New Ventures and Manufacturing: the Unfinished Agenda

Growth in Indian manufacturing has been stunted. Manufacturing contributed 17.4 percent of Indian GDP in fiscal year 2020 which was slightly higher than its contribution to GDP over the last two decades. Unfortunately, employment in manufacturing increased by “just one percentage point, compared with a five-point increase for the services sector”. (Dhawan and Sengupta, 2020) Several emerging countries around the world have doubled their growth in manufacturing during the similar period. With automation and new manufacturing technologies, productivity growth is seen to be coming from such new investments rather than from labour productivity. The worrisome picture is that labour productivity in manufacturing seems to be declining over the last eight years. (Jethmalani, 2019) There is one other fact that needs some attention. In Japan, small and medium enterprises account for 99.7 percent of all enterprises, 70 percent of employees, and more than 50 percent of the amount of value-added (in the manufacturing industry). They are the backbone of the Japanese economy. However, “as per the ASI, an overwhelming 72 percent of the firms in India have 0-49 employees, although the output share of such firms is just 6.9 percent.”(Jethmalani, 2019) So how does a nation grow its manufacturing gross value add per worker, how does it increase the involvement of more employees in the manufacturing sector in light of growth in new technologies, and how does it grow its labour productivity?

It is our estimate that if we want to have about 50 medium size companies in manufacturing (with at least INR 250cr turnover), we will need about 5,000 small enterprises to progress towards becoming medium in size. To get 5,000 enterprises to become stable small enterprises, about 50,000 would need to be started. This is a staggering estimate as the mortality rates of Indian manufacturing is high. Interestingly, as many more become medium sized, the number of startups required decreases since most small startups grow as part of subcontracting network and employment opportunity increases. Growing such an ecosystem of interdependent firms has the potential to grow the manufacturing activity especially when capital available for manufacturing is highly irregular. There has been a belief amongst the policy makers in India that if they can convince large producers globally to make India as part of their manufacturing supply chain, it would lead to growth in gross value added as well as employment. While the end result could become true, what they fail to recognize is that large global firms get attracted to a country where the ecosystem of suppliers and skilled manpower exists strongly. This often comes from medium enterprises.

Let us look at how venture investments have been supporting startups in manufacturing in India which is the starting point for building of a sizeable ecosystem of medium enterprises (See Figure 2.1). While India ranks third in terms of venture capital (VC) investments (across all sectors including services) behind US and China, it is an order of magnitude lower than what they have received. VC Investment in India is about 14 percent of what China received and about 11 percent of what was invested in the US. The growth in investment in China has been 31 times as opposed to 3 times in India over a five year period ending in 2018. I hope the policy makers are asking, why?

SC Coordination and the Second Wave of Covid Infections in India

The on-going pandemic made several terms as part of household conversation. “Supply Chains” was one of them. From news anchors to government officials, all became experts overnight and started explaining the global pandemic and its economic consequences through flow of goods and services across borders. But that is where the analysis stopped. We can see how lack of deep understanding in the bureaucracy of how disparate supply chains are managed has led to a phenomenal crisis in managing of the pandemic and the vaccination process in the country. It is true that the recent second wave of infections has inappropriate social behavior at its heart, but then crisis management is all about tying up all ends left loose by others, isn’t it, while changing social behavior in the long run.

Supply chain management is about coordination. Without coordination, the supply chain remains a loose set of suppliers and producers and financiers and inventory managers and warehouses and distributers – all acting to their own beat and often out of step with each other – each optimizing their own objectives and the overall goals of the supply chain remain underserved. The decisions across the supply chain for fighting the pandemic were at loggerheads with each other. This is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves as we struggle to manage this new and a debilitating wave of treatment of infections from Covid across the country.

Let us look at what happened. Around the latter half of the first wave, hospitals were finally geared up – beds, medicines for treating Corona, complementary devices like syringes, ventilators etc. were available; the supply of masks, PPE, oxygen cylinders, medicines like remdesivir got ironed out – their producers increased the production capacities, secured their raw material through forward contracts, and planned their inventories; inventories were built up and placed across the supply chain, with wholesalers, distributors, hospitals etc. The RT-PCR kits were adequately in supply and easily accessible. You could say that the supply chain was “loaded.” Then a very textbook and predictable “bullwhip effect” took control of situation. The supply chain was never coordinated and State Level Planning Centers for Covid lost track of each echelon that comprised this multiproduct, multi-level, and multi-country supply chain. As the infection rates and consequently the demand for tests, ventilators, medicines, beds, and even doctors and para-medical staff etc. decreased, inventory across the entire supply chain started to grow. Organizations supplying these key materials reduced production. Many closed down productive capacities; distributors desperately reduced their inventory levels by finding export markets for many of these products; hospitals slowly removed beds deployed for Covid Wards; and markets for key resources like oxygen moved to other sectors. During the first wave, while a slight increase in demand for Covid prevention and treatment led to a high buildup of excess inventory across the entire supply chain, during the second wave we find that the entire supply chain’s inventory of goods and people and capacities had been dismantled thereby leading to acute shortages that we are seeing these days – beds in hospitals, oxygen cylinders, remdesiver, ambulances etc. – all have become scarce. The capacities have to be again added or re-purposed and inventory has to be built. And this will take time. Lets remember, history tells us that there will be other waves before this pandemic dies out. What can we learn from how supply chains are coordinated?

