Friday, September 27, 2013

In Liberal Arts, Ashoka University to charge Rs. 1.6 million for UG course

Here's a question for India's education-obsessed middle class and upper middle class parents: Would you send your son or daughter to a well-funded, well-appointed, classy private university backed by some of India's best names in business and academia but one that offers a liberal arts education?

No engineering, no job-oriented information technology courses, no medicine or even applied science and commerce. Would bright students opt for English, philosophy, psychology, history, sociology etc, paying Rs. 300,000-400,000 per year for a four-year undergraduate course, even if the university promises world-class teaching and campus environment? The marquee names behind Ashoka University, set to go operational in August 2014, think the answer is yes.

Therefore, a large group of highly successful entrepreneurs has together invested Rs. 1.25 billion to build and run this liberal arts university. The list includes Sanjeev Bikhchandani of; Ashish Dhawan, Senior MD, ChrysCapital; Sid Yog, Managing Partner, Xander Group; Puneet Dalmia, MD & CEO, Dalmia Bharat Cement; Pramath Raj Sinha, Founding Dean, Indian School of Business; and Jaithirth Rao, ex-MphasiS head and Chairman of Value and Budget Corporation.

The university will be spread over a 25-acre campus that will offer residential facilities to all students, and is located in the Rajiv Gandhi Education City in Kundli, National Capital Region. It will be run by an academic council that's as blue chip as the list of financiers. Headed by Andre Beteille, professor emeritus, Delhi School of Economics, the council includes, among others, Kaushik Basu, ex-chief economic advisor and now chief economist, World Bank, notable writer/historians Ramachandra Guha, Christophe Jaffrelot and Sunil Khilnani, and Devesh Kapur, who heads the Centre of Advanced Study on India at the University of Pennsylvania. The entrepreneurs and academics are convinced that India needs a centre of excellence that sharpens young Indians' general intellectual ability and helps them broaden their knowledge base.

Stress on Rounded Quality Education
In fact, some of the entrepreneur backers of Ashoka University say recruit-worthy talent needs a rounded quality education, something, they say, is not on offer in India now. Yog, who gifted $11 million to his alma mater Harvard Business School in 2011, got sold on the idea of the university because it was a liberal arts programme. He says a sense of curiosity comes from a good liberal arts education.

"I recruit and it saddens me to see the limited exposure among the students. I am not saying that the functional competence is of no use. What we are trying to do is bring back one of India's biggest strengths - the plurality of India's education. The idea is to build a globally competitive institute with world-class academia," Yog adds.

Guha argues there's a market for quality liberal arts education: "We have a large pool of people seeking quality education. We need a mix of public and private sector endeavours to meet the demand. Having competition will help state universities too." Bikhchandani is even more forthright, saying such a university is a necessity because "the Indian education system is broken..." Our universities," he says, "haven't changed their syllabi in 20 years. The world has changed and we are teaching the same stuff. Our institutions are stagnating."

Dhawan and Beteille accept there are challenges for the new venture. Beteille says Ashoka University will have to overcome the "bias amongst India's intelligentsia that private universities are sinful...that they are only in it for money". Dhawan says branding, marketing and communications will be the key. "You need to convince parents," he says.

Some of this convincing, the university's backers hope, will come from the quality of faculty. Ashoka plans to recruit teaching talent from top US and British universities - professors in Chicago and Oxford have already been headhunted - as well as offer posts to high-quality talent in India. Beteille says many talented professors find India frustrating because of bureaucracy in universities. Ashoka University, he says, will offer an environment suitable for top-quality academic talent.

Guha says the faculty should be largely Indian, whether NRIs coming back or domestic talent. "It shouldn't look like an American university in India," he says. He also said the university must attract students from all over India, not just north India. Ashoka University is also rolling out equivalents of executive education programmes. "We don't know what to call it yet in the context of liberal arts," says Pramath Sinha.

Source: The Economic Times, September 27, 2013

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