The idea of a liberal university
Has Ashoka University, backed by some very formidable names in Indian business and academia, lived up to its promise of offering a liberal arts education that goes beyond classroom learning?
Till October, in its five years of existence, Ashoka University, India’s most well-known liberal arts university, had a near dream run with the press. Phrases such as “India’s answer to the Ivy League”, “new age” and “collective philanthropy” were liberally used in news reports about the not-for-profit university, backed by some formidable names in Indian business and academia such as Pramod Bhasin, founder of Genpact; Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Info Edge India Ltd that runs Naukri.com; Sid Yog, managing partner, Xander Group; Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean, Indian School of Business; and sociologist Andre Beteille, who is also the chancellor.
“The media has been very kind to us generally,” says Vineet Gupta, pro-vice-chancellor and a founding member, when we meet at the university, a 25-acre campus in Sonipat, Haryana, around 30km from Delhi.
On 13 October, the honeymoon ended. The Indian Express published what was perhaps the first ever adversarial news article about the university on the front page, with the headline: “‘Liberal’ Ashoka University crackdown: 2 staffers quit after signing student petition on J&K”. Quoting unidentified students, the story charted out the sequence of events, starting with an online petition floated by six former students on 25 July—against the “alleged violation of human rights in the Kashmir valley following the killing of militant Burhan Wani by the army in July”—to two members of the administrative staff being “coerced” to quit by the university for signing the petition. The petition was signed by 88 members of the university, including the two members of the administrative staff and one faculty member.
Most students I spoke to thought the story was “unfair”. “See it was factually accurate, but the way they (The Indian Express) played it up, it seems like a very black and white issue, which it is not by any stretch of the imagination,” said a Young India Fellowship (a hyper eclectic post-graduate certificate programme) student. Another said the story made it seem like an “us versus the administration scenario” and “oversimplified a grey subject”.
The administration was not amused by the petition, and a governing council meeting “condemned” the act. Additionally, the vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, sent out an email asking students to “refrain in the future from using Ashoka University’s name to comment on an issue where clearly different people have different points of view”, paving way for an email policy. According to the new rules, all group mails would go through a moderator who would “forward the email to the group if deemed necessary after discussion”.
However, according to Gupta, the decision to change the email policy was taken before anything happened, “because everyone was receiving too much spam”. However, emails sent to students by the administration suggest otherwise.
Where there is ambiguity is the coercion part pertaining to the two members (Saurav Goswami and Adil Mushtaq Shah) of the administrative staff who quit in the aftermath of the petition. Most students, teachers and university officials I spoke to (almost of all of who refused to be named) alleged that the two were forced to leave.
“No one was, of course, explicitly asked to leave. But, you know, the situation was such that they were better off moving,” said an administrative staff member, who did not want to be named. Both Goswami and Shah refused to speak in spite of numerous efforts to reach out to them. The faculty member, Rajendran Narayanan, who signed the petition and is allegedly under pressure to quit by the end of the year, also refused to comment.
Gupta, on his part, says, “The world is free to think what it wants to, but we will not talk about our internal policy. It has been communicated to the Ashoka community.” (In an internal mail following The Indian Express story, Mukherjee, however, said that “no staff or faculty have been dismissed for expressing their opinion by signing a petition”.)
Ashoka University as it exists currently—a liberal arts university—is a result of the recession that originated miles and miles away from Sonipat. “We wanted to open a 200-acre multidisciplinary university, but then the 2007 economic crash happened and we realized we should scale it down. That’s how the idea of a smaller interdisciplinary university germinated,” says Gupta. The idea, he said, was to incorporate both “breadth and depth”. “In Indian universities, there is only breadth, so we wanted to create a system where everyone studies a little bit of everything.”
To test the waters, the founding members started the Young India Fellowship in 2011. “It was a unique one of its kind programme. Students from diverse undergraduate backgrounds could study a wide range of subjects from Shakespeare to leadership. It became very popular very quickly,” says Gupta. In the first year, 58 students were admitted, and everyone was funded through a scholarship that took care of both academics and accommodation. The same arrangement was followed next year. However, by the third year—200 people were admitted that year—a mixed model was adopted. “We realized a lot of people could pay for it, so half of the class paid,” explains Gupta.
The first undergraduate batch—a class of 127—was admitted in 2014. The number went up to 230 and 340 in the subsequent years. The university offers a wide range of choices in the social sciences and humanities, and courses in pure sciences are slated to be introduced from next year. The hallmark of the (undergraduate) programme is its flexible nature and the fact that teachers are given autonomy to design their own curriculum, features mostly absent in other undergraduate academic courses in the country. “Students are encouraged to question everything and develop a strong sense of critical thinking,” says Gupta.
Jonathan Gil Harris, dean of academic affairs, says one of the most fundamental aspects of Ashoka’s liberal arts education is “versatility”. “The idea is that students study multiple disciplines and draw connections between them,” he says.
Even in terms of job opportunities, a liberal arts education makes graduates better equipped to meet the demands of the current job market, says Harris. “The global work place is demanding a very different kind of aptitude and single-track proficiency is not good enough. Versatility and communication skills have become more important than ever,” he says, “and though there is probably more English in India than say China, most of our graduates are sadly not efficient communicators and that’s where they lose out.”
There is much truth to Harris’ diagnosis. According to the National Employability Report 2015-16 put together by the job skills matching platform Aspiring Minds, as many as 80% of India’s engineering graduates are unemployable—and there is very little to contest the fact that Indian education is in dire need of some sort of a radical transformation, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy.
