Integrating Arts: Building Education towards Freedom

Ashok Da Ranade Memorial Trust

Aneesh Pradhan ji, Anjum Rajabali ji, trustees of the Dr Ashok Da Ranade trust, and friends, thank you very must for inviting me to deliver this year’s lecture in memory of the revered scholar musician Dr Ashok Damodar Ranade. When Aneesh ji asked me to deliver this lecture, I had great trepidation and reluctance as I am neither a musician nor an artist of any sort and I also come from the bad world of management that most scholarly artists look down up! I am an educationist and an academic – someone who tries to understand and think differently on how imagine new ideas and to do things better. And here I am before you, a bit fearful whether I will rise to your expectations. So, it is freedom from fear, that I must talk about today, amongst other things. In this talk, I will try to build a case of a new purpose for education, make a case for learning from the arts, and argue for building an integrative world view within the arts. I will also talk about a new experiment that we, at Ahmedabad University, are undertaking in that direction.

When I read about Dr Ranade, there was one sentence on your website that stood out for me and I connected with it instantly. It said, and I quote: “He was a composer constantly experimenting with new uncharted vistas.” I kept asking myself, what keeps us away from experimenting with new uncharted vistas? What is the preparation for such a mindset? Where does one get the courage and the ability to walk one’s own path? And, what is this world that our education is preparing us for? When we look around us, there are some challenges that are a copy of the past – for example, the destructive wars that surround us now. But there are many new challenges that are appearing amidst us and they look daunting – climate change and its impact on the planet and hence our well-being; AI and the new technology and how it will disrupt our lives and how will it affect our security; urbanisation and its 2 impact on neighbourhoods and consequently, fraternity; and the diminishing natural resources like water that define life on this planet. How must education evolve in such a context? Are the arts removed from the impact of these massive changes? Can the arts provide us with a direction to think about such challenges?

Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps most controversially, and also in a most visionary and a pragmatic way talked about the power of “doing” or “learning to do” in his “naitaleem.” In a highly publicised debate between Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar on Caste, Ambedkar seemed to have won the battle with his brilliant reasoning and his sociological and historical articulation of the detriments of caste. But if you think deeply about his stance, it appears that Gandhi may have been building his own arguments for basic education that had Ambedkar’s arguments embedded in them, front and centre. It is as if Ambedkar was helping him sharpen his perspectives or in changing them. Anil Sadgopal, in his article titled, “Nai Taleem: Gandhi’s Challenge to Hegemony” that came out in the Social Scientist writes: QUOTE: “The Gandhian programme of Basic Education for post-independence India proposed to place these occupations of the lowest social order at the centre of the school curriculum and pedagogically link them with knowledge, values and skills. The political message is inescapable: accord these occupations and the communities engaged in them a place of dignity that was never their destiny in Indian history. Gandhi had invariably recognised that all such productive tasks had a strong knowledge-cum-skill content, including scientific, along with their context of socio-cultural history.” UNQUOTE Interestingly, these included spinning & weaving, leather curing, dying, metal work, carpentry, tool making, printing, pottery etc. – all art forms that made vocations possible. Of course, the anti-caste implications of this Gandhian pedagogy was meant to create “uncharted vistas” to resist discrimination rooted in caste and patriarchy that have been practised by the Indian society and institutionalised by our educational system. Gandhi must have been smiling when Ambedkar’s was offering critical arguments against caste. Tagore, was not too far away from this Gandhian sensibility of putting “doing and work” at the centre of his arts. He too envisaged Santiniketan as a place that unites the mind, heart, and the body of Gandhian effort. In fact he went further. He wanted arts to inform education and human development. Jiddu Krishnamurthy, took a bigger leap. He called for addressing fear in the world of learning and education and emphasised “doing” as central to understanding of 3 oneself. Is it not understanding of oneself that all our endeavours must drive towards? Is it not walking on “uncharted vistas” that drives away our fear and vice-versa? It is this fear, Krishnamurthy points out, that stands in the way of self-awareness in education.

Let me delve further into this understanding of learning and more fundamentally, into the purposes of education. Education is both a public and a private good. Society wants us to get an education because if one is educated properly, and I emphasise properly, then all in the society benefit out of it – if one earns then one will give taxes, one will not throw stuff or spit on the road, one will not misuse common resources like water etc. etc. – that is the public good story. We also benefit individually from education – one will become more responsible, will become independent minded, one will pick up skills, one will live a better life – that is the private good part of the story. So, if done properly, it makes education a very powerful vehicle to uplift society.