To plan for effectively managing the supply chain for addressing the spread of pandemic, the government and the industry need to make the following changes in their approach to manage the herculean effort – the supply chain has to be coordinated. Given that we are addressing a national disaster, there has to be a central planner that is planning across the entire supply chain, how so ever distributed it is in ownership and geographical location. First, coordination happens when there is cooperation – visibility of information to all players involved. Its not enough for a firm that produces Remdesivir to declare their production quantities but also for all to know its intermediate and raw material inventories and planned requirements (forecast) of others who are going to consume this medicine. They also need to know what the government is planning to do daily. Second, long lead time items need to be identified and appropriate inventories planned. Critical vulnerabilities in key ingredients have to be negotiated with contracts that cover a range of demand scenarios. Third, orders to plants or suppliers of beds and related accessories need to be done in as small batches and as regularly as possible so as to not create spike in requirements because small spikes in order size would lead to large signals of perceived demand upstream of the supply chain thereby leading to higher inventories than needed as well as unnecessary additions to capacities. The current surge in demand is bound to cause this problem once the surge subsides, if there is poor coordination at the planners end. Fourth, there is a need to reduce  production and delivery lead times to reduce the fluctuations across the supply chains. Inventories can sit along the supply chain but they must be allocated according to a central plan based on shifting demand. Transport of Covid material must be done on priority. And finally, flexibility in configuring hospitals to vary Covid related capacity requires a quick changeover planning – most hospitals were caught wanting on the same. It requires both dynamic allocation of beds as well as key materials required. When uncertainty is high, flexible capacity is the answer.

One can rarely add capacity during the peak demand with ease. You have to forecast and plan during the trough. The golden period between Nov-Jan last year was wasted by the planners. ICMR’s Serosurvey of December should have become an input for any forecaster and planner for resetting the resources across the supply chain. But it was read with a Kahneman-Tversky’s cognitive bias – reading the February data as small percent of population been infected rather than as many more would be getting infected even in normal circumstances since the vaccine roll out would take time. The later is what a planner-forecaster should have read.

But the current second wave was predictable. The wedding season, municipal elections in several cities, and the cricket match in Ahmedabad were the canary in the mine. The planners in the country knew that elections in several states were going to come and that Kumbh would bring large number of people together. Schools and colleges were encouraged to open albeit gingerly. Simulation models of the spread of virus were also available. Yet we allowed inventories to deplete, capacities to lapse and hospitals to go unprepared. We either became complacent in our planning or we just did not have the expertise to build a coordinated supply chain to fight the pandemic.  The government allowed firms to operate independently within the market and they optimized their side chains. The “country plan” never got updated. The entire supply chain has to act like a single firm to meet the challenge that the infections are throwing and  then save lives. All three,  Indian Pharmaceutical Association and Indian Medical Association and the Government must come together to create a single integrated plan – coordinated planning and decentralized execution is the only answer.

To prepare for the peak of this wave or the next wave or for the next mutant (because we do not know what is in store for us), we must coordinate all activities across the supply chain. The virus is not vanishing soon (and the socially appropriate behavior is perhaps a far cry to expect in India), but at least we can be ready to manage its aftermath.

Education is about transformation of the self for the society

Growing up in small town of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, education was a ticket to see the big world. The city was intellectually rich – there was the legacyof Urdu, Hindi and English poets –Raghupat Sahay “Firaq,” Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and the likes of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

The university as well as the high court educated the city by its conversations – there were debates on the left and the right, there were discussions on the politics of the day and you could rest assured that there would be someone who had a divergent view and (s)he was respected, there were fierce arguments in public on the arguments made in courts, and there was a constant reminder of young people who had gone to shine brightly in their different professions globally and how they had journeyed through the city. They made the world aspirational for the young.One thing was common – education was their ticket to the big concerts of their lives. That was the environment in which I grew up – a family of professors whose house reverberated with engaging conversations on how to build a world filled with respect and equality in addition to debating nuances of their discipline. The two cities of my youth, Allahabad and Banaras, also became my extended classrooms. They had people who used education to civilize their minds, tender their hearts, and exhorted themselves to do their things despite what others thought.

There are three purposes of education: to prepare citizens for the nation, develop a love for life-long learning and to earn a livelihood.

The first makes a society and a nation by building its character. The other two make the self (and through it, the society). Good education teaches you about respect and empathy, about giving to others because we care for those who are underserved.

It is also about learning to become wise over time by learning from life and its experiences. Well, there is a fourth purpose too that has always been relevant but more so today. The writer, Italo Calvino, in his book Invisible Cities says: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Education is about transformation of the self for the society. A transformative education must make you feel differently, must make you reflect differently – it is not only intellectual. Good education changes who you are. It changes what you do and how you do. And true change must also make you uncomfortable. It allows you to feel the moment. It allows you to save other’s goodness to save yourself. That has been the power of education for me.

