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Ashoka University: Ivy League, Indian-style

Sanjeev Bikhchandani, the founder of Naukri.com, India’s biggest online job portal, began to grasp the decline of India’s once prestigious universities a decade ago while his niece was at the University of Cambridge studying economics.

A 1984 graduate of Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College, the entrepreneur had previously heard from a classmate-turned-professor that his alma mater’s economics curriculum had hardly changed since their student days, despite the transformation of the world economy.

Looking at one of his niece’s first-year textbooks on microeconomics, he realised that she would cover in a single year what students at top Indian colleges learnt in three. Gradually, Bikhchandani, whose internet company Info Edge had listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange in November 2006, felt it was incumbent on him to act.

“Indian institutions are where they were in the 1980s,” he says. “The students are outstanding, but the institutions very often haven’t progressed. These institutions of excellence are going into academic decline. Something is broken.”

It turned out that Bikhchandani’s dismay was shared by other first-generation Indian entrepreneurs, including Ashish Dhawan, founder of venture capital fund ChrysCapital, and Vineet Gupta, founder of Jamboree Education, a company that prepares students for entrance exams for foreign universities.

Out of their frustration has come the most ambitious initiative in Indian higher education in a century: Ashoka University, a dedicated liberal arts institution that aims to reach the standards of rigorous, original research and intellectual freedom of the American Ivy League universities.

Standing on a beautifully designed 25-acre campus on New Delhi’s outskirts, Ashoka has an undergraduate programme that is orientated towards producing public service-minded critical thinkers who approach India’s challenges not just as engineering or economic problems but who also have a wider social perspective.

“What we need in India is not just economic change — what we need is societal transformation,” says Dhawan, an alumnus of Yale University and Harvard Business School. “It’s about building a better democracy. You need people who are willing to question power, who are independent thinkers and who know how to write well and express themselves well in spoken form. India doesn’t have enough of that.”

Ashoka University plans to expand its New Delhi campus to cater for some 5,000 students © Ishan Tankha

Beyond providing a stimulating education to undergraduates, Ashoka also aspires to be a hub of groundbreaking original research, particularly on south Asia, that can withstand global academic scrutiny.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a highly regarded scholar who took over as Ashoka’s vice-chancellor last July, is committed to fostering the university’s research culture, ensuring academics have the time and institutional support to carry out their work.

“When you think of major universities you don’t just think of them from the education component but as being the source of new ideas,” Mehta says. “The perception is that over the last 80 or 100 years, India has for the most part been a consumer of knowledge — the big ideas get produced in western societies and we just apply them. The question is, how do you move India from being just a consumer of knowledge to a major producer of knowledge?”

To ensure young academics have an incentive to carry out research, Ashoka will award its permanent professorships through a western-style tenure process, which will place a premium on candidates’ track record of publication. “You need to demonstrate your credentials as a scholar, not just as a teacher, to get tenure,” says Dhawan.

Though Ashoka only took in its first undergraduates in 2014, it is already a coveted option for young Indians keen to pursue multiple academic interests before specialising — a rare freedom in India, where students are mostly locked into subjects early on.

Ashoka has 1,400 students and 80 full-time professors, two-thirds of whom have PhDs from leading western universities and 30 per cent of whom are from overseas. The university plans to expand gradually to 5,000 students, two-thirds of whom will be undergraduates. To reach this goal the university is presently in the process of acquiring an adjacent 25-acre plot.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta © Ishan Tankha

Ashoka is one of a small but growing group of new credible fledgling private Indian universities established by top industrialists in recent years to help alleviate India’s glaring shortfall of well-educated, skilled professionals to power a complex modern economy.

But Ashoka’s exclusive focus on liberal arts sets it apart from the rest, which are mostly focused on professional courses such as law, engineering, business management, architecture or sciences, with small liberal arts programmes tacked on.

What also distinguishes Ashoka from its peers — which typically bear the names of their wealthy founders — is its collective fundraising and governance model, which is intended to ensure the university is genuinely independent, rather than an extension of a single family.

Ashoka has so far raised $140m from 101 founding donors — the cream of India’s business and professional elite — each of whom has made a contribution of at least $300,000. Whatever the size of their donation, however, individuals are restricted under Ashoka’s charter to a single board seat. This structure is intended to insulate the university’s faculty and staff from any outside pressure, whether on questions of hiring, academic research or admissions.

