(This blog is excerpted from articles by David Tobenkin for NAFSA, the world’s largest association dedicated to international education. Both, India’s Higher Education Landscape and The Upstarts, were published in April 2022.)
In recent articles on NAFSA about the rapidly growing Indian higher education space and its proposed reforms, Ahmedabad University’s Vice Chancellor Pankaj Chandra breaks down what to expect of the country’s changing higher education scenario, and how Ahmedabad University is uniquely poised to lead that change.
Pointing out to a gradual but definite shift away from the traditional three-year arts, science and commerce degrees, Professor Chandra says that while it may take time to break down old beliefs, it is worth the effort. The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) promises to be a positive disruptor. For one, it has introduced four-year undergraduate degrees with multiple entry and exit points. The policy also seeks to increase flexible pathways to higher education learning, including increased credit transfers between different institutions and types of programmes. Other new initiatives from the NEP in this area include an academic credit bank to allow students to move between different universities and gain credits from work that count toward a final degree.
In addition, a draft Curricular Framework and Credit System for Four-year Undergraduate Programme, introduced by the UGC, calls for multidisciplinary and holistic education to emphasise conceptual understanding, creativity, and critical thinking. Stakeholders hope the greater flexibility will improve the GER ratios, reduce dropouts and increase degree completion.
Ahmedabad University has taken on the challenge of being among the first movers, building an intellectual infrastructure, and offering a research driven liberal thinking ecosystem in the heart of India’s premier heritage city. “These are very early days for the liberal arts approach to education in India,” Professor Chandra says. “Most parents are not convinced that such an education is superior to rote learning, as the latter gets them into established public institutions like IITs and IIMs. Most employers also value single parameter achievement that is designed around marks in standardised exams. It is going to take some time before these employers break their mindset and start to hire graduates in large numbers. Some of the more enlightened ones are already coming to our campuses.”
Building Global Education with an Indian Context
Ahmedabad University’s rigorous interdisciplinary approach with industry exposure is a step forward into the future of higher education in India. “At Ahmedabad University, our education is very rigorous and is aimed at building perspectives, skills, and application orientation in every programme, including the liberal arts programs,” Professor Chandra says. “An interdisciplinary approach allows us to equip our students with an ability to see more than what a single disciplinary inquiry can visualise and to provide more holistic learning. All of our students either write a thesis or do a capstone project (a project sponsored by an external agency where a team of students from different disciplines or schools works for at least a semester). All of our students do an internship, which provides valuable industry exposure. In addition, data science and communications (a three-course sequence) is mandatory for all students.”
Professor Chandra emphasises the importance of a global standard of education while advocating the Indianness of its context. “Many schools are simply trying to replicate the ethos, culture, and structure of programmes in the US or Europe,” he says. “They are also attracting students from a certain section of the society because of their high fees. India needs its own experiments and it needs to build liberal arts driven education that is located in its context and is still global in its value and aspirations of meritocracy. Ahmedabad is an experiment in that direction.”
Among the cornerstones of Ahmedabad University is its diverse and experienced faculty, attracted to the University due to its forward thinking and strong research oriented outlook. “We have managed to attract about 20 new faculty every year to the university during the last four years,” Professor Chandra says. “The largest majority amongst them are Indians who have completed their PhDs at some of the best places like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Penn, Cambridge, etc. The rest are PhDs from some of the best institutions in India. We feel that we have created a vision that is big and unusual, and have given people an opportunity to build a world class institution out of India. They are also attracted by the way we enable them to become successful academics, the kind of academic freedom that we provide, and an ability to experiment and develop the education of tomorrow.”
A 15-year Vision
Autonomy for education institutions is of great importance for someone who has been the Director of IIM, Bangalore, and works closely with the Academic Councils and Boards of several IITs and other predominant higher education Indian institutions. “There is a great tradition of individual inquiry and learning in India and its institutions; we just need to make them collectively able to deliver new ideas and scientific knowledge for the society. Given the fundamental ways in which the world is changing, here is an entry point for institutions that think differently to become leaders globally.”
Professor Chandra joined Ahmedabad University as its vice chancellor in 2015 with a clear mandate from the Board of Governors to build a truly global and serious academic centre in Ahmedabad University. He has created a fifteen-year plan and has received the support of the Board. He has then built a leadership team comprising some of the most accomplished academics in India, and those that had studied and taught at some of the best institutions in India and the world.
Ahmedabad University is noteworthy in comparison to most Indian higher education institutions in part for its low student-to-teacher ratio. In 2021-2022, the institution had a total faculty of 163 full time (including 5 visiting) faculty and 45 adjunct faculty from all over India and the world, serving 3,074 total students, including 2689 undergraduates and 385 graduate students, besides 76 PhD students.
What sets Ahmedabad University apart?
- The structuring of the University into Schools without departments.
- A University vision of continuous progress of self and society by asking what you will do for others.
- An emphasis on diversity.