Ashoka University promises to do exactly that. For instance, the undergraduate programme requires each student to take 12 foundation courses, such as literature and the world, principles of science, social and political formations—courses that wouldn’t feature in most conventional undergraduate programmes in the country. Classroom learning is further augmented by workshops and guest sessions conducted by experts from across the industry and academia.
“We believe that education offered at Ashoka has to be focused on the 21st century skills of writing, reading, critical thinking and problem solving. They are key to almost any profession in the world today. We observed most students from Indian universities go through their education without developing those skills, so that was a void we wanted to fill and the curriculum is designed so. Apart from that, we wanted to create a system that would produce students with a very strong sense of giving back (to society) and nation-building,” says Gupta, explaining the objectives of the university.
Most students, both current and former, speak glowingly of it. They describe it as “fantastic”, “life changing”, “academically challenging”, “a wonderful place to be in”. The postgraduate fellows in particular, who have done their under- graduation in traditional Indian universities, say there is no other place they would rather be in. “There is space for dissent and the administration actually lets you express your grievances,” says a former student, who previously attended a law school in Pune.
“Ashoka has let me explore various subjects and understand links between them, something that I did not get to do in my undergraduate years at all. Plus, the teaching here is much more dynamic, as the focus isn’t only on classroom learning. We have these experiential learning modules, which really help one appreciate what you’re learning in the class,” says a student of the post-graduate programme; she graduated from Delhi’s Lady Sriram College.
However, there are also naysayers. “The very first day of the course, the day of the orientation, there is a dress code. You are expected to wear a suit, and if you don’t, you are made to feel left out. Discrimination begins on the very first day and continues throughout the year,” a former student and now a freelance journalist, Rahul Maganti, says over phone from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.
The concerns about “elitism” primarily emanate from the course fee (Rs8.5 lakh for the one-year postgraduate programme and Rs8 lakh a year for the undergraduate course). Students, however, are often given generous scholarships and grants (every student in the postgraduate course gets a scholarship of at least Rs1 lakh). “We are need-blind when it comes to admission and almost 60% of the students in the undergraduate programme are fully or partially funded. Only people who can pay, pay,” says Gupta.
Though one would think that would help restore some parity, most students continue to belong to a certain socially-privileged background. The admission process, which is completely online and entails writing a personal essay in English, ensures that. “See we are more than aware of that gap and we are doing all that we can to bridge it. The outreach team goes to quite a few schools in tier-II towns and meets parents and students (to convince them of the merits of a liberal arts degree over a convention professional course),” says Gupta. Harris admits there is a problem. “There is a belief that Ashoka is only for rich kids. While that may be demographically true, there are enough mechanisms in place to make sure that needn’t be the case,” he says.
Most students in the university are aware of this “elitist problem” and agree that for Ashoka to truly become a world-class institute, that gap has to be bridged. “The success of this university, quite frankly, depends on whether it can really bridge this class gap in the next five years,” a current student of the fellowship said.
The absence of an affirmative action policy in the admission process (there isn’t one on the cards either, according to Gupta), however, has led to a section of people expressing doubts over Ashoka’s seriousness to be the egalitarian space it claims to be. “Yes, dissent is accepted, but convenient dissent, and when it is not in their own backyard,” says a former student, not willing to be named. “We did go and discuss the need for affirmative action. They heard us. But that is all. So does that translate into the university being responsive to criticism? I do not know.”
There have also been concerns over the corporate structure coming in the way of its core idea of a democratic liberal arts university. “Ashoka University has been academically fulfilling, and intellectually challenging. That being said, I have problems with the way they are running it now. I understand it is a private university and the founders have a vision of a self-sufficient university, but there has been a drastic drop in quality and an increase in branding exercises over the past year-and-a-half. They are leveraging that media image to attract a very elitist crowd. They are trying to balance this by providing scholarships to students from modest backgrounds, but not nearly to the scale that facilitates the creation of socio-economic and cultural diversity,” says Dhruv Chakraverti, an undergraduate student of the university, in an email.
Gupta says such concerns are unfounded: “This is a model of collective philanthropy, so no one person has control; that ensures the ultimate pursuit is excellence.”
But what really cracked open the fault lines in Ashoka University—and perhaps the limitations of private corporate-funded universities itself—was the Kashmir petition, which many students think the university didn’t handle well. “The university overreacted. The petition clearly mentioned that it didn’t represent the views of the university, but of the signatories. There was a similar petition even in support of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). What was the need to condemn it, regulate communication and force people to resign?” asks a former student of the fellowship. Maganti, one of the very few people among the more than dozen people I interviewed, who consented to their name being mentioned, was much more scathing: “They can use our names and achievements to attract students, but we are condemned when we use the name of the university in a petition. Isn’t that hypocritical?”
Has Ashoka University then failed in its duty as a liberal arts university where democracy is valued and dissent not only tolerated but cherished? The answer perhaps lies in an often overlooked truth: The world we inhabit is an imperfect place and our actions are a product of it. As Harris says, “We have to be mindful that the world doesn’t stop at Ashoka’s gates and there is a world out there we have to somehow negotiate with. I hope as Ashoka grows up, in tandem Indian society will grow up, and there will be a joint commitment to freedom of speech.” What he meant was simple: sometimes you lose a few smaller battles to win the war.