“If you have collective philanthropy and collective governance, no one group, no one family or no one business house will have undue control or influence, and that ensures academic independence,” says Bikhchandani. “In the long run, if you want to build a world-class university, the faculty has to have independence. This way, you structurally ensure it.”

It was Pramath Raj Sinha, a former McKinsey consultant and first dean of the prestigious Indian School of Business, established in 2001, who most forcefully argued for a collective fundraising and governance model, after being asked to advise Ashoka’s three original founders back in 2007.

He said this approach would give Ashoka an autonomy rare in Indian higher education, where public universities face intense political pressures and private universities tend to be tightly controlled by their donors.

“We have said no to many people who have been willing to give us large amounts of money but wanted proportionate representation on the board or significant naming rights,” says Sinha, who sits on Ashoka’s board of trustees. “This is the crux of institution-building that people don’t understand.”

Critical to Ashoka’s vision of a liberal arts education is ensuring students are drawn from all parts of Indian society, regardless of whether their families are able to pay © Ishan Tankha

India’s tradition of modern, secular liberal arts education goes back to the era of British rule. In 1857, the colonial administration established Bombay, Calcutta and Madras universities, which offered courses in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, to anglicise elite Indians and prepare them for civil service exams.

During the nationalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Indian philanthropists, including maharajas, industrialists and landed gentry, also founded universities.

Sometimes these were funded through public subscriptions, to disseminate modern learning and foster original scholarship.

In the 1920s, Indian academics such as CV Raman, a University of Calcutta physics professor and winner of a Nobel Prize in 1930, S Radhakrishnan, a University of Calcutta philosopher, and SN Bose, a physics professor who engaged in a scientific correspondence with Albert Einstein, achieved global recognition for their groundbreaking research and writing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence prime minister, prioritised urgently needed technical education, creating the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, to produce the engineers and managers required to build the new India.

Meanwhile, India’s historic liberal arts institutions — once semi-autonomous and with access to private support — were brought under full state control. They gradually deteriorated — the result of chronic underfunding, sharp increases in student numbers and political pressure on most aspects of university life, including faculty recruitment, admissions and even coursework.

The big ideas get produced in western societies and India just applies them

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

India’s best minds fled to western universities, while stifling official rules, including a drive for homogenisation, stymied innovation, making it tough even to keep course curriculums up to date.

“Universities became subjected to a bureaucratic regulatory logic that was very adverse to creativity and the production of knowledge,” says Mehta.

“There was a politicisation of basic university functions. Even the syllabuses became the subject of political negotiation.”

As an independent private university, however, Ashoka is freed from such constraints and allowed to pursue pure intellectual inquiry. “It’s the creation of space for the pursuit of knowledge which is not encumbered by commercial pressures of the market or political pressures of the state,” Mehta says.

Through raising the standard of liberal arts education Ashoka also hopes to challenge the faith of middle-class Indians — both parents and prospective employers — in an engineering degree as the ultimate job credential.

“Hopefully, in the next five to 10 years, employers will become a little bit more open-minded,” adds Dhawan.

“Thinking of a well-rounded student as potentially being a better job candidate than a student who has narrow, specialised skills would be a big sea change in corporate India.”

Critical to Ashoka’s vision of a liberal arts education is ensuring students are drawn from all parts of Indian society, regardless of whether their families are able to pay. For now, Ashoka provides financial support — either partial or full — to about 60 per cent of its students.

“If, 10 years from now, the buzz on Ashoka is that it’s a great institution that basically teaches a lot of rich Indian kids at a cheaper price than what they could have gotten in America, we’d all be deeply disappointed,” says Mehta.

But as the university grows, so too will its funding requirement.

The founders estimate that over the next five years they need to raise another $300m, mainly to fund the campus expansion but also for new endowments for graduate programs due to start next year, and for additional undergraduate scholarships. The founders, therefore, are continuing with their fundraising, hoping to attract another 100 like-minded donors.

All this is a far cry from what Bikhchandani envisioned back in 2007 when he first met Dhawan to discuss their shared concerns about the state of Indian higher education. Over coffee, the two rapidly agreed they should work together on a university project and Dhawan offered to match Bikhchandani’s donations, rupee for rupee.

“He said, ‘yeah, good idea, I’m on . . . how much do you think you’ll put in?’,” Bikhchandani recalls. “We were under the impression the whole university would take $5m to do. So I said, I’ll put in 20 per cent; you’ll put in 20 per cent and get three more people.

“It was something I could deal with and not get intimidated. If I had known it was going to cost this much, I never would have done it.”