An introduction to South Asian Studies in the United Kingdom

Author: Vibha Arora


The efflorescence of South Asian Studies in Higher Education is evident in the range and number of taught and research degrees, the number of language courses, and the popularity of South Asian options within other courses that are offered by Colleges and Universities in the United Kingdom. This article gives an overview of the range of options available to a student at the undergraduate, postgraduate and research degree level, lists the major centres of teaching and research on South Asian Studies, indicates the range of resources available for research and highlights the principal networks of academic exchange and research in the United Kingdom and the world.

Table of contents


As a South Asian coming to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I was astounded by the range of taught 'South Asian Studies' degrees and South Asia options available in many disciplines, the research opportunities, and the resources available to students and researchers of South Asian Studies. These are comparable to those available within South Asia and in Europe, North America and Australia.

South Asian Studies: past to present

South Asian Studies historically began at Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh, in response to a need to train and familiarise missionaries and colonial administrators in the languages, religions, and cultures of South Asia. The richness of their libraries and their archives reflects these historic ties and the trajectory of critical scholarship on South Asia. The contemporary importance of South Asian Studies in Higher Education in the UK is reflected in the degrees offered, and the range of languages available for learning, teaching, and research. The current teaching and research programmes reflect the vibrant interest in the South Asian diaspora in the UK that is encouraging research in its cultural traditions, religions and cultural representation. According to Roger Ballard's analysis (n.d.), the South Asian diaspora component in the UK (consisting mainly of Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis) has increased from 0.23% in 1961 to 4% of the total population of the UK in 2001. Furthermore, most universities have student-run societies fostering informal networking, encouraging academic discussions, and providing cultural exposure to South Asian dance, music, food, and the arts. Altogether a composite experience is available to any student and researcher of South Asian Studies in UK.

Simultaneously, the historic ties between the universities and the academics of the UK and South Asia are being sustained through several scholarships that are offered to students (for South Asians to study in the UK and for UK students to study at South Asian universities) and through fellowships available to researchers and academics. Research networks and collaborative research projects between the scholars in the UK and South Asia enable academic exchanges and influence development funding and policy decisions regarding South Asia. On the other hand, scholars in the UK are strongly networked with their counterparts in universities and research centres in Europe, North America, and Australia.

Teaching and research centres

In response to the growth of interest and to utilise the academic resources available, several UK universities (London, Edinburgh and Manchester) have introduced South Asian Studies at both undergraduate and postgraduate degree levels and some universities (such as Oxford's MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies) are awaiting formal approval. These courses are enriched by language teaching and research facilities in South Asian languages that enable a deeper and more accurate understanding of South Asia. Beyond the classic citadels of London, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, amazing developments can be seen in other UK universities that are guided by a need to understand the South Asian diaspora.

Several universities have established Centres for South Asian Studies, while in other universities South Asia is taught as an option in disciplines such as Anthropology, Sociology, Politics, Economics, History, Geography, Theology, Cultural Studies, Education, Literature, Media and Cinema studies. Disciplines such as Political Science and International Relations, and Religion and Theology have organised academics into research groups focusing on the South Asian region. Academic centres at the Universities of London, Oxford, Cambridge, Sussex, and Edinburgh have seminar series on South Asia enabling academic exchange and networking between researchers and students. Many universities (such as Cambridge, Oxford, London, Edinburgh) have language teaching facilities in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Persian, Nepali, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Tibetan, and so on.

The South Asian Studies programme attracts students from a variety of national and international backgrounds, including those familiar with South Asia , while others have a desire to know the region. For instance, a t the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University, a student has the option of taking either a BA single subject degree in South Asian Studies or a two-subject degree in combination with Development Studies, Economics, Geography, History, History of Art/Archaeology, Law, Linguistics, Management, Music, Politics, and Social Anthropology. The degree contains a strong emphasis on language study. At SOAS, the MA in South Asian Studies is exceptional in its interdisciplinary analysis of South Asia including language training, Politics, Anthropology, Law and History. There is a long tradition of South Asian Studies at Oxford University with its BA Degree in Oriental Studies (with Hindi, Sanskrit, and Tibetan languages), the MSt is offered in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, a MPhil in Classical Indian Religions, while its MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies is awaiting recognition. Language training is an integral component of all these courses. At Oxford the Modern History faculty includes Indian History as part of its syllabus and the MPhil in Development Studies includes options on the History and Politics of South Asia and Indian Political Economy. South Asian studies at Cambridge "are well represented in the different Faculties of the University - especially in History, Anthropology, Social and Political Studies, Oriental Studies, Divinity and Geography. It is estimated that there are approximately 350 people in the University with a direct interest in South and Southeast Asia together with over 80 graduate students working within the area. There are, besides, approximately 200 students from the region studying for higher degrees in Cambridge" (website, see below). Edinburgh offers South Asian studies as part of some undergraduate courses and taught postgraduate degrees in Sociology and Social Anthropology. Other degree syllabuses contain South Asian Studies. For example, the MA in Religious Studies offers a specialization in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and the MA in History includes courses in South Asian history.