Carving a niche in Indian academic arena

Ahmedabad University’s Foundation Programme aims to create an engineer or a manager who is aware of societal issues and has the critical thinking skills needed to address them

Almost about to enter its teens, Ahmedabad University is a private player that is emerging as an outlier for serious academics. The university was set up in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society – a foundation established way back in  1935 by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, textile doyen Kasturbhai Lalbhai and the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha Ganesh Mavalankar, with the objective of advancing higher education in Gujarat. The Society has to its credit a track record of having being either directly or indirectly involved in setting up some jewels in the academic firmament, including IIM Ahmedabad, the National Institute of Design, the Physical Research Laboratory, and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology.

Ahmedabad University, too, is following the same illustrious footsteps.

It is headed by Professor Pankaj Chandra, the Vice Chancellor, who was earlier the Director of one of the country’s top business schools, IIM Bangalore, and has been a faculty at IIM Ahmedabad.

Foundation Programme

What differentiates Ahmedabad University is its Foundation Programme. All students entering the undergraduate programme go through a common core, I.e. the Foundation Programme, in its first year. “This programme,” Professor Chandra says, “builds the foundation of interdisciplinary learning at the university and enables students to engage with societal issues through project-based learning.”

The Foundation Programme is built around six domains: Data Science, Materials, Biology and Life, Behaviour, Constitution and Civilisation, and Communication.

The delivery of these areas, Professor Chandra adds, is done through thematic courses in a studio format to develop amongst students a holistic approach to thinking and enquiry. “They would learn to understand multiple issues that define a problem, and learn the art and science of synthesis.”

The thematic studios are: Democracy and Justice, Environment and Climate Change, Neighbourhoods, and Water. The goal is to engage students’ imagination with contemporary problems that the society in which they live encounters. “Each theme is explored through a set of domains thereby creating interdisciplinary learning. At the same time, domain knowledge is delivered through an application area. For instance, certain topics studied in the Studio on Water will include inputs from Biology and Life, Behaviour, Data Science, and Communication,” Professor Chandra adds. Students, therefore, learn that many systems of knowledge are required to solve challenging problems.

The Foundation Programme contributes 12 credits to the total number of credits earned by students at the Ahmedabad University.

But probably the biggest focus of the Foundation Programme, Professor Chandra says, is to make students thinking citizens, with the abilities and the inclination to make the world a better place, and then an engineer or a manager and so on. “This philosophy dictates how we design our programme. It is different from that of traditional undergraduate programmes and, therefore, it cannot be compared with other programmes that focus only on one discipline of study,” he adds.

The aim of the Foundation Programme – and that of education delivery at Ahmedabad University in general – is to create a future engineer or a manager with an awareness of societal issues and the critical thinking skills needed to address them, along with domain knowledge. “That is why all our students experience the Foundation Programme, and all will take many courses outside their discipline under the General Education Requirements. We believe India needs well-informed and socially-conscious citizens, and so does our planet,” Professor Chandra says.

The aim of the Foundation Programme – and that of education delivery at Ahmedabad University in general – is to create a future engineer or a manager with an awareness of societal issues and the critical thinking skills needed to address them, along with domain knowledge.

One of the purposes of a university education is to expose students to new experiences. The Foundation Programme requires students to visit parts of Ahmedabad that they may not be familiar with and engage with people who live there. “Some may be rich, some may be poor, some may be professionals, some may eke out their livelihoods on the footpath … they all belong to the rich matrix of communities that live in Ahmedabad, and interacting with them enriches students both academically and socially.”

The Foundation Programme involves both lectures and activities. Students are also introduced to academic articles about issues related to each theme and domain.

A version of this article was published in the Financial Express on 28 September 2020
Link to the articles – click here



From raag Maulkauns to Guernica, from the splendor of moon-landing to the first gush of water in Aswan dam – all have been constructed to evoke a sense of uniqueness, unusual human achievement, and beauty that heighten our inner sensibilities. Organisations are somewhat like that – lifeblood for many, saviour others, but above all termed beautiful or ugly based on how they conduct themselves and evoke the inner sensibilities of employees, customers and shareholders.

As a former independent director of Mindtree, the value of the beauty of its organizational culture, which is in the eye of the beholder, is not amiss. Organisations, like musicians, become the persona of the raag that they are singing. Manufacturing has its own beauty, its own sound of music on the shop-floor but is very different from that of an airport or a retail store selling only designer perfume. So are the mindsets, hearts of people, and characteristics of organisations that inhabit the deep corners of their different customer organisations. It helps them deliver accurately. That makes Mindtree and L&T fundamentally very different. One is amazed as to how can such a capable organisation like L&T not see this dichotomy. Its argument is that Mindtree could be kept as a separate entity.

Wanting to keep Mindtree separate in an implicit recognition of Mindtree’s cultural uniqueness and a prayer to the winds of time by L&T. Innovative organisations safeguard matchless cultures, instead. Acquisitions are done to synergise with existing offerings of firms; to strengthen or enter new areas, platforms or geography; find new customers for its products; keep parts of the acquired organisation, perhaps the digital in the case of Mindtree, and to sell others to increase its own value. Never is it to grow the acquired organisation more than itself – well sometimes it does not happen when one wants to shed one’s own persona of the other! Most organisations that have been forcefully acquired in the last few decades – be it Mannesmann or RJR Nabisco or OL etc, don’t exist anymore. So why would Mindtree?

