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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When Kevin Naik wanted to do a PhD at the interface of robotics and Internet of Things, it wasn’t Ahmedabad University (AU) that first came to mind. Like many his age, he first wrote to professors at three IITs— Delhi, Mumbai and Gandhinagar. The IIT faculty had clear research goals for themselves and their groups and Naik’s plans didn’t quite fit in.

That’s when he looked to AU, where he found a willing professor – along with freedom to develop his own interests in a PhD. “Robotics and IoT are an unusual combination,” says Naik. “So only a small faculty is working in this area.” In contrast to the IIT legacy, AU is relatively new —just eight years old —with little reputation outside Gujarat. It makes up by providing flexibility in choice of research. AU enjoys another distinctive edge: a large endowment that provides plenty of leeway to students and faculty. AU was set up in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society, with a mandate to become a comprehensive university driven primarily by research. It was an unusual start. All private universities in India began as teaching institutions and then developed research as they grew. Almost all private universities were dominated by engineering or medicine. There was no private university at the time that mixed humanities, arts, the sciences and engineering in equal measure.

AU grew slowly initially, laying the foundation in the first five years. Institution-building picked up pace in 2014 when chairman Sanjay Lalbhai brought in Pankaj Chandra as vice chancellor. Chandra was till then director of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), where he was instrumental in reconstituting the board and instituting new standards for faculty tenure, among other things. He had a few novel ideas about how a university should function and they were a departure from what universities do now. Two principles guide his vision for the fledgling university. “We want to do impactful research,” says Chandra. “We also want to bring the visual into the classroom.”

Why Ahmedabad University is different from most private universities

Vice-Chancellor reports to a professional board and not a family

Works with large endowment and not overly dependent on student fees

Stresses science, engineering and the humanities in equal measure

Driven primarily by research and not teaching

The foundation raised about Rs 670 crore from sale of land and Chandra set to work. The university had a few unusual characteristics from the beginning. One being that the vice-chancellor reports to a management board and not a family, a governance structure not common among India’s private educational institutions. Delhi-based Ashoka University is an exception to this. “We have a governing board that is not easy to hijack,” says Ahmedabad University chairman Sanjay Lalbhai. The university also works with a large endowment and is not so dependent on fees. Not many of India’s private universities have a large endowment, the notable exception being Azim Premji University. When the government sanctioned new IITs, each one was given only Rs 500 crore, some yet to get the full money. Chandra has an endowment that can grow up to Rs 1,500 crore if necessary (through sale of land), and a 180-acre campus that could be designed almost from scratch. He has as much academic freedom as is possible for a private university. He also has the support of the trust and the board that share a common vision. Money, a common vision and a professional board have all brought in flexibility to the university functioning. “You cannot build a world class university without top-class talent,” says RA Mashelkar, former CSIR director general and member of Ahmedabad University governing board. “And you cannot have top-class talent without flexibility.”

All the best universities in the world have flexibility to hire the best. Mashelkar’s prime exhibit is Ahmed Zewail, the Egypt-born chemist who was made full professor at the age of 28. Zewail went on to do pioneering work at Caltech and win a Nobel Prize. Peter Danckwerts, one of last century’s finest chemical engineers and former professor at Cambridge University, didn’t have a PhD. Indian scientific institutions and universities once had that flexibility. MM Sharma, one of India’s best-known engineers, was made professor at the University Department of Chemical Technology at the age of 27. India has lost that flexibility now.

But Chandra has flexibility and used it by getting some of the best architects in the country to design AU. Desai Architecture in Ahmedabad was campus architect. Rahul Mehrotra, founder of RMA Architects and professor of urban design and planning at Harvard University, designed the arts and sciences building. Swiss architect Mario Botta designed the library. French architect Stephen Paumier will design the student centre. Although situated in the city, the campus is being built with a central forest, being overseen by ecologists.

“Pankaj Chandra has a specific vision of pedagogy and culture,” says Bobby Desai of Desai Architecture. “The campus is built for cross faculty interaction and debate.”

In the private sector, OP Jindal Global University’s main building was designed by Paumier as a vast classical garden. AU architects, who had to work with some old buildings as well, are designing campus buildings for frequent interactions. It is being built for walking in peak summer, when temperatures are in the high 40s.

The concept of universities without departments is not new in the world. University of California at Merced was the first to try it in the 1990s. In India, IIT Gandhinagar has tried the concept with some success. Chandra has organised AU around schools and centres, not departments. Schools are formed in well-established disciplines. Centres are in subjects not well established, and are aimed at developing expertise as the subject grows in depth and relevance. “The biggest future inventions are going to be multidisciplinary,” says Lalbhai.

The schools are organised around four related areas. Data, materials, biology and behaviour; energy, transport, education and food; air, water, land and forest; individual and community, civilisation and constitution. The three centres are for heritage management, for learning futures and the venture studio. The centre for heritage management is an unusual experiment, based on the premise that India has a lot of heritage but few professionals to manage it. Ahmedabad itself has many heritage sites. The university centre, however, does not study just tangible heritage like museums, art galleries and buildings. It will also study intangible heritage like language and music, not just by scholars of the discipline. The centre has a partnership with the University of Vallalodid, a 700-year-old university in Spain, through a €0.5 million grant from the European Union.

Partnerships are key to some of the programmes of Ahmedabad University. The deepest of these partnerships is with the Olin College of Engineering near Boston, a twenty-first century institution with a global reputation for innovative pedagogy. Olin College, which has no other partner in Asia, does not have classroom lectures like other universities. Students learn by doing projects.

Over the last two years, four AU faculty have spent a few months each in Olin College and imbibed its methods. “The class is no longer like a podium,” says Ratnik Gandhi, assistant professor at the school of engineering and applied science. “It is like a studio.” Undergraduate students are exposed to research methods from the beginning. In the life sciences division, among the most developed disciplines at the university, undergraduates have the luxury of a well-equipped laboratory usually accessible only to masters and PhD scholars in most places. “All equipment is handled by our undergraduates,” says Ajay Karakoti, nanobiologist and associate professor at the university. It is one way of immersion in the subject. All students are required to take courses in science, data and mathematics. Engineering students have to learn biology and commerce students must learn maths. Arts subjects are also compulsory. Mayank Jobanputra, an undergraduate in information, communication and technology, had to take courses in critical thinking and argumentation, ethics, communication skills, English literature, and so on.

AU is part of the zeitgeist, part of a movement when rich philanthropists are setting up good educational institutions. “The government will never be able to build a disruptive educational system,” says Ramaswamy Subramaniam, professor at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in Bengaluru. Hardcore scientists may not easily go to Ahmedabad, as Gujarat is not seen as an academic destination. It took four decades before IIM Ahmedabad got its current reputation. It will take equally long for a private university as well.

A version of this article was published in Economic Times on 21 Feburary 2017.
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