in further studies, master's degrees, postgraduate studies, at some amazing universities. Tell me a little bit about the other side of the equation. In other words, how do you recruit? How do you reach out to these marginalized communities and identify individuals who would be well suited for this? It can't be that easy.

Nirmala Rao: You raise a very good question, Alberto, because if we are recruiting from very marginalized communities, how do we recruit them for the basic competencies in English, for example. So, we recruit for the traits that I mentioned earlier, which is about looking for certain qualities. And that we do that through interviews and the questionnaires that we distribute to students. But the point, the starting point is we look for NGOs in these regions, who are willing to collaborate with us, or we look for media, who are willing to publicize and get as far as we can reach the last mile, if you like, to reach out to students and schools. And we then send our teams out to these countries, perhaps not to the remote villages, because the NGOs do the work for us, or local volunteers help us reach out to the schools. And the examination is a very non conventional one, part of it is, of course, the traditional examination, which is essentially testing the basic competencies in English comprehension and essay writing, but if they are predominantly from the local tribes, they don't know English. So what we do is we then give a greater emphasis to interviewing them in their own language, and we have a translator. And what we look for, is a young woman's ability to demonstrate political awareness, if you like, or community activism, or entrepreneurial imagination. So, we give them scenarios and we look for skills such as empathy, or outrage at injustice, or teamworking, and motivation and resilience. And because we believe these are… these attributes are much more important than getting a simple score in standard English, or mathematics. So they get recruited to… if their English competency is not as expected, then they come for the Pathways for Promise Program, which is the first year of the pre access program. So it gives them intense English and Math, a bit of maths, and then they build on that. And the second year of the Access Program, which also gives them core competencies in computer science and other subjects like ethics and leadership and world civilizations.

Alberto Lidji: So I guess it's a little bit of a balancing act there, right? Even though you are trying to reach out to the most marginalized, by the very definition of most marginalized, some of those segments would not have the basic competencies that you would be looking for as a minimum entry. My conjecture here, but I imagine you have to strike a little bit of a balance. And yes, look at marginalized groups, but individuals who have had access to some sort of education, who do have some of the basic competencies so that they're able to succeed within the university environment.

Nirmala Rao: Absolutely. They have to have the higher secondary level of education which is equivalent, I would say of GCSE is, if you like, at the age of 15, or 16. But the idea and we all know it, that in the Asian subcontinent, secondary education has not been as successful as one might expect, because of poor infrastructure or lack of resources or not enough trained teachers. So even if they complete their secondary education, they're really not ready to embark on an undergraduate program. And hence, we have these two years, pre collegiate programs, it brings them up to speed to the undergraduate level. You will be interested to know that among the students we have, of course, the second largest are recruited from the fragile countries, the war affected areas of Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria. They form the second largest cohort, next only to Bangladesh students, and the third largest are from the Rohingya communities. And, but more recently, in 2016, our founder was a visionary obviously, who created this ambitious project, we call it before as a human project. He went to the garment factories, and decided he wanted to recruit,… as you know there are about 4,000 young women working in Bangladesh garment factories, and he thought there must be a handful every year who have the potential and the promise to undertake higher education. So he went to the factories, and he persuaded them that if we test these young women on a Friday afternoon, and we find them qualified to come to the AUW, then the factories will compensate, pay the families, the wages. And we had, it was a wonderful approach, because we have today, we have today over 100 students from the garment factories of Bangladesh. Similarly, last year, I think it was in 2018. He hit upon this idea of approaching young women from the madrasas. Madrasas are religious schools, which build a curriculum around the study of Islamic cultures and theology. And they often operate as seminaries and they're isolated from the public school system. And traditionally only open to boys. But although they have now begun to enroll girls, there's so much more that they can do in terms of giving girls further access. About a third of all Bangladeshi youth are still educated in the madrasa system. It's a very closed system. So we managed to recruit from the madrasas which is a real breakthrough, that we managed to convince the families and the religious elders to send their daughters to a liberal arts institution such as this. I mean, it would have been unimaginable a few years ago that they can send them to such a far, and extreme institution. It's no ordinary feat in the context within which we are operating. And that's been a huge success. We don't have huge numbers, but they are growing.

Alberto Lidji: And so the student body itself is very diverse.

Nirmala Rao: Very diverse, we have, as I said, we have around 1,000 enrolled currently, and from 19 different countries, we have 35 ethnicities. We have around 26 languages spoken and we have about five religions. Yes, all Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists alike.

Alberto Lidji: That is really wonderful. So the positive externalities, I think that come out of the university aren't just the SDG 4 and SDG 5, with education and gender, but you also have, I would imagine, you have a lot of individuals graduating from the University who, after having had such exposure to diverse cultures, see their local communities and their lives in a different light in terms of what's possible,

Nirmala Rao: Of course, and it's not always easy, I have to say, particularly those coming from very remote areas, like the tribal communities or the chakmas or the garos of the hill tribes in Bangladesh or the tribes from Assam and Nagaland. They come, they are very, very remote. So it is and even the refugee, young woman from refugee communities. It's not easy to go back to their own communities because they have been here with us for five years. And to return to that community to make an impact, to make a transformation is a huge challenge for them, and they still do it. And then some of them have been extremely successful in setting up small enterprises and improving the lives of the local people.