Mindtree has regularly won customers against better equipped, larger organisations because of its leadership’s complementary perspective

One salient by-product of unique cultures is that they allow you to build unique capabilities. Mindtree gave India the Aadhaar engine and unique intellectual property-driven solutions like Bluetooth stacks. The list is long. And therefore, the outcomes from organisations in the same sector are dissimilar despite having similar strategies. Mindtree has regularly won customers against better equipped, larger organisations because of its leadership’s complementary perspective like the coming together of blue, black and white to make Guernica (where else would you find all founders sitting as one in a single, relatively small, open office), its culture of seamless invigoration, and its can-do attitude. The value of curiosity, courage and responsibility is ingrained in the culture from the day a young graduate enters Mindtree Kalinga, Mindtree’s Global Learning Centre that takes pioneering immersive learning to the next level. All this allowed for introspection, transparency and innovation and hence building of a fearless environment. That you had to care for the other – whether your customer’s customer or your team member – was a natural outcome of this competitive yet empathetic culture. L&T should study this and ensure that this culture jives with its own. Else, this is a disaster in making for all.

The loss of Mindtree would be a loss for the Indian IT industry for sure. It could mean the end of an institution especially when the leadership and the organisation do not want it. Innovation is generally the first casualty in such situations. Such acquisitions lead to changing of the board and the leadership team including driving down the acquirer’s vision. The big question would be who stays as most capabilities in service organisations lie in people and their processes. And will customers move in key characteristics of the delivery organisation – especially its cultural capacity – changes? One has not talked about the operations aspects of such an acquisition that will require aligning of Mindtree systems, processes, client delivery, billing, travel norms, HR practices, financial representation etc to L&T’s way of functioning. The best-case scenario is that it would take four to five years for such an acquisition to become somewhat integrated. Who has patience in these days to listen to Rashid Khan’s soul touching alap khayal, Tu hai malik mera, in raag Malkauns?

The Mindtree story is closely tied with the role of V G Siddhartha, its largest single shareholder in the past, who patiently supported the culture and the pathways chosen by Mindtree. But a mystery remains: then why did he not sell back hi shares to Mindtree or other friendly investors? What were the compulsions? Only he would know. And that makes L&T’s attempt to take over even more difficult for Mindtree to accept. At the end, it is about choosing a way of life.

A version of this article was published in Business Standard on 08 May 2019
Link to the articles – click here



The first generation of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) came up between the 1960s and 1990s, a different world. Today, we are not only in the middle of Industry 4.0, but also wide-spread disruption due to other factors. Of course, there is automation that is changing the nature of jobs and learning. There is climate change too, higher urbanisation, growing income equalities, and anti-globalisation resulting from hyper-nationalism. When Pankaj Chandra took over as the Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University, a private, non-profit institution offering programmes in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies, he asked two fundamental questions: What does all these disruption do to the world of education? And how do you prepare the young socially and intellectually in this environment?

Ahmedabad University is a fairly new kid on the block – it was established in 2009. There is no historical baggage, which means that there is an opportunity to build an institution that is different, both culturally as well as in terms of learning. Chandra, the former Director of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, has been part of many committees on education. Two of them were the Government of India Committee on Rejuvenation of Higher Education (Yashpal Committee) that re-looked at the Indian Higher Education system and the committee on the Autonomy of Central Institutions. When he joined Ahmedabad University as Vice Chancellor (Sanjay Lalbhai, Chairman and Managing Director, Arvind Limited, is the Chancellor), Chandra said he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Business Today chatted with him to understand the issues plaguing higher education and what is it he was trying to do differently. First, what went wrong with Indian higher education institutions? Chandra points to six broad problems.

“No single problem today can be solved by a single discipline. You need multiple inputs from different disciplines. All of our tier-one institutions are stand-alone institutions. They are either management, or science, or technology or medical or law. They don’t bring all of them together which is needed to create the right mindset and the knowledge base to solve a problem.”

Quality education is expensive. India has severely under-invested in education over the last 40 years. “Therefore, we see top institutions with very poor facilities, not much investment in R&D, laboratories where equipment sits idle,” he says.

The second issue is about expansion and it dates back to the 1960s. “We expanded education very rapidly – India has larger number of institutions than China, both in terms of colleges and universities. The only way the government could manage is by standardisation. In that process, education got standardised and we forgot that education was about real people and real people are very different from each other. We created one big frame where examinations became the only way to judge merit. If examinations are the only way of getting merit, all the ills followed like coaching classes; anybody who could get 95 per cent is celebrated in society; those who got 50-60 per cent faced a loss of esteem in the society. People thought teaching in a standard way is the best thing to do because it leads to exams and outcomes. Along with standardisation, we said we don’t need to look at the world. We need to look at India,” Chandra says.

Third is about people. Indian institutions, the Vice Chancellor says, have always managed to get very good people, albeit in smaller numbers. Nevertheless, they had no reason to perform. “We never said if you don’t do research, you will not get promoted. It was never that your research should contribute to societal problems.”
Next, came the regulator. Different bodies who formulated rules and regulations for the universities. “Education has to be done one child at a time, one university at a time,” Chandra says. “We provided no flexibility and created water tight rules which are applicable to everybody. It destroyed the good ones who could have taken the destiny in their own hands and move on.”
In addition to the above, over the last few decades, the Indian society started to believe that they can do well without academic institutions, Chandra states. “Their engagement happens till the time their kids get into better colleges and from the better colleges to better companies. After that they don’t think they have anything else to contribute. It is the amalgamation of regulators and society that don’t see that higher education institutions must become the most important agent of change in the society. That’s why we lost out,” he says.

