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Sikh studies get boost in UK varsity

The launch of the Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton is significant because it takes Punjabi studies into the mainstream of higher education in the UK.

Sikh studies get boost in UK varsity

Courtesy: @SufiSartaaj/Twitter

Sujinder Singh Sangha
Former Principal and Chief Executive of a leading UK GFE College

THE development of Sikh and Punjabi Studies has a history of five decades within and outside the UK Higher Education (HE) system. The formation of the Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton is significant in that it takes the studies into the mainstream of HE provision.

Initially, the Centre plans to focus on post-graduate, research and community studies. A substantial body of literature and artistic and cultural resources have been developed by academics, educationists and collectors of artefacts. These support undergraduate programmes. The study materials cover themes ranging from the background and context of migration from Punjab and its social, economic and cultural impact, the history of pre- and post- Partition India, Sikh religious and Punjabi language studies, the circumstances of people of Punjab origin in their Indian and global context and various contemporary socio-economic and political opportunities and challenges.

The SGPC has arranged a scholarship programme with the University of Cambridge. This Centre, in conjunction with the newly established state-funded Sikh faith schools in England, together with educationalists could create a networked provision for progression in Sikh and Punjabi Studies from play group to PhD. 

There are signs of a growing interest among university students incorporating dimensions of Sikh and Punjabi Studies into their art, business, culture, education, health, history, law, philosophy, religion, social studies, science or technology courses. Unlike the Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Jewish studies provision, Sikh-related research activities have remained on the margins. Some recent publications such as the British Sikh Report, the UK Sikh Survey and the CREST Report on Sikh Activism have provided evidence-based public information for policy and decision-makers.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoff Layer, and Centre Director, Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, are working to make the Centre a success. It was launched in the presence of over 150 guests and singer-song writer and actor Dr Satinder Sartaj.    

Work on Sikh studies since 1960s

The UK Punjabi community's work in the field of education since the 1960s celebrations of the 300th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh and 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, respectively, shows how some first generation migrant educationalists (with the support of then newly developing gurdwaras) laid the foundation of Sikh and Punjabi Studies. In the 1970s, a public resolution was passed at a Birmingham Town Hall event celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Dr Bhai Vir Singh to formalise Sikh and Punjabi Studies provision. At that time, community activists sought advice from Selly Oak Colleges in conjunction with the University of Birmingham to take the process forward. The founders of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara supported the initiative. However, the process was disrupted by the Punjab crisis resulting in the turmoil of the 1980s. In October 1985, the British Sikh-Punjabi Literary Society held a conference in Birmingham and Wolverhampton sponsored by Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick. Punjabi writers from India, the USA and UK and reinforced the need for organising Sikh and Punjabi Studies. During 1984-85, some Further and Higher Education academics set up the Punjab Research Group, which has held research conferences attracting researchers.

During the 1990s, some Punjabi academics in UK institutions of Further and Higher Education established a liaison with Punjabi and Guru Nanak Dev universities in Punjab to formalise accreditations forPunjabi studies. In the 2000s, an academic post was sponsored by Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara at the University of Birmingham, which continues as a mainstream position. Since 2014, three international Sikh research conferences have been held at the University of Warwick. The conferences reveal that there is an expanding class of UK students engaging in Punjabi Studies.

There are academics who subscribe to the idea of developing Sikh and Punjabi Studies in UK HE through private or philanthropic sponsorships. So, the logical next step could be to develop a centre/chair/professorship/scholarship within the mainstream HE. 

Lack of vision

But the lack of a workable vision and direction for its development is an issue. The universities in their own right made little progress in embedding the Sikh Studies in their provision. UnlikeSikh studies in Canada and the USA, funded mainly by families and philanthropists, little progress has been made in the UK. In the present financial climate and funding of HEIs, a sustainable provision for development in Sikh  studies would require a £3 million investment.

A lesson from the developments in Canada and the USA is that any funding support from community sources can be problematic in terms of interventions in appointing staff and academic freedom.

However, the UK HE provision is by and large student-financed and demand and supply led. Provision within the mainstream is more promising. Also, UK's Sikh citizens as taxpayers can raise and pursue a case for Sikh studies. The capacity for providing customised education and skills for the community's civic, social, educational and religious functionaries could be beneficial too. A library will be needed, supported by infrastructure, facilities and administration. In this context, the Sikh studies centre at the University of Wolverhampton is a significant development as it takes this study from the margins to the mainstream of UK Higher Education.

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