Education: Renaissance of Liberal Arts Education in India

ABOUT: The early Indian planners focused on technology and management education to help bright students become great technocrats and managers in a country that was being built ground up.
By Ashish Dhawan, Pramath Sinha, Vineet Gupta and Sanjeev Bikhchandani    Delhi     Print Edition: January 17, 2016
(Photo: Raj Verma)

Ashish Dhawan, Co-founder of Chrys Capital
Pramath Raj Sinha, Founding Dean of ISB
Vineet Gupta, MD, Jamboree Education
Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Founder and Vice Chairman of InfoEdge


ABOUT: The early Indian planners focused on technology and management education to help bright students become great technocrats and managers in a country that was being built ground up. But now, there is an increasing feeling that this overemphasis on professional skills in higher education is resulting in lopsided growth. All developed countries have a healthy liberal education system that throws up rounded leaders. A few years ago, Ashish Dhawan, Co-founder of Chrys Capital, one of India's biggest private equity funds, Pramath Raj Sinha, Founding Dean of ISB, Vineet Gupta, MD, Jamboree Education, and Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Founder and Vice Chairman of InfoEdge (Naukri.com), joined hands and pulled in many others to conceptualise and build Ashoka University, a private university focused on liberal arts education. They write about the importance of liberal arts to the development of the country.


India has always had a tradition of liberal arts education. The centres of learning at Takshashila and Nalanda were possibly the Harvard and Yale of the ancient world. Students came from across the world to study grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, surgery, politics, warfare, astronomy, commerce, music, dance, and much more. Leading Chinese and Japanese scholars were graduates of Nalanda. Among the graduates of Takshashila were the philosopher and economist Chanakya; the father of Sanskrit grammar, Panini; and the grandfather of Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya.

It is a shame that today not a single Indian institution is among the Top 200 in the world. Can we ever think of becoming a global superpower if our education system is in a shambles? Report after report talks about the crisis in higher education - the poor quality of faculty, the unimaginative curriculum, the lack of research and the institutional degradation. We must seriously rethink the British model of specialist education and revive our tradition of liberal education if we aspire to be a leading economic force in the next 25 years.

Where Are We Now?

India has been focused on improving access and equity in the post-Independence era. The British system was targeted at educating a narrow group of elites and so even as late as the 1950s only 400,000 students were enrolled in 500 colleges across the country. Over the past 65 years, the higher education system has grown almost a hundred times to 30 million students at 37,000 colleges. Our gross enrolment ratio (GER) has almost reached 25 per cent; we should aspire to a GER of 60 per cent by 2040. But the obsession with increasing access has meant that quality has been ignored. We have experienced the same in school education. The GER for elementary education has almost touched 95 per cent but the vast majority of children are being failed by the system.

As the economy has taken off, India has had a need for engineers, accountants, managers, doctors and lawyers. But the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of professional education. The top students always aspired to go to the IITs even if they had no interest in engineering. As a result, private colleges mushroomed to meet the needs of the burgeoning IT sector. The expansion was overdone and almost 4,000 colleges with 1.7 million entry-level seats were built. The sign that the 'professional degree boom' has peaked is evident from the recent shutdown of hundreds of engineering institutes - even the regulator, the AICTE, wants to shut down 40 per cent capacity and instead focus on enhancing outcomes.

We have a real crisis in higher education that has become apparent as corporates find that only a quarter of the graduating students are prepared for the workforce. A look at the curricula and pedagogy at most institutions reveals no real revolution of ideas - the basic system of teaching and assessment still relies on rote learning and an exam-based, lock-step method. The over one million professors and instructors in higher education need to re-imagine the teaching and learning process.

(Photo: Vivan Mehra)
Research is almost non-existent at our universities and colleges. It is tragic that some of the leading South Asian historians, linguists, political scientists and economists are at western institutions. The debate on India's economic model is between Amartya Sen at Harvard and Jagdish Bhagwati at Columbia. Where is the intellectual voice from our institutions? We have underinvested in research, particularly in humanities and social sciences, and only a few institutions such as IISc and TIFR are known for research excellence.

Why liberal arts?

Let us start by clarifying that a liberal arts education does not just focus on the arts. In classical antiquity, these were the subjects and skills considered essential for a free person in order to actively participate in civic life. The Yale Report of 1928 stated that the essence of liberal education is to develop the freedom to think critically and independently, to cultivate one's mind to the fullest potential and to liberate oneself from prejudice, dogma and superstition.

Our gross enrolment ratio in higher education has almost reached 25%; but the obsession with increasing access has meant that quality has been ignored.

In modern times, liberal arts universities encompass the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural and applied sciences. Students are exposed to a variety of subjects and encounter new ideas at an astonishing rate. After all, how many 17- and 18-year-olds really know what they want to do with their lives? Our current system of early specialisation is a remnant of the British model for passing on specialist knowledge to administer a far-flung empire. It needs to change.

In his book, In Defence of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria describes how he and his brother escaped the Indian system to attend elite American liberal arts universities, Yale and Harvard, respectively. Zakaria writes that America's success was built on liberal arts education - on multi-disciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path. He points out that even though the US has fared poorly on international high school math and science tests for 50 years, it has led the world in technology, research and innovation.

