“If you can read [Immanuel] Kant, write a paper, critique his writing, if you can do abstract algebra, game theory…you can do accounting,” says Ashish Dhawan, co-founder of Ashoka University. The former private equity investor doesn’t mean to slight accounting. The point he’s making is this: if people have rigour in their studies, picking up real-world skills is easy.
A study of history, philosophy, economics, or psychology is as relevant for any business executive as it is for a humanist or a non-governmental worker. “You’d never be able to spell out a Yes Bank debacle if you just focused on the visible numbers. Because you’d never be able to see under the covers anyway,” says Dhawan, expounding the core belief behind why he and his co-founders set out to found a liberal arts university eight years ago. For Dhawan, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Pramath Raj Sinha, and Vineet Gupta, the reasons were as personal as universal.
The craggy edges of India’s crumbling higher education system are all too visible. Indian universities, technical or otherwise, are either too close to the market or too disconnected from it; too close to political ideologies or too steeped in social apathy. In the last few weeks, incidentally, the agitating students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the striking professors of Delhi University—both premier public universities in India—have brought to the fore the decline of university resources. In the latter’s case, some 4,000 vacancies managed for years by ad hoc teachers will now go to guest and contract teachers with a cap on their payout.
As technology took centre stage in the last two decades, engineering became the de facto choice of higher education in India. Professional schools in management, law, medicine, et al grew but humanities shrunk. It’s another matter that 80% of engineering graduates are found wanting or unemployable. Globally, as tech finds itself in a tailspin of scandals and public distrust, there’s a realisation that liberal arts might be useful for everyone, no matter the career they end up in.
The timing couldn’t be better for Ashoka.
Since its first batch of undergrads, Ashoka has grown—127 undergrad students from 80 schools in 40 cities in 2014 to 598 students from 363 schools in 101 cities in 2019. This is despite a considerable price tag. It’s a sign that parents and students are coming around to an idea of education that prepares one for life instead of a vocation.
Universities like Presidency in Kolkata, and St Stephens and JNU in Delhi were places that nurtured critical thinking in their best days, says Ashoka’s chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee. “We lost it (critical thinking) because universities became institutions that did not pursue knowledge, but jobs and careers,” he says with magisterial repose.