I believe there are three main purposes of education:

  1. Learning to become a better citizen of any nation where one will live – learn to question, learn to follow a constitution, learn to contribute to the welfare of a nation, and more importantly its people;
  2. Learning to build a livelihood – find a job, start an enterprise – do things that will help live a better material and social life;
  3. Learning to develop a love for life-long learning – pick up a passion, develop an interest so that one engages with learning of new ideas and new perspectives throughout one’s life;

This is what liberal education is about – to discover the purpose of education, to discover one’s passion in life, and to build ideas by integrating knowledge from all directions or pariprkshnen samruddhi!

Continue reading Integrating Arts: Building Education towards Freedom

What’s the Future of Business Education in India?

The country’s schools must create interdisciplinary programs that focus on innovation and are dedicated to solving pressing global issues.

  • In a virtual roundtable hosted by AACSB, representatives of Indian business schools considered the future of management education and the role of accrediting bodies. 
  • Participants agreed that, to solve today’s business problems, managers must have the multidisciplinary skills they can only gain from exposure to the sciences, the arts, and the humanities. 
  • Participants also had suggestions for improving undergraduate programs at Indian business schools.

Where does the university-based business school fit into the landscape of business education in India? Where is it today, and where is it heading? 

These vital questions were addressed in a recent invitation-only virtual roundtable organized by AACSB as part of a continuing conversation about critical issues in management education. The discussion was facilitated by Amy Memon, AACSB’s Regional Head in South Asia, and led by Pankaj Chandra, vice chancellor and chairman of the Board of Management of Ahmedabad University. 

Additional academics from the region shared their perspectives during the discussion. Participants also debated other pertinent topics, including the state of undergraduate business education in India today. Their comments, presented here, have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Current Picture

Chandra led off the discussion by providing background on the history of higher education in India. The first phase of its history started in 1857 with the founding of the University of Calcutta and lasted about 100 years as additional universities across the country were established. 

The second phase, which ran from the 1950s to 2000, encompassed the rise of national institutions in every discipline, including technology, medicine, and management. The third phase started in 2000 and has seen the creation of private universities that are driven by the liberal arts and have their own distinct models. 

Early business schools focused on the three fundamentals of math and statistics, economics, and industrial psychology. “Over time, as we came to understand the functions of a firm, schools added marketing, finance, and operations,” said Chandra. “This is the most exciting part of the story in India.” 

But over the past 25 years, he said, society has witnessed the emergence of complex global problems stemming from poverty, war, and climate change. These societal issues have been accompanied by economic volatility caused by events such as the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic aftermath of the pandemic. None of these problems can be solved by a single discipline.

“In my mind, there’s no such thing as a ‘marketing problem.’ Any marketing problem is often just as much a supply chain problem or a manufacturing problem or a clever financing problem,” said Chandra. “Hence, the old format of business schools is not capable of delivering the sustained solutions that society requires.” 

Tomorrow’s leaders must think very differently if they are to achieve the “deep innovation” they will need to address global challenges. To help managers develop this capacity, business schools need to move away from teaching “end-of-the-book Mickey Mouse problems to really discussing the problems facing business firms and society in all their goriness and complexity,” Chandra said. 

Tomorrow’s leaders must think very differently if they are to achieve the “deep innovation” they will need to address global challenges. 

He recently toured large Swedish manufacturing firms in a number of different industries, and every firm he visited was more than 100 years old. “The only question I heard from any of these places was, ‘How do we innovate to make our operations and our products more sustainable?’ The answer to this requires interdisciplinarity. It requires practice orientation. It requires deep research thinking.” Chandra pointed to Northvolt, a Swedish firm that recycles lithium-ion batteries from around the world. Since its founding less than 10 years ago, Northvolt has raised about 6.5 billion USD and achieved a market cap of 12 billion USD. Said Chandra, “We need to ask ourselves, do our existing business schools have a curriculum that would enable our students to develop a Northvolt in India? Are we training kids in our program to be able to work and innovate in a company like Northvolt? Because that’s really where the future is.” 

A Plan for Solving Tomorrow’s Problems

Chandra believes that, for Indian business schools, future opportunities lie along four axes: 

  • Data, materials, biology, and behavior. 
  • Health, transport, energy, and food. 
  • Air, water, land, and forest. 
  • The individual and the community. 

Not only do many disciplines revolve around these axes, he said, new opportunities lie at their intersections. For instance, he described his time on the board of an IT company that had built software to determine the best way to route planes to European airports. But the software, which approached the challenge as an operations problem, was not successful—because the challenge was also a business problem. 

“Most airports make more money through the sale of food and beverages than through landing fees for planes,” Chandra said. Airports would be more profitable if the biggest planes landed near the gates where food outlets were located, but the engineers had failed to take that business reality into account. 

To solve today’s problems, he said, managers must have input from science, engineering, the social sciences, and the humanities to understand “what is feasible, what is desirable, and how to integrate it all together.” 