His last point has to do with what we imagine are the very top institutions in India today. Chandra mentions that many of these institutions live on the laurels of controlling the two ends – “the scarcity of the number of seats so admission becomes very difficult and hence your status increases; at the other end, the scarcity of very good talent in the industry. So they will pick you (the student) up.” There is a big box in the middle, which is institutional culture meant to advance knowledge, build new courses and remain at the frontier of practice from where the industry could draw on. This rarely happens in India. “Many of our institutions post the 1960s have got into a structural problem. No problem in society today can be solved by a single discipline. If I want to solve traffic at a crossing, it can be seen as a logistics-managerial problem or a civil engineering and transportation problem. Actually, neither of them can solve the problem because it is about understanding the anxiety of a person who reaches that crossing; it is a problem of psychology (among other things),” Chandra says. “No single problem today can be solved by a single discipline. You need multiple inputs from different disciplines. All of our tier-one institutions are stand-alone institutions. They are either management, or science, or technology or medical or law. They don’t bring all of them together which is needed to create the right mindset and the knowledge base to solve a problem,” he adds.
Ahmedabad University, Chandra says, is now trying a “phenomenal” inter-discipline approach. It is less about taking one course in philosophy and another in history; it is about building a course where multiple perspectives from different disciplines are addressed. The university is designing its programmes around four intersecting axis. The first axis has data, materials, biology and behaviour. The second axis comprises elements such as transport, energy and food among others. The third axis is air, water, land and forest, which are the natural resources under stress. The last axis is about individual and community.

“Education has to be done one child at a time, one university at a time.”

Why are these four axis worth the attention? “Many disciplines of education and learning revolve around elements of these axis. Data has maths, computer science, statistics; material has engineering, science, manufacturing. Behaviour has sociology, anthropology, psychology etc. New challenges in the society and new opportunity lies at the intersection of these axis,” Chandra says, and explains with two examples. A public health person who wants to work for a consulting company is actually working on behaviour, heath, water, and on community. An IT guy working to develop a new software for Bengaluru airport is working on data, transport, air and on individuals.

Apart from the inter-discipline approach, the university is also working on an improved pedagogy that engages students more, while building the curiosity embedded in research training. “It is not about publishing research; it is about researching,” Chandra says.

A version of this article was published in Business Today on 18 March 2019
Link to the article – click here

Class and Classroom


It was 1937 and the Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University, Amarnath Jha, had invited Amrita Sher-Gil to show her paintings to the entire city in an exhibition at the university. This was also the time when the university had academics like Meghnad Saha working in its laboratories. In 2017, a government-backed audit declared the university as being on the brink of becoming “unviable” and “unworkable”. One of the most illustrious universities of the country has been all but declared sick. Academic institutions mature with time, and hence, they last hundreds of years with growing grace — well, not in India.

A Sher-Gil exhibition on a university campus today, if a vice chancellor has the aesthetic courage to organise it and that too from university funds, would evoke a question from the government’s auditor without realising that when a university opens such an exhibit to the public at large then it is teaching the society about excellence and about art through the works of the highest exponent of the craft. That is its role.

The university has changed. From being a safe place to think differently and say things that one wished, from spending weekdays and weekends in laboratories and libraries, from making friends who aspired for more than you do, from sitting in on lectures where you wished the clock would stop and the teacher would go on, from meeting folks who would engage you in a debate on the cutting edge in their field, from learning leadership through co-curricular activities, the university has become a holding ground in decrepit campuses with broken spirits, with uninspiring faculty who, at best, teach to examinations and not learning, as well as an administration that does the bidding of the government of the day. The university has lost its ability to imagine its role.

Building quality institutions is about people. Hungry students, India has in abundance; hungry faculty have largely left.All systems have to be geared to bring the best and the most engaging to become part of the most compelling profession in society in every sense — in its richness of experience, in its conversations, in its freedoms and possibilities, and even in its compensations.Only the best can bring the university back from the brink.

And all this while, governments and their regulators emasculated the abilities of universities by prescribing how every decision had to be made and how the lecture could be imagined. The best left teaching and the not-so-good flourished, becoming directors and vice chancellors. The few good faculty who remained struggled or retreated in their quiet labs. That a few unusual institutions survived and made admissions highly competitive, made society feel that god was in heaven and all was right with the world.

Four challenges face the university as we enter the new year of hope. First, the debilitating effects of “sarkarikaran” of higher education. Universities cannot remain domains of control. They are supposed to be pathways of possibilities. They are not extensions of the government, not even the public universities. Each has a distinct aspiration, culture, and capabilities. They need to be enabled as individual entities and attempts to standardise their systems, curriculums, ways of teaching, ways of doing must end. The integrity of an institution is based on the fearless minds of its academics to pursue areas of research that others may find difficult or inconvenient. The “sarkarikaran” mindset has made this academic mind subservient to the administration both within the university and outside it.

