Global education, made in India

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Apr 16 2013, 09:24am hrs
The investors behind Ashoka University, one of several US-style liberal arts colleges coming up in India, explain to Sunil Jain why the non-profit could be their best investment ever

Shiv Nadar University has a tie-up with Carnegie Mellon University, OP Jindal University with Indiana University, Lavasa Education Hub with the Sad Business School, Ashoka University with University of Pennsylvania suddenly theres a clutch of new choices for Indias 2 lakh kids who go abroadspending $8-10 billionto study each year and probably ten times as many who want to go but cant afford to, more so since horror stories abound of the havoc the governments affirmative action policy is wreaking on the quality of teaching in top Indian universities.

Its a lot worse actually, says Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of the 7-8 investor-promoters behind Ashoka University who I meet for lunch at the capitals IIC along with Ashish Dhawanwhile both Sanjeev and Ashish have put in R20 crore each of their own funds in this not-for-profit, others who have contributed large sums include Vineet Gupta, Puneet Dalmia, Jerry Rao and Sid Yog. Sanjeev is still known as the founder of jobs search firm Naukri, and Ashish, despite his work in education, is for the lay public, still the man who raised $2 billion at Chrysalis Capital.

Lunch is a frugal affairI chose grilled fish, not just to reduce my wasteline, but so I can eat with my left hand while taking notes with the rightthe health conscious Ashish follows suit, and while Sanjeev loves his food, he wants to eat light as he has some more meetings ahead of him. Not surprisingly, given Ashish was in the business of finding various Sanjeevs to fund, they met over a spreadsheet. Sadly, though Ashish had just raised $64 million from his first India fund (yes, he makes the obligatory crack over this literally being his lifes $64 million question!), it didnt quite work out with SanjeevSanjeev instead went with ICICI Ventures which, if memory serves, got a 25-30x return on its R7.5 crore investment, and Ashish with ZipAhead that later morphed into JobsAhead. I wouldnt worry about it, a fledgling venture capitalist himself, Sanjeev tells Ashish who says this was one investment he regretted not making, Ive seen a lot of opportunities I wish Id invested in.

Sanjeevs R300 crore of investments, of course, is loose change compared to Ashishs $2 billion, but unlike Ashish, he invests at a start-up stagehes written off 2 of his 9 investments, he tells us as he adds some spice to the cream of chicken soup hes ordered before the fish. Zomato (restaurant listings) and Meritnation (online teaching for K12) are reportedly doing well though hes not in the money yet. As for Ashish, some of his big wins have been Spectramind, UTI Bank, Transworks, MphasiS and Suzlon.

Why is the PE fund industry in all manner of trouble, I ask Ashishdespite his work with Ashoka and some great successes in the K12 space (a computer-based intuitive maths programme has seen marks of the underprivileged kids rise dramatically), Ashish still spends a fifth of his time at Chrysalis. A large part of the funding, he says, came at the Sensexs peak and so got invested at high multiples and was also invested in infrastructure, etc, where they are now stuck. A lot of investors havent seen returns for a long time and so have, if you will, downgraded India.

So what was their eureka moment Why did two obviously successful entrepreneurs decide to get into the education space, especially since it is a genuine non-profit and they have no hope of getting any of their money back Ashish claims he knew he wanted to be in education when, in sixth grade, he got to teach a junior class. His mother thought little of the ideathankfully for the investors hes given 30%-plus annual returns from 40 successful exits of the 60-odd investments hes made so farand encouraged him to apply to Yale. The rest is history. After working at Wall Street, he came back to India in 1999, started dabbling with Akanksha Foundation in Mumbai which was working with street kids, but remained essentially a VC. Gurcharan Das, the ex-P&G head and author, introduced him to Parth Shah whose Centre for Civil Society was doing a lot of work in education policy, including the ills of the Right to Education.