Chandra contended that only university-based business schools can build such multidisciplinary environments and curricula. “I don’t think standalone business schools have the understanding or the proximity to do it.” He observed that the world’s best business schools all have symbiotic relationships among learning, teaching, and research functions, which allows them to create programs that are deep, broad, and integrated. “And I believe that’s an opportunity for us.” 

An Interdisciplinary Emphasis

Others at the roundtable echoed Chandra’s comments about the need for synergies between business programs and programs within the wider university, and they agreed that it is more difficult for standalone schools to create such synergies. 

One participant noted that students at university-based business schools have access to courses delivered by experts in their fields, such as computer classes taught by computer science professors and business law courses taught by law professors. Standalone schools that want to provide their students with similar opportunities would need “to build linkages with institutions that can provide them with content and expertise in complementary areas.” 

It can be difficult for standalone business schools to create synergies between business programs and programs within the wider university. 

Even universities that promote interdisciplinarity must take steps to ensure their efforts work for their programs, according to another participant. He suggested that universities create faculty development programs to ensure that professors understand the requirements of the other schools where they are teaching. 

Universities also need to give some thought to how they put together intercollegiate collaborations. For instance, Memon described the Master of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The joint program was founded by the schools of business, engineering, and design, who were all partners with equal input into its creation. 

According to Chandra, business schools can implement multidisciplinarity in a number of ways. At the lowest level, they might allow their students to take a few courses in subjects such as computer science. At the next level, they might encourage students to develop broader mindsets by enabling them to take as many as 30 percent of their courses outside of the business school. At the highest level—“which is where I think we need to be”—schools will recognize that business is about making decisions. Therefore, they will ensure that students develop the interdisciplinary skills they need to become thoughtful decision-makers. 

Chandra provided an example from his own school, which offers a global executive MBA for the pharmaceutical industry. For a class that covers pricing, Chandra will request appearances by professors of marketing, economics, and operations. For a class on transformative innovation in the industry, he will bring in biologists. When he discusses plant efficiency, he’ll invite professors from the fields of operations, productions, and chemical engineering. He added, “All of them are available to me at the university.” 

The Challenge of Undergraduate Education

Another topic participants discussed was the state of undergraduate business education in India, where graduates often are considered unemployable unless they go on to earn higher degrees. 

Chandra had three suggestions for how business schools can improve undergraduate education. First, they should offer students a broad base of learning in nonbusiness subjects. Second, they should provide students with appropriate industry training through opportunities such as co-ops. Third, they should train undergraduates in general skills such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, communication, and technical competence. Undergraduate programs need to be restructured, he said, and “universities can pull together the resources to make it happen.” 

Several participants noted that many universities in India offer undergraduate business degrees simply to generate revenue. Others pointed out that in the U.S. and Europe, many leading business schools do not offer undergraduate education at all—in part because the perception is that younger students might not be prepared to master the intricacies of business. 

To improve undergraduate business education in India, schools should offer nonbusiness courses, provide students with industry training, and help students gain soft skills. 

“There’s no point in teaching 18-year-olds business subjects if they don’t have the baseline ability to critically approach problem-solving in a structured way,” said one. He did, however, feel that undergraduates benefit from studying economics, which teaches an analytical way of thinking. 

Another participant had surveyed recruiters at Big Four accounting firms to discover what they were looking for in new hires. She learned that these companies are seeking students who have the type of critical thinking skills that can only evolve within a diverse curriculum. These employers also want students with a strong ability to communicate—an essential skill in India, where people speak in many regional dialects as well as English. Believing that it is worth the effort to help “young and enthusiastic” BBA students develop such skills, she has been introducing elements of theater, the humanities, and other liberal arts into her business courses. 

She also emphasized that undergraduate business programs are here to stay. “We can’t run away from the fact that, in India, education is an emotional issue,” she said. “Parents will sell their land to pay for higher education.” 

The Role of Accreditation

Whatever happens next with business education in India, roundtable participants expressed the opinion that accrediting organizations have important roles to play. For instance, said one, if more schools embed business courses in law and business programs, AACSB could have a part in certifying or accrediting such courses. 

In addition, Memon noted that accreditation can act as a powerful framework for helping business school leaders articulate and achieve their goals. As an example, she pointed out that the 2020 standards focus on the values of diversity, technological agility, and multidisciplinarity, while they also encourage school leaders to consider how their programs could have an impact on society. 

Members of the association also have access to a community of peers who can help them achieve their goals, she added. Through the AACSB Exchange, AACSB Insights, conferences, and other services, the association brings together business school leaders to share ideas and improve their programs—in India and around the world. AACSB members who are interested in joining future roundtables can register their interest online


Sharon Shinn

Editor, AACSB Insights

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.
Link to the article