Second, building quality institutions is about people. Hungry students, India has in abundance; hungry faculty have largely left. All systems have to be geared to bring the best and the most engaging to become part of the university. It has to be the most compelling profession in society in every sense — in its richness of experience, in its conversations, in its freedoms and possibilities, and even in its compensations. Only the best can bring the university back from the brink. And if we continue to pack our institutions with faculty hired on considerations other than merit, the nation’s misfortune will be where a generation of the bright will be taught by its mediocre.

Three, the classroom has to be reimagined. Teaching and learning for the examination has been our forte but the new demands of society and the future of work require critical and independent thinking, learning through doing, asking questions from multiple disciplinary perspectives on the same issue, using evidence for building arguments, and reflecting and articulation. The warning of contemporary educational philosopher, Ruth Johnson, must be heeded when she says that higher education should not “either be a mere servant of the government policy or a passive respondent to public mood: Higher learning does not teach what to think but how to think”. Teaching has to be re-invented.

And finally, quality education requires resources. Laboratories and workshops that allow students to conduct experiments rather than learning as spectators or low student-teacher ratio or tutorials and teaching assistants that help students learn better and remove their deficits or journals and databases or laboratories to improve on the language of learning — all require more funding. Unless the government spending on higher education doubles, our institutions and students therein will remain impoverished.

At a more fundamental level, we have not articulated why education is most crucial for the removal of poverty in India and for its development. Access to education without quality is no education at all. It reduces the capabilities of our institutions to enable our students to become better citizens with high-quality skills. Let us make some progress in that direction this year.

A version of this article was published in Indian Express on 2 January 2018.
Link to the article – click here


What ails the higher education sector in India? Reams have been written by scholars on this vexed issue, and now a hard-hitting work on the contentious topic is creating ripples in academic circles. “Building Universities that Matter: Where are Indian Institutions Going Wrong?” published by Orient Blackswan is not only scathing indictment of the current state of affairs, but also a self-help guide that could help steer the higher education sector out of the morass of mediocrity or worse. The author, Pankaj Chandra, is the vice-chancellor of Ahmedabad University and a seasoned academic who has studied and taught at some of the best institutions both in India and abroad. In a candid, no-holds-barred interview with FE’s Jyotsna Bhatnagar, Chandra talks about the urgent need for reforms. Excerpts:

What was the motivation behind writing a book on the ills plaguing the education sector at this juncture?

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen our universities crumble. Many of our best institutions have become a pale shadow of their pasts. As a member of the Yashpal Committee, I saw academically crippled institutions, decayed campuses, unenlightened management, heard stories of corruption, and saw how we created graduates with deficits. I saw up-close how the regulatory system was grounding institutional innovation.
Many questions were fomenting in my mind. Why are our institutions not as inspiring as those elsewhere? Why are conversations at our institutions not enriching? Why did our universities get distracted from student learning and the dharma of rigorous enquiry through research? It bothered me that we, at universities, were short-changing our students when it came to learning.

What differentiates this book from other studies on this critical subject is that it makes a departure from mere data-centric analysis and interpretations. Why did you choose this unconventional narrative?

We have seen from close quarters how poor governance was holding back institutions and destroying them. I wanted to explore the processes impacting governance of our university organisations and how internal and external structures and practices were impacting the way universities were behaving. I come from the world of management and that became my vantage point.
If you look at university as an organization, it has not transformed, while the environment around it has changed. An enquiry into management of organisations required both strategic and problem-solving orientation. First-hand experiences of several people were needed to shape the book. I’ve had the good fortune of understanding educational philosophy and history of higher education from those who lived it for 30-40 years at our academic institutions. This gave me a deeper look into why university organisations behaved the way they did. Now, I think I can generate better hypotheses and test with data.

What worries you the most about higher education in India?

India, on one hand, is blessed with people with unusual potential. A large number of academics, on the other hand, underachieve their potential. This prospect, in a competitive market, discourages the best from becoming academics. We should be worried we are becoming a society where the best are being trained by the not-so-good. What happens in a classroom will decide if our society will be able to address the challenges we might face. Institutions are largely about the quality of their conversations and this seems to have been seriously impaired. Academic institutions are supposed to be safe places to dream of a new world, to experiment and fail without penalty, and to argue one’s ideas. This space has shrunk dramatically.

What is the take away that you bring on the subject of reforms in higher education?

There are no halfway houses. You either want to influence the world through the thinking of your students and the faculty, or you don’t. There are four issues we need to be clear about – what role is a university going to play in the society – there is no such thing as incremental or part autonomy – you either have it or you don’t; the well-being of a society is defined by the quality of its people; and last, that it costs resources to educate a nation and to use its intellectual energy to transform the society.

Your book deals extensively with governance and regulatory issues in higher education. Why did you foray into these?

Governance of institutions impacts its learning environment. That is under siege. The dark world of regulators believes that academics cannot be trusted with governance of their institution. So, they must decide who leads and how institutions are to be managed. That standardization was the only way to govern all the institutions. This heavy-handed control has destroyed managerial capabilities of institutions and its motivation.
This militated strongly with my own sense of universities as self-governning and self-correcting entities where differentiation and not standardization was the strategic model for academic institutions. Regulators are not enabling universities to achieve their best. There are many things that institutional heads can do to manage their learning ambience, but either their actions are prescribed by regulation or they do not have the courage to bring change.

