How I got involved with Ashoka University.
By Arjun Bhagat (OS77)
Education in India gets silo’ed very early in a student’s life. By the time we got into 9th grade, we had to choose our track; humanities, science or commerce. After that, a student gets very little opportunity to expand their horizons, or study a wide range of inter-disciplinary subjects.
An engineering student gets focused on subjects like basic science, mathematics and applied engineering courses, for example. On top of that the whole educational emphasis is on rote learning, structured subject matter force-fed to the student and test taking. There is little unstructured material, ambiguous problem solving tasks or genuine independent research that is provided to the aspiring student; precisely the kinds of things that leads to inquisitive minds that learn to think for themselves or solve real-life problems as they appear.
Around 2007, five alumni from IIT Delhi got together and we decided to do something about this. We envisioned founding a world class Liberal Arts University that would provide its students with an educational foundation that would allow them to become future thought leaders of the country.
Ashoka University is an initiative in India's higher education space to create a world-class university.
There isn't one Indian university in the top 300 in the world and the lack of academic leadership has created significant challenges for India as a nation. Innovation has slipped, which in turn has resulted in lower job creation and lastly, the nature of jobs being created makes India a back office to the world rather than leading from the front. The question we are asking is this - can we build the next Harvard or Stanford - that just so happens to be located in India?
The other important aspect is that Ashoka is completely philanthropically built. This means that the university is being built on the back of collective public financial support. On a project cost of Rs 500 cr, Ashoka has raised Rs 281 cr from 48 donors - and this happens to be the single largest act of collective philanthropy act in India. Moreover, Ashoka is broadly governed. No single person owns or runs it and this is a core element in the governance of the university.
This feature is critical because the great faculties of the world do not like to work for a family or an owner and that is the environment that we are attempting to build.
Lastly, Ashoka has built a 4 year track record through its post-graduate programme. The first undergraduate batch has commenced this year and a total of 330 students (UG + PG) are now studying at the campus.
The 4 pillars of Ashoka
Ashoka is being built on the foundation of 4 pillars:
1. High calibre group of Founders
2. An outstanding Academic Council
3. International quality Faculty
4. Global university collaborations
Ashoka's Founders represent some of the finest talent in India. They are high quality achievers - they have created and grown some of India's finest organisations. Examples are AshishDhawan building Chrys Capital - India's pioneering private equity outfit. Sanjeev Bikhchandani of naukri.com.Pramath Raj Sinha with ISB.DilipShanghvi with Sun Pharma.Deep Kalra with makemytrip.com, etc. They are now bringing their leadership skills to build India's finest university and one of the best for the world.
Ashoka has create an Academic Council comprising outstanding academicians and thought leaders from across the world who have a connect with India. The Council provides academic leadership to Ashoka and normally approval from two members of the academic council is required to appoint one faculty member at Ashoka.
The council comprises people like Ramchandran Guha - India's foremost historian; Kaushik Basu, VP, World Bank; Sunil Khilnani from Kings College who famously coined the phrase, The Idea of India; Kalyankrishnan Sivaramakrishnan (Shivi) from Yale, one of the world's leading anthropologists; Devesh Kapoor, who leads the India Centre at UPenn; Kenwyn Smith from UPenn is one of the world's leading behavioural scientists.
Ashoka's faculty comprises some of the most outstanding talent teaching students in India. They are PhDs from some of the world's foremost universities. Rudrangshu Mukherjee as the vice chancellor is a PhD from Oxford. Jonathan Gil Harris is a New Zealander who teaches English and Shakespeare. Kranti Saran is a PhD from Harvard teaching Philosophy and Gilles Vernier, a Belgian who teaches political science.
Global university collaborations
Ashoka has forged international university collaborations to institute international best practices at Ashoka from day one. These include University of Pennsylvania, U. Michigan, SciencePo, Berkeley, Oxford University and Carleton College.
PG programme track record
Ashoka has been running a one-year post graduate programme for the last 4 years. This is India's most distinctive and unique leadership programme where students are provided a multidisciplinary education. We have outstanding visiting faculty from international universities teaching for six weeks and 10 session long courses to a diverse set of students.
The critical thing is this - every student is under a scholarship and we focus on admitting students with exceptional talent outside academics.
The Under graduate programme
This is the first batch of the UG programme with 133 students and they are being admitted on a needs-blind basis. That is, students are admitted on merit and if they cannot afford to pay for their education, then Ashoka will find ways to meet their admission requirements. We have students from 35 towns and cities, from 25 states across India with 2 international students, again more girl students compared to boys.
Important: we are altering the manner in which students are being analysed and admitted in India. Marks and cut offs are not the defining measure. We are measuring students holistically on 3 parameters 1. Academic excellence 2.Extra curricular achievements 3. Personal characteristics. Our students are being imbued with a sense of public service and we want our students to lead the country going forward. Our students are being taught to think critically and solve for problems from a multi-disciplinary perspective. 60% of our students are on scholarships - this is the single largest scholarship programme in any Indian university in India.
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