Inclusivity in Education: Bridging the Gaps
Ahmedabad University decided to be diverse in its demographics and social character. “In addition to geographical diversity, the most important diversity comes from a socially diverse student body – kids that went to the best of schools to those that went to very average government schools but were highly talented, those that came from affluent families and those whose parents lived in extreme poverty, those that were urban and those that were rural, and those that went to English medium schools to those that went to vernacular medium schools (schools where teaching happens in the local language, not English). Our philosophy was that education should make students elite, and not their social background. We decided to consciously bring in first-time learners. The University actively searches for talented students from the underserved communities.”
Achieving such diversity has been a great challenge, Professor Chandra says. “Focusing on diversity and not just the elite presented a large challenge: Our push for social diversity meant that we had to redesign our educational systems very differently – how do you bring in equity in opportunity and quality together. How do we increase everyone’s chances of success?” he asked. “This required us to build a very strong bridge programme, build a strong expectation driven orientation, a mechanism that will hold hands in the first year to enhance success and adjustment to our very rigorous yet compassionate environment, keeping fees low so as to enable the brightest amongst the poorest to not be afraid to apply (this was also facilitated by a large endowment that AES built for the university, perhaps one of the largest in India), and providing a powerful financial aid programme, especially for those who could not afford education (and this included free boarding and lodging scholarships as well).”
The relatively small size of the University fosters a more flexible, less structured, and customised style of instruction necessary to serve such a diverse student base, Professor Chandra says. “The cornerstone of our very student-centric teaching and learning environment was our articulation that each learner and her context was different, their learning endowments were different (even though they were adjacent) and their aspirations were different – hence we had to try to customise their experience and education as much as possible. We also ensured high standards at the time of admission which was a holistic evaluation process.”
Interdisciplinarity: Offering flexibility and a multifaceted learning environment
The biggest differentiator that Ahmedabad University fosters is its interdisciplinarity, making it among a handful in India offering this kind of flexible and multifaceted learning approach. “Contemporary issues are complex and they do not lend themselves to solutioning through any single disciplinary knowledge system,” Professor Chandra says.
There are four ways of learning at the University:
- ways of thinking (including listening, thinking, reflecting, questioning, writing approach -- generally typical of most liberal arts programmes),
- ways of connecting (connecting different ideas together, connecting different subjects together – an ability to scaffold one disciplinary knowledge upon another to address a challenging issue; for example, most kids see physics and chemistry as two different subjects, but they need to be brought together in the minds of the students to solve a challenge uniquely),
- ways of doing (project-based learning), and
- ways of becoming (the self in our vision; education must transform the student from within).
These are embedded in three different principles that the University uses to design its learning environment, making education here very unique:
- Interdisciplinarity (integrating multiple disciplines in the classroom while addressing a complex challenge)
- Practice orientation (learning by doing)
- Research thinking (learning to ask the right questions)
Ahmedabad University’s undergraduate programme also has a signature Foundation Programme in which these approaches are embedded and which reflects the three principles. The Foundation Programme engages students with six domains (data, communication, behaviour constitutions and civilisation, biology and life, and materials) through four studios that represent contemporary challenges - Water, Climate Change and Environment, Democracy and Justice, and Neighbourhoods. “In addition, our course work is broad and deep, flexible, and transformative (all students participate in a mandatory Voluntarism programme working with communities that are underserved). The Foundation Programme provides the core philosophical training in “how to learn” to all, the General Education Requirements build the breadth, and the Major Requirements deepen the expertise in a chosen field,” Professor Chandra says.
Investing in Research
Ahmedabad has also invested heavily in research. “For a new institution, we have invested in a serious doctoral programme, instituted a six-year tenure system, and we provide internal funding and encourage faculty to seek global funds for their research,” Professor Chandra notes. “We have graduated several doctoral students, and we are starting to work on some deep problems of the society. In some areas, such as Climate Change and Sustainability, we started with a doctoral programme rather than a graduate or an undergraduate programme.”
Fitting in in the Indian Higher Education System
So where do private higher education institutions such as Ahmedabad University fit in, and where should they fit in, in the Indian ecosystem?
“The new private universities of India are trying to experiment with new ways of educating the next generation of youth in India through liberal education,” says Professor Chandra. “They, at this juncture, must be seen as experimenters for the society at large. They may show the way as to how public institutions can be restructured to deliver quality education. Education without quality is no education at all. Many of our public institutions have serious quality and relevance deficits. The new private institutions are setting a new bar on quality of education, on new opportunities, and on a new way of governing institutions. Perhaps, the IITs and IIMs will learn from them as to how students and faculty are enabled and how to transform institutions to meet the requirements of the 21st century. Given the large number of aspiring students, private and public institutions, both, will be needed to meet the requirements of the society. Moreover, [the new private universities] may look small now at this early stage of their development but they will grow to become large universities over time. Some are already larger than the standalone institutions like IIMs or the law schools, etc. We, at Ahmedabad University, are proud and excited to be leading this movement.”