With huge growth of private universities, this is an exciting time to be in education sector. But many view these developments with anxiety, fearing the invasion of vested interests in the education space, converting it into profit-making business…

Education is a non-profit activity and the society invests in it as it enhances its future. After a long time, you see several new private institutions being established that are working to become serious academic centres. My own institution, Ahmedabad University, is an example of how to bring together exemplary governance, philanthropy and quality aspiration to build an institution that matters. The government would be wise to use these institutions to experiment with new forms of governance and change in education, and then use them as exemplars to transform public institutions. India needs at least 100 high quality research universities and they will come from both the private and public.

Given that most of our so-called educated youth have been found to be woefully under-prepared for the workforce, what do you feel happens in a typical classroom of a higher education institute and what do you feel happens in a typical classroom of a higher education institute and what do you envisage as the ideal classroom?

Unfortunately, most of our institutions and their practices, people and campuses are not inspiring. We teach for exams and not for learning. The government’s approach of standardization of everything in our universities has been singularly responsible for the destruction of the classroom. It drives the best away from becoming teachers, brings in the most inappropriate as acadmic leaders, and makes the classroom a mechanical gearbox. Classroom is about openness, questioning, about reflection and learning together – it’s also about divergent thinking and experimentation. The sarkarikaran of higher education prevents our kids from jumping higher than what they believe they can do.

Regulators are not enabling universities to achieve their best. Institutional heads can do several things to manage their learning ambience better, but either their actions are prescribed by regulation or they do not have the courage

A version of this article was published in The Financial Express on 11 December 2017.
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Indian academic institutions are hurtling towards the deep end of irrelevance. On the one hand, India faces new challenges that range from corruption in its political economy and pressure on public resources to a future of work that requires new competencies and newer models of employment. On the other, universities in India continue with business as usual – credentialing through rote learning and standardized examinations, uninspiring classrooms with extremely low engagement, and a student experience that is violent and intolerant both on the body and the mind. The tragedy of our country is that there are exceptions and they, rather than being used as exemplars for larger change, are progressively swatted to the norm by regulatory agencies.

The university leadership is a reward rather than a clarion call for building a bold new world and most rest in its celebration

Take a student who comes to a university – desirous of new learning and wanting to change the world. Most are trying to figure out how to navigate the changing environment around them. Of course, there are those too who have been sent to mark time until others decide what is to become of them. The faculty too begin with phenomenal earnest but lose steam to build institutions that matter sooner than their students. Many, there as well, have come to the institutions without the necessary preparation in the methods of their discipline or pedagogy or a perspective to grow questioning minds. The university leadership is a reward rather than a clarion call for building a bold new world and most rest in its celebration. The bureaucracy seldom understands the nuances of managing institutions and how to get the most out of it. The society rarely cares about institutions once its own children have graduated. So, how do we heal this hurt of generations?

Universities are meant to be open, questioning, trusting, experimenting, inspirational, direction setting, and enabling people to believe that nothing is impossible. They are also universes of learning. They are safe places to try out new ideas, for diverse thinking, and for unpopular conversations that are based out of deep thinking, research, new theoretical constructs, and data. They make our understanding of the society more contemporary and solve its more knotty problems. They help us synthesize perspectives while they conduct deep enquiry. Universities are always places of the future – future is shaped in its crucibles, classrooms and conversations. Education is the basis of the social and economic change in any country. India has yet to fully absorb the value of this proposition. Academic organizations are difficult to manage as security of the job and low accountability when combined with low expectation and poor resources creates a destructive admixture of powerful mediocrity that burns to ashes the possibilities at the university. Changes in three areas would be needed to restore to our institutions the above privileges and characteristics.

The most crucial change is required in the governance of our institutions. The fundamental question is around who makes choices concerning the institutions. Regulations and regulators that control create rigidity and uncertainty in institutions and makes them incapable of renewing from within – the only sustainable way for change. Governments and their bureaucracies will have to free up institutions to allow them to make their own choices on who they admit, how they admit, what comprises education, details of a degree, and how institutions are run from within. Once institutions commit to outcomes, all decisions regarding their management have to be made by the university with no constraints from any external body. Today, government agencies constrain the inputs and pre-define the processes at the university and thereby also define the outcomes by default. This processes has to be reversed.They should only demand transparency and define outcomes. The second change that is required is to build the ability of institutions to attract a very different kind of faculty – one that has the preparation of deep scholarship, is entrepreneurial, that cares for its students, and one that has traits to build the profession. Indian higher education will not survive if it does not become a congregation of the meritorious. The day we have a hundred mechanical engineering professors who have the desire and capabilities to find a new substitute for the internal combustion engine, Indian higher education would be ready to lead the country’s development. The best of students will have to be attracted back to become academics before our institutions can transit to a higher performance levels. And last, the regulator will have to understand that excellence is about culture. Hence, all policies will have to be designed to allow each individual institution to conduct its own transformational processes uniquely. Only such a change making strategy, long drawn as it may be, is sustainable and likely to create thousands of quality institutions out of India.

It would serve the country well as we redesign our educational systems if we think of the face and aspirations of the seventeen year old entering the university for the first time and a forty five year old who is going to increasingly seek to retool themselves with new skills as their world of work gets disrupted dramatically. This will require universities to become immensely flexible. It has another benefit. It will produce graduates for whom the world of possibilities will be unconstrained and innovation will flow for benefit of all.

