The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) will spearhead institutional development assistance efforts to help a newly established university in Savannakhet Province, Lao People's Democratic Republic to become one of the leading providers of university education in the country. A team from SEARCA and the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) conducted a reconnaissance visit to Savannakhet University (SKU) on 5-8 February 2011 to obtain a situationer on the university and make an initial assessment of its facilities, capabilities, curriculum, and qualifications of its faculty and staff. The SKU was established in March 2009 as the fourth university located in the central part of the country.
Information gathered during the visit will serve as inputs to the umbrella capacity-building program to be developed for SKU. The team was composed of Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit, Jr., Director of SEARCA; Dr. Luis Rey I. Velasco, Chancellor of UPLB and Philippine Representative to SEARCA's Governing Board; Dr. Oscar B. Zamora, Dean of UPLB Graduate School, and Dr. Editha C. Cedicol, Manager of SEARCA's Graduate Scholarship Department.
The visit was an initial response to the urgent need for capacity-building assistance expressed by Dr. Sitha Khemmarath, SKU Vice President for Academic Affairs and Representative of Lao PDR to the SEARCA Governing Board.
Dr. Bounpong Keorodum, Acting President of SKU, expressed that SKU has been mandated to respond to the human resource development needs of the provinces of Savannakhet, Khammouane, and Bolikhamxay. The task, according to Dr. Keorodum, is very challenging and interventions from the government as well as regional organizations like SEARCA are very welcome. He said that SKU is seeking help in curriculum development and capacity building in instruction, research and extension through skills training and graduate education.
In response, Dr. Saguiguit said that SEARCA has the concurrence of its Governing Board to continue to act as a catalyst in assisting developing universities in the region within the Center's capabilities and resources and in sourcing funds for institutional development. He said that SEARCA's mandate is to build capacities in teaching and research through its graduate scholarship, training, and knowledge management programs and that any activity in the umbrella capacity building program for SKU will be anchored on agriculture and rural development. He said that the strong support of the Laotian local and national governments is also vital to the success of this institutional assistance program for SKU.
Dr. Khemmarath said that SKU is strategically situated to cater to the demand for human resources required to boost economic development of the three central provinces located at the East-West Economic Corridor. The East-West Economic Corridor is an economic development program embodied in the master "connectivity" plan approved by the ASEAN that would link Danang, in Vietnam to Mawlamyine in Myanmar through Laos and Thailand to achieve the envisioned ASEAN single market by 2015.
During the visit, the team had the opportunity to meet the Vice Governor of Savannakhet Province, Dr. Khampheui Phanthachone, to brief him about the SEARCA mission to Lao PDR. Dr. Phanthachone expressed his pleasure that SKU took a giant leap to strengthen its cooperation with the UPLB and SEARCA, and eventually bring expertise into the province. He committed to support the institutional development efforts of SEARCA.
The team also had a courtesy call on the Deputy Minister of Education in Vientiane, Mrs. Sengdeuane Lachanthaboun, who also pledged strong support to the proposed project.
Since 1969, SEARCA has been assisting the member countries of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) in the development of high quality human resources in agriculture and related fields. The Lao PDR has been a beneficiary country of SEARCA's programs. To date, SEARCA has awarded a total of 34 scholarship grants to Laotians to pursue graduate studies in agriculture and related fields, and 7 scholarship grants to undergo the academic bridging program, a preparatory program for the master's degree.