Interview: ‘I hope Ashoka inspires another 10 institutions’, says founder Vineet Gupta

There’s so much happening in the world of education. The government has announced the dissolution of the UGC, to be replaced with a new Higher Education Commission of India. And last week it released the list of the much-talked-about Institutes of Eminence, but numbering a mere six, including the yet-to-be-established Jio Institute, instead of 20 as originally proposed.

As I meet Vineet Gupta, the founder & trustee of Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana—which, some experts say, should have been on the list—I ask him how he defines an ‘institute’ or a college. Gupta, who is also the MD of Jamboree Education, which offers classroom preparation for tests such as GMAT and GRE, says, “The classical definition is that it’s a place of learning, but in a digital age one can learn anywhere. So, a college is more appropriately a place where you can deepen your knowledge. It’s a place to produce new knowledge—but, on that metric, India has not done well.”

So, how would be rate Ashoka on that metric?

“I think we’ve been doing what a university should do. Our faculty is at the forefront of research, and our students are working with them to advance that research. There is outstanding teaching happening, helping students to broaden their horizon, open up their mind and engage in new learning,” he says. Ashoka, he adds, has taken a step towards the development of 21st century skills of critical thinking, problem solving and the ability to communicate.

Over the last few years many new private universities have come up, including SNU, OP Jindal and KREA. Is this the beginning of a revolution in the higher education space?

Gupta says the country, from a demographic perspective, needs to double its higher education capacity in the next 10 years. “That is our numbers challenge.” The other challenge is the quality has deteriorated. “These new universities are trying to create models of excellence, and if these models can be scaled up, it’ll do the country well,” he adds. “Ashoka, SNU … these are green shoots.”

Ashoka has demonstrated how an outstanding private institution can be created in a philanthropic manner, where people come together and participate in institute building. KREA, in south India, is inspired by this model. “I hope another 10 institutions get inspired. That would be a big win for Indian higher education,” Gupta says.

Ashoka is four years old—its campus opened in 2014. Has it emerged as an alternative to a DU or a JNU?

Alternative, Gupta says, is not the right word. “When we created Ashoka, we asked ourselves what kind of education a 19- or 20-year-old should get. Ashoka symbolises that—breadth in education, depth in learning, faculty that not only teaches but is at the forefront of producing knowledge, a vibrant place, and a focus on critical thinking, problems solving, leadership skills … essentially developing the future citizens of India,” he says.

Ashoka offers a 3+1 year programme. In addition to studying liberal arts, students get to choose their major and switch majors if they need to. They have the choice to major in interdisciplinary specialisations. The first UG class, Gupta says, has gone on to gain admission in Oxford, Cambridge, University of Chicago, Brown University and Bocconi University. Six Ashoka graduates have been admitted directly into full-funded PhD, after their BA degree. “This validates our intellectual rigour,” he says.

Ashoka has attracted students from 80 cities and 200 schools; its intake is about 400 students for the UG. The common thread for the selection, Gupta says, is those who are “academically curious, have made some impact beyond classroom, have a hunger to learn, and have a sense of being able to think critically.”

Where does Gupta see the Indian higher education ecosystem, say, 20 years from now?

“We are sitting on a huge human capital, having both trained and untrained employees,” he says. The work at Ashoka has allowed him to travel to many foreign universities. He says that especially in the field of science and technology, and social sciences, the top leadership in US universities is of Indian origin. “We have outstanding talent.”

However, he adds that China is growing immensely in the higher education space. “China has been able to attract its top scholars to the country and has built a vibrant education ecosystem. China has already left India in the dust. It is 20 years ahead in the higher education space. That is why their universities are ranked in the global top 100,” Gupta says, adding, “The number of publications and research papers coming out of China is higher than that in the US. Some of them are of dubious quality, but still the number of, say, PhD students coming out of China is 34,000. In the US, it is 40,000. We are not even close—a mere 4,000-5,000 PhD students.”

However, he is optimistic. “China has done it primarily through government intervention. The way things move in India, we would be probably slow, but we will do a good job eventually. We are batting for this.”

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