And Sanjeev A chance meeting with an old classmate who is now teaching at Delhi Universitywere nearly done and wrestling against an ice-cold kulfiand he learnt the course hadnt changed since he graduated from St Stephens in 1984; of the 800 marks in all papers when we were in college, he says, 100 marks were for planning, 100 marks for Marx ... I nod intelligently, but college is a bit of a haze nowI remember not getting a job with Prannoy Roys The Policy Group after I told my ex-teacher Omkar Goswami who consulted with TPG that academic stuff was all crap. This was after I failed to remember what some arcane (they sounded arcane!) economic terms meant.

His wifes niece, Sanjeev isnt quite done yet, was at Cambridge and her first year course had more than hed learnt in all three years at Stephens. The pice de rsistance, Sanjeev says, is that if you do BA Economics from Delhi University (DU), you can get into Cambridge in only the second year while if you do your BA from Cambridge, you can get to teach in DU without the required MAthis seems a bit of an exaggeration, but I take his word for it. It must be, hes told me this twice before on different occasions, the last time over a delicious breakfast at the Chambers in the Taj.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ashish and Sanjeev went to meet Pramath Sinha, the founding dean of the Indian School of Business, to discuss liberal arts colleges. Since Pramath was at that time also talking to a group of ex-IITians who wanted to set up an engineering colleges, he got them to collaborate, and Ashoka was borna liberal arts college, also teaching science but not detailed engineering since 2008 crisis left them with less cash than theyd wanted. They have raised R80 crore so far and have a letter of credit for R100 crore. The UPenn tie up gives them access to a classy global faculty, they are in the process of hiring a VC. Unlike DU, they claim, Ashoka will offer students both breadth and later depth since there will be general courses in the first two years and a specialisation only in the next twoDU is in the process of introducing a similar system.

Convinced the Indian BA was good and the better option is to send kids overseas for MA/PhDsmy son goes to college in two years, so this is a cheaper option!I argue that Indian-style rote also has a place. Cramming up the dates of Alexander and Porus battles may be tediousremember Mohan Chotis Sikandar ne Porus se ki thi ladai, jo ki thi ladai, to main kya karoonbut it trains us to easily assimilate important facts, around which we later weave the theory. I cite the fact that Indias GDP rise and fall can easily be traced to government dissavings falling and then rising in a QED-kind of manner.

An American undergrad, I say with the conviction only a journalist can get away with, offers too much choiceshould I do oriental studies along with history of religion while majoring in economics Ashish looks indulgently and says sure rote has a place in learning and he, for instance, grasps the facts a bit faster because of thisbut he says, the rote is what we get in K12, college should be about broadening your horizons. Sanjeev is more dismissive. You can have the facts and look for a theory or, while researching a theory, get to know the facts. He cites the example of some of the research his daughter is doing on why the Mughal empire broke up while the British empire heldthe Mughals, he says, gave revenue collection powers to the satraps, the British didnt. QED, he says with a grin.

Would you hire from Yale, Ashoka or DU In that order, Im toldYale, Ashoka and DU. Seriously Students with a foreign educationboth Ashish and Sanjeev are talking only of the top global schoolsdo a lot more lateral thinking. Ashish is more explicit: most IITians get into non-tech corporate jobs, do they really need all the engineering stuff they learn at IIT, wouldnt they be better for learning some history, some economics Not being an educationist, I agree though I can see my teachers, some in their graves sadly, tut-tutting.

Will you send your kids to Ashoka I askthats the real test I reckon. Ashishs kids are too young but Sanjeevs daughter is already in Columbia. Given a choice, Ashish says, to an Ivy Leaguebut, he hastens to add, thats because Ashokas just about beginning and also education is not just the university itself, its also about the ecosystemSilicon Valley versus Bangalore, to cite the most obvious example.

Which leaves me in a bit of a quandarywhere does my 16-year old go The good thing, and Ashish endorses this, is that with coursera.org around, he can experiment with both Yale and Harvardand many many more online coursesbefore taking a final call.