A version of this article was published in Hindustan Times on 18 September 2017.
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Amidst a profusion of ‘rent-seeking’ private universities spawning in every nook and corner of the country to fill the void created by a woefully inadequate, ageing and creaking network of state-run universities, there are a few making waves for the quality of education they are providing. The eight-year-old Ahmedabad University (AU) is one such private player that is already emerging as an outlier for serious academics. Says Prof Pankaj Chandra, the vice-chancellor of AU, “Technically, we are a private university since our funding is private. But we have a very public ethos.”

The university, recognising that social challenges and job opportunities are occurring at the intersection of axes of influence, defined by disciplines, nature, sectors of impact and society, strives to guide students on how to learn through interdisciplinary academic and real-life experiences that traverse these intersections.

AU was set up in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society, which, for the uninitiated, is a foundation established way back in 1935 by luminaries like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, textile doyen Kasturbhai Lalbhai and the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha Ganesh Mavalankar, with the objective of advancing higher education in the state of Gujarat. The foundation has to its credit a track record of having being either directly or indirectly involved in setting up some jewels in the academic firmament, including the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, the National Institute of Design, the Physical Research Laboratory, and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. AU, too, is following the same illustrious footsteps.

No novice to the world of academics, Chandra, who was earlier the director of one of the country’s top business schools, IIM Bangalore—and has also been a faculty at IIM Ahmedabad—was hand-picked for the task of turning AU into a top-notch liberal-education-driven research institution by textile magnate Sanjay Lalbhai, the CMD of Arvind Ltd and currently the chancellor of AU. A passionate educationist, Lalbhai armed Chandra with unfettered powers to fulfil this mission. What gives the AU V-C even more space to execute his plans is a generous corpus of over Rs 600 crore, which the Ahmedabad Education Society plans to increase to Rs 1,500 crore in the near future.

To ensure transparency of governance, AU, unlike most other family-owned business models of education, is governed by a unique 50-member trust, comprising people from diverse backgrounds. Most importantly, however, the abundant corpus is providing AU the liberty to experiment with streams and courses without being worried about churning out market-driven programmes that can rake in the moolah. In fact, it was the constraints of the straitjacketed approach to academics that drove Chandra to look for options other than the “structure of standalone academic institutions like the IIMs.”

The crossing over from IIM Ahmedabad, of which Chandra is also an alumni, locationally leads to AU’s Amrut Mody School of Management, but for AU’s V-C, it has completely changed his perception of academics as he has known it. “The reason I decided against a second term as the director of IIM Bangalore was my desire to be part of a larger multidisciplinary unit. At AU, our approach is to help inculcate in our students the ability to solve problems in society in their multifaceted form,” he elaborates.

Academic freedom and an interdisciplinary approach is a strong component of AU’s governance structure. The university, recognising that social challenges and job opportunities are occurring at the intersection of axes of influence, defined by disciplines, nature, sectors of impact and society, strives to guide students on how to learn through interdisciplinary academic and real-life experiences that traverse these intersections.

Research programmes at AU also embody this interrogative perspective. “We are re-imagining the classroom in the way that teaching and learning happens to make learning contextual, hands-on and rigorous. Moreover, the teacher’s role is not that of a sage on a stage, but a guide on the site,” quips Chandra. Elaborating, he says, “We are extremely student-centric in our approach and strongly believe in experiential or project-based learning. For us, doing is learning, and towards this end, we are gearing up to prepare our students to do things and apply the theory they have learnt.”

Interestingly, AU’s unique project-based pedagogy has an apt acronym—ENABLE, short for “Engagement and Application Based Learning & Education.” At AU, the conventional departments are renamed schools and centres, such as the School of Arts and Sciences, the Amrut Mody School of Management, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Computer Studies.

That apart, three interesting centres form the cornerstones of AU’s learning philosophy. Foremost among these is VentureStudio, a centre for design of enterprises that has been set up to help design and incubate start-ups as well as build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. It has developed a unique fellowship programme in partnership with the Center for Design Research at Stanford University that helps identify needs, build a product and service, and launch a start-up. Another centre that is creating a buzz is the Centre for Heritage Management that works in the area of management of tangible and intangible heritage in India and has partnerships with the University of Valladolid in Spain and the University of Ferrara in Italy, which are globally renowned for their heritage studies. The third is the Centre for Learning Futures to support teaching and learning at AU.

Two other research centres are under consideration—a centre for engineering and biology, and a centre for sustainability with a focus on water. Also in the pipeline are plans for the second phase of development of the university, which, apart from creation of physical state-of-the-art infrastructure, would include development of a School of Public Health, a School of Governance, Policy and International Affairs, and a School of Law. Once fully developed, the AU campus would spread over a grand expanse of 180 acres.

Another thing on the to-do list of the AU V-C is to spread awareness about this relatively young entrant into the fiercely competitive academic arena. “Our faculty is fanning across the best schools across the country to attract the brightest students. My aim is that we should be a national institution within the next three to four years,” says Chandra. With an enviable track record of 100% placements already, with top companies making a beeline for the thus-far local university, AU is on track to give the established names in academia a run for their money in the not too distant future.

A version of this article was published in Financial Express on 29 May 2017.
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