The evolution of human beings has been an outcome of their quest for knowledge. A tangible expression of this quest are universities—the hub for critical thinking, for the development and exchange of ideas. Over centuries, they evolved into instruments of social change, creating new knowledge, leading ideological shifts and nurturing a skilled labour force. Higher education offers people the means to improve income levels and lead a better quality of life.
India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of establishing world-class educational institutions took shape with the Indian Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management, the National Institute of Design and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Over time, they earned recognition for their quality of education and research, and became some of the most sought after institutions in the country.
Since then, there has been a consistent growth in the number of universities—900-plus as of March, as per the UGC—and other institutes of higher education. However, only 26 per cent of the 18-24-year-olds in India enrol for higher education—up from 9 per cent in 2002-03, but poor compared to countries like the UK (59%) and Japan (55%). There is a huge demand for higher education in our country, and as the only source of funding, the government is unable to provide for the massive expansion it requires. High demand for limited seats has created a high-pressure admission environment where even a 99 per cent score is sometimes not good enough.
And that’s just one part of the story. A majority of institutions struggle to do a good quality job of imparting existing knowledge, with almost no focus on applying knowledge to drive social impact or creating new knowledge through research. Surveys indicate that a majority of our graduates are not ready for employment in the industry.
The new varsities are bringing in new research capabilities, curricula, ideas and pedagogy.
All these factors combined to make private sector intervention necessary in higher education. Corporate players who often play multiple roles—as parents of enrolled students, recruiters, sponsors—see merit in integrating with the coursework early on, to be able to better prepare students for future roles as professionals. This has caused the growth of private universities, which have the capacity to bring together the human and capital resources needed to boost the quality and availability of opportunities in higher education. A number of these new universities are bringing in new curricula, ideas, pedagogy and research capabilities into the country. Though more expensive than their government counterparts, they are able to address the gaps in high quality education in India at a fraction of the international cost Anant National University, Ashoka University, OP Jindal University, Azim Premji University, Shiv Nadar University and Krea University are a few such universities that are offering students the flexibility to step away from the narrow confines of the feudal higher education system and learn in a more flexible environment from international faculty members. They have been able to ignite renewed interest in liberal arts and design by offering students the flexibility to take courses from multiple disciplines based on the principle of allowing them to follow their heart, rather than restricting them through the requirements of a specialisation-focussed curriculum.
For instance, the Ahmedabad-based Anant National University (AnantU) offers its students a choice-based credit system that allows them to choose their electives every semester, and their majors and minors over the duration of their programme. Students undergo a rigorous unlearning module in their foundation year, common to all specialisations, to break away from the stringent structures of the traditional education system. Through extensive hands-on programmes backed by advanced facilities, like a well-equipped makerspace, a learning commons and a sports academy, for its 700-odd students, AnantU is turning holistic development into a scalable reality. It is creating pathways for its students to engage with their surroundings and society, explore the challenges and possibilities, and create sustainable solutions.
Take the Anant Fellows, students of its flagship, one-year, postgraduate programme. They identify a problem in the built environment and work through the year with various stakeholders to create an inventive and equitable solution. They collaborate with government bodies, NGOs, social workers and members of the education fraternity to translate their vision into practical applications. Through its innovative practices, AnantU is emerging as a thought leader in the country, for spearheading the new wave of change in design education. It aims to build trust and an aspiration for private universities among students by becoming a catalyst for driving social impact and creating new knowledge in India.
Anunaya Chaubey, Artist and provost, Anant National University, Ahmedabad