Jack Ma, a BA in English and the founder of Alibaba, recently hypothesised that the Chinese are not as innovative as westerners as China's educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student's complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning: "Many painters learn by having fun, many works are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too."

Is this our inflection point?

India is rapidly becoming a middle-income economy. We can no longer just rely on the factor-input model of growth that we have been pursuing since the 1991 economic reforms. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recognised, we must invest in our human capital. But, this is not just a matter of skilling. We also need to develop into a knowledge economy. Our young college graduates will have to deal with disruption in the coming decades. No longer can they just garner specialised skills. Instead, they need 21st century skills that will allow them to evolve as old industries get obliterated and new ones are created.

This recognition has dawned upon the leaders of East Asia. The forward-looking Singaporean government invited Yale to partner with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to create the first liberal arts college in that part of the world. In its first year itself, Yale-NUS got more than 11,400 applications from over 130 countries. The acceptance rate of the inaugural class was under 4 per cent, less than in the top US universities, demonstrating the latent demand for liberal arts education in Asia.

China has invested significantly in building broad research-based universities and even formed the C9 League, an alliance of nine top universities analogous to the Ivy League. A few of these have begun experimenting with aspects of liberal arts learning. Shanghai's Fudan University has introduced an Oxbridge-style residential college structure and, in a significant break with tradition, allowed students to put off deciding their major until the second year.

Our system is ready for a new form of education. Students (and even parents) are fed up with rote education. Those who can afford it are sending their children abroad for undergraduate and graduate studies. However, middle-class parents continue to push for professional education as there are not many other viable options.

Ashoka's role

Ashoka University was founded in 2010 (formal approval in 2014) as a not-for-profit institution under the Private University Act in the state of Haryana. It is a distinctive example of an institution providing pure liberal education that aspires to be on a par with the best in the world. Our aim at Ashoka is to help students become well-rounded individuals who can think critically about issues from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively and become leaders with a commitment to public service. Ashoka lays strong emphasis on foundational knowledge, thorough academic research based on rigorous pedagogy, and hands-on experience with real-world challenges. It prepares students to be ethical leaders in a diverse and complex world, the kind envisioned by Emperor Ashoka over two thousand years ago.

Our initial success has shattered the myth that students and parents are not ready to accept liberal arts education in India. In our second year as a university, we received 5,500 applications for 430 seats. Our students come from 27 states across India and across the socio-economic spectrum. Almost 55 per cent of our students are women, unlike the male-dominated IITs and IIMs. The graduates from our one-year post-grad Young India Fellowship programme have demonstrated that employers value liberal education - we already attract 90 employers and have 100 per cent placement record.

How did we gain traction so quickly? We recognised that great faculty is an essential ingredient for building a world-class university. Our mission has attracted leading scholars and academics from around the world. This year we received 800 applications for 20 full-time faculty positions. Ashoka has demonstrated that if the right platforms are created, academics of Indian origin (and even others) would consider relocating to India. China has followed the same strategy.

The sign that the professional degree boom has peaked is evident from the recent shutdown of hundreds of engineering institutes. Even the regulator, the AICTE, wants to shut down 40% capacity and instead focus on enhancing outcomes.

We believe that many elements of Ashoka can provide a direction to higher education in India. The curriculum has to provide breadth and depth. The students must have choices. The pedagogy must move away from the "sage on stage model" to a more Socratic method of inquiry. The governance should allow for no one person to dominate the institution. Collective philanthropy can provide the much-needed financial resources for creating many more high-quality colleges and universities. And, finally, institutions have to invest in faculty and research to build a strong core.

(Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)
The creation of IITs led to the emergence of one of the largest engineering college networks in the world. The IIMs did the same for management education. We hope Ashoka can do the same for liberal education in India and the world.

Looking forward

Initiatives such as Ashoka that restore liberal education to its rightful status in the country can transform higher education not just in India but the world. As we look ahead and build on the successes of new institutions in India like ISB and Ashoka that have received global recognition and acclaim very rapidly, we see no reason why India cannot have many more institutions of high calibre in the years ahead. We can envision the potential for India to have at least 25 universities in the global Top 200 in the next 25 years. Our belief stems from the realisation and experience that for about $100 million or `700 crore one can build a greenfield new university in India of international quality for 4,000-5,000 students. This is disruptive innovation in the field of higher education not just in India but in the many new emerging economies of Asia and Africa that aspire to build high-quality institutions of higher learning for their growing young populations. Not only are the upfront investments reasonable, the education itself can be offered at an affordable price point, which is important for access to quality education at scale. At current costs, it should be possible to offer an undergraduate degree for about $10,000 a year along with the flexibility of offering generous need-based scholarships to a majority of students to ensure needs-blind access for all who deserve it.

We can envision the potential for India to have at least 25 universities in the global Top 200 in the next 25 years.

The time has come for India to again embrace and carry forward its rich legacy by redefining and shaping liberal education for the 21st century not just for India but for the world. Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

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