In recent articles on NAFSA about the rapidly growing Indian higher education space and its proposed reforms, Ahmedabad University’s Vice Chancellor Pankaj Chandra elaborated on what to expect of the country’s changing higher education scenario, and how Ahmedabad University is uniquely poised to lead that change. Here is an excerpt from the articles by David Tobenkin published in April 2022.)
Ahmedabad University has taken on the challenge of being among the first movers in changing the higher education landscape of India, 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 Pankaj Chandra, Vice Chancellor, Ahmedabad University, said. “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.”
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 said. “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.”
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 said. “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.”
The University also supports inclusive education and offers scholarships and need-based aid to deserving and needy candidates. “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.”
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 noted. The University’s undergraduate programme also has a signature Foundation Programme that 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.
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,” said 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. We, at Ahmedabad University, are proud and excited to be leading this movement.”