Current research trends and conference themes on South Asia indicate the shift towards a Commonwealth approach to development, social policy, and understanding of the South Asian diaspora. To list a few examples: the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies at Manchester University offers postgraduate courses and conducts research on social, cultural and religious developments within Britain's Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi minorities; the University of North London offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in South Asian history and cultures and South Asian Culture in Britain; the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester offer taught courses on the African and Asian diaspora; the Universities of Sussex and East Anglia have a development focus on South Asia with their strong linkages with DFID; the University of Bradford specialises in research on strategic stability and peace in the South Asian region and offers South Asian diaspora studies as part of its undergraduate degree; and Roehampton University is awaiting approval on its South Asian Dance degree.

The major centres of teaching and research on South Asian Studies are given below. The list is not exhaustive, but intended as a broad guide to students and researchers.


Ballard, R. (n.d.). The Current Demographic Characteristics of the South Asian Presence in Great Britain: An Analysis of the 2001 Census

Related links

School of Oriental and African Studies

The Centre for South Asian Studies at Cambridge

The University of Oxford hosts several centres focusing on South Asia, such as

Centre for South Asian Studies at Oxford

Oriental Institute, Oxford

Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford

Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies

Centre for South Asian Studies at Edinburgh

Centre for applied South Asian Studies (CASAS), Manchester

Centre for South Asian Studies at Sussex

Centre for South Asian Studies, Coventry University

Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies at the Open University

Academic networks

United Kingdom

The primary professional associations in the United Kingdom include the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS), the Society for South Asian Studies in the British Academy (SSAS), and the Commonwealth Institute in London . In fact, BASAS is the largest UK academic association for the study of India , Pakistan , Bangladesh , Sri Lanka , Nepal , Bhutan , Maldives and the South Asian Diaspora. Its annual conferences indicate the diversity and vibrancy of research on the region.

British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS)

Society for South Asian Studies in the British Academy (SSAS)

The Commonwealth Institute


European Institute of South Asian Studies

IIAS, the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden

South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Centre d'études de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud, Paris

Swedish South Asian Studies network

North America

BASAS has strong links with the American Association for Asian Studies (AAAS) and the Canadian Association of Asian Studies.

American Association for Asian Studies (AAAS)

Canadian Association of Asian Studies (CAAS)

SSRC South Asia Program (USA)

Major Centres include:

Centre for South Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison

University of Wisconsin Annual South Asia Conference

Centre for South Asian Studies, Virginia University

Department of South Asian Studies, Pennsylvania University

Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University

South Asia Language & Area Centre, Chicago University

Centre for South Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley

North Carolina Centre for South Asia Studies


National Centre for South Asian Studies

Links to research resources on South Asia in the UK and other countries

There is no dearth of research and study material available at the libraries, research centres, the museums, the art galleries, the streets and the centres of performing arts in the UK . The various museums and art galleries hold rich collections of the South Asian region. The British Library contains a large collection of books, archival documents, newspapers, photographs, etc. The Mapping Asia project provides useful descriptions of resources held in university, special and public libraries in the UK and enables access to newspapers in English and the other regional languages. Many relevant journals can be accessed through JSTOR and several useful internet resources for South Asian Studies are listed at the Oxlip site of Oxford University . The South Asia Resource Access on the Internet (SARAI) hosted by the University of Columbia in the USA is widely used to supplement resources available in UK and Europe. Some useful resources in UK and the web are listed below:

British Library

Mapping Asia


Internet Resources for South Asian Studies


Center For South Asian Libraries

South Asia Citizens Web

SAWNET: South Asian Women's Network

Digital colonial documents at the La Trobe university

Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library (Australian National University)

Chicago University Digital South Asia Library Project

Social Movements in South Asia (Berkeley)

Many related links are available on the Columbia University Libraries website

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