Bengaluru: What connects former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan, Biocon Ltd. Chairman Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra Group, Aditya Mittal, president of Arcelor-Mittal, Dheeraj Hinduja, chairman of Ashok Leyland, Sajjan Jindal, Chairman of JSW Group, and Anu Aga, Director of Thermax, and some others of the same league?
Apart from being the thought leaders of India Inc., they are all on the governing council of an ambitious ₹750 crore project started on Tuesday to change the way liberal arts is taught in the country, through an upcoming university 70 km away from Chennai, in Andhra Pradesh’s Sri City, called Krea.
Apart from Rajan himself, the academic council at Krea include John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford, to Manjul Bhargava, noted mathematics professor at Princeton, to TM Krishna, musician, writer and public intellectual. The first batch of students, 110 of them in total, began their classes in ‘School of Interwoven Arts and Sciences’ on Tuesday as teachers introduce themselves like doing a Ted Talk presentation.
“The whole experience will be very different, not just the curriculum," said Kapil Viswanathan, Vice-Chairman of Krea. “First, we are bringing together the arts with the sciences, we believe that even if you want to be a poet, you need to learn data science. Likewise, if you want to be a computer scientist, you still need to understand humanities from the point of view of aesthetics and art."
Krea signals the taking roots of private universities in the higher education sector in India, where lack of quality of top-notch institutions like Harvard makes students spend an estimated $6 billion to study abroad. New-age private institutions like Ashoka University, O P Jindal Global University, Shiv Nadar University and now Krea University boast of an interdisciplinary approach to learning and globally noted academics as teachers. Funded with private capital, they are also free from the limitations of public sector universities and have global ambitions.
In simple terms, it shows higher education sector in India is coming of age, said Raghuram Rajan, in an earlier interview to Mint. “I think it combines a few trends. One is that we now have relatively wealthy entrepreneurs who are finding some way to give back. And it is no longer, say, building a temple. The second is the desire for higher education has exploded, especially quality in higher education," he said.
“The number of quality institutions we have, haven't been changed. Yes, the government is setting about creating more IITs and so on. But those are very strongly limited by the number of faculties. So if you multiply the IITs by four, you can provide the land and funding, but you can't provide the faculty overnight, especially if some of the salaries that are at big pay. The supply is limited. Much of the supply has to be obtained by drawing on or bringing back students from abroad, bringing back faculty through navigating the world. So that limits what public universities can do. These actually create openings for a private university," Rajan said.
“There is not a single Indian university in the top 300-400, except IISc perhaps. So the idea was to create a world-class university located in India. It's there in the name itself. We wanted to be creative and action-oriented," said Sunder Ramaswamy, noted economist and Krea’s vice-chancellor. “We are different in a couple of fundamental ways— we have faculty across the board, the way we admitting students is extremely different from others, and we don't want any discipline untouched other than engineering," he said.
“I was fascinated with this idea of creating a new paradigm in under-education," said N Vagul, former chairman of ICICI Bank Limited and a board member at Krea, when asked about he joined the experiment. “When I was a youngster, I wanted certain things to change, like casteism, communalism, corruption. But nothing has changed, only multiplied," he said.
“Our undergraduate education is all about getting a job. The parameters of the success of any business school in India has become the placement record, not what they teach or what they learn. And it is reflected in society. When you grow up, when the environment changes around you, you are not adopted into the new environment. You still stuck," Vagul said.
What does they want to achieve? R Seshasayee, former chairman of Infosys another board member, says three things: “One, we want this institution to set a new standard of higher learning. Second, in this process, we will also develop a new way of learning, which is interwoven learning. This is an experimentation, but so far this idea has caught on people from the academic world, who are all very reputed leaders, all of them believe that this is an idea whose time has come. Third, we would want students to go through this institution to become leaders, not only do we need leaders who have a domain expert on one subject or the other, but are capable of making a social impact in an ethical fashion."