Alberto Lidji: I'm looking forward to seeing what your alumni community is going to look like in a few years. Because it sounds like you're gonna have a wonderful alumni body.

Nirmala Rao: Absolutely. Even if it's not huge numbers, I would like to see the success in terms of what impact they're making. And although we have PhD students and in Scandinavian countries who are working on water treatment and they want to go back to their countries like India, and improve the quality of water. And in Bangladesh, sanitation, public health, these are big issues. And we have a huge, and we have quite a large number of our alumni who graduated in public health programs, and they're all over the world doing their masters and they want to come back. So, you’re right, we are already seen the impact. It's phenomenal.

Alberto Lidji: What do you want to see for the university in the next 10 years? What would success look like? I mean, it seems like it's growing already very nicely. What do you think it would look like in 10 years time?

Nirmala Rao: In 10 years, I mean, the first project we have just embarking is on constructing our campus. At the moment, we operate from a very small space, very, very small. And one way of looking at it is such a small space has produced such a diverse set of young women who have gone out to the world making an impact. But one of the things I'd like to see - we all would like to see is a permanent campus - which is going to start soon. We're going to start construction. We've just got funding from the World Bank, to start the project. And it's a beautifully designed master plan designed by Moshe Safdie, who's an Israeli architect, professor of architecture at Harvard. It's going to be distinctive, a remarkable campus, which will provide the transformation. It will be an experience for students, which is going to be unparalleled, I think in the region. So in a few years from now, we hope to extend that outreach. We hope to get more students from faraway countries, not just Asian subcontinent, but from beyond. I'd like to see success also in terms of the growth of programs. At the moment, we are just an undergraduate university, and we have ambitious plans to build schools of education, schools of Architecture and Planning, schools of environment and engineering and so on. So we have plans. We just need the campus.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Now you have ambitious plans. It sounds great. And also one thing you mentioned, which I don't know if everybody picked up but, touching on or adding on the diversity topic, the fact that the architect for your new campus is Israeli, adds even more diversity to the picture, doesn't it?

Nirmala Rao: Absolutely. I'm sure it will be breathtaking…

Alberto Lidji: That's absolutely great. Tell us a little bit about your trajectory. You have a very distinguished trajectory. Tell us a little bit about where you were before and how you got to where you are today.

Nirmala Rao: Well Alberto. I was raised in a very traditional South Indian culture myself at a time when gender roles were unambiguously defined, and limits were set on women's aspirations. But I was singularly fortunate in that I had the opportunity to study at top Indian universities. An education that transformed my life considerably. And growing up in India, really helped me develop my personality as well as my work ethic and so which assisted me enormously to come to terms with my transition to the UK in the late 1980s. I came here with a small child, managed to get my first job with Runnymede Trust and very soon got an opportunity from the Rowntree Foundation. I worked for them as a research fellow and they gave me a chance to register for my PhD and I got my doctorate, which enabled me to start my teaching career at Goldsmiths College, where I was for 14 years. But having invested in teaching and research, I soon got the opportunity to take on the role of pro Warden, which is the second in the administrative position in Goldsmith, which I considerably enjoyed. And that led to my next job at the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, where I joined as its pro director, I was there for nearly a decade. And a…

Alberto Lidji: … And SOAS is a wonderful school. It is really outstanding.

Nirmala Rao: It's fantastic. My golden years. Both at Goldsmiths and SOAS, but particularly SOAS, because you had a huge diverse mix of students from the Middle East and Asia and very much at home. But I joined SOAS in 2008. In 2011, I was first approached by our founder, Mr. Kamal Ahmad, who happened to visit London. And he reached out and he told me about the university and asked if I would go to Chittagong to go and have a look at it. And I immediately agreed, I went there and spent a few days. I met students, faculty, and came away feeling it was a very special place. Quite magical, quite extraordinary, just the interaction between students and the faculty was quite amazing. But I couldn't take it up at that point because I still had projects in SOAS. But when the opportunity arose in 2016, now the vacancy came up. I accepted the offer when I was approached again. Because I wanted to be part of this very bold, important initiative that was so successfully addressing some of the key issues of, as I said, quality, equity, access to higher education for women in the region. And this initiative gives me hope that they are solvable problems.

Alberto Lidji: Sure. Wow, that's a great story all around. Tell us before we wrap things up, what's the key takeaway you'd love for the audience to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode,

Nirmala Rao: My own experience in the last four years with AUW has taught me something very important. And that is background is not an indicator of potential. Courage, hope, resilience, drive, empathy, these qualities are of much greater value, and most importantly, how talents even in the most unimaginable settings, can be harnessed to great effect, which will eventually transform lives. I believe every woman must be given the chance to succeed and become the agent of change that we so desperately need. Education is the key to success.

Alberto Lidji: Hear hear. You've been listening to Nirmala Rao, Vice Chancellor of Asian University for Women. To our listeners, as always, thank you so much for tuning in. Please click that subscribe button if you haven't already. And please share this episode and the podcast widely with your friends and family and colleagues. Nirmala, really wonderful. I thank you very much for your time and your insight, and I wish you continued success.

Nirmala Rao: Thank you so much Alberto. Thank you.

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