Amidst a profusion of ‘rent-seeking’ private universities spawning in every nook and corner of the country to fill the void created by a woefully inadequate, ageing and creaking network of state-run universities, there are a few making waves for the quality of education they are providing. The eight-year-old Ahmedabad University (AU) is one such private player that is already emerging as an outlier for serious academics. Says Prof Pankaj Chandra, the vice-chancellor of AU, “Technically, we are a private university since our funding is private. But we have a very public ethos.”
AU was set up in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society, which, for the uninitiated, is a foundation established way back in 1935 by luminaries like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, textile doyen Kasturbhai Lalbhai and the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha Ganesh Mavalankar, with the objective of advancing higher education in the state of Gujarat. The foundation has to its credit a track record of having being either directly or indirectly involved in setting up some jewels in the academic firmament, including the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, the National Institute of Design, the Physical Research Laboratory, and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. AU, too, is following the same illustrious footsteps.
No novice to the world of academics, Chandra, who was earlier the director of one of the country’s top business schools, IIM Bangalore—and has also been a faculty at IIM Ahmedabad—was hand-picked for the task of turning AU into a top-notch liberal-education-driven research institution by textile magnate Sanjay Lalbhai, the CMD of Arvind Ltd and currently the chancellor of AU. A passionate educationist, Lalbhai armed Chandra with unfettered powers to fulfil this mission. What gives the AU V-C even more space to execute his plans is a generous corpus of over Rs 600 crore, which the Ahmedabad Education Society plans to increase to Rs 1,500 crore in the near future.
“The advantage of this is that we are not dependent on fees for our running finances. Just the returns on the corpus are helping us to keep our tuition fees relatively low compared to other private players and also enabling us to expand our campus infrastructure. Not only that, we have enough funding to choose deserving students and provide scholarships to those in need of financial assistance,” Chandra states.
To ensure transparency of governance, AU, unlike most other family-owned business models of education, is governed by a unique 50-member trust, comprising people from diverse backgrounds. Most importantly, however, the abundant corpus is providing AU the liberty to experiment with streams and courses without being worried about churning out market-driven programmes that can rake in the moolah. In fact, it was the constraints of the straitjacketed approach to academics that drove Chandra to look for options other than the “structure of standalone academic institutions like the IIMs.”
The crossing over from IIM Ahmedabad, of which Chandra is also an alumni, locationally leads to AU’s Amrut Mody School of Management, but for AU’s V-C, it has completely changed his perception of academics as he has known it. “The reason I decided against a second term as the director of IIM Bangalore was my desire to be part of a larger multidisciplinary unit. At AU, our approach is to help inculcate in our students the ability to solve problems in society in their multifaceted form,” he elaborates.
Academic freedom and an interdisciplinary approach is a strong component of AU’s governance structure. The university, recognising that social challenges and job opportunities are occurring at the intersection of axes of influence, defined by disciplines, nature, sectors of impact and society, strives to guide students on how to learn through interdisciplinary academic and real-life experiences that traverse these intersections.
Research programmes at AU also embody this interrogative perspective. “We are re-imagining the classroom in the way that teaching and learning happens to make learning contextual, hands-on and rigorous. Moreover, the teacher’s role is not that of a sage on a stage, but a guide on the site,” quips Chandra. Elaborating, he says, “We are extremely student-centric in our approach and strongly believe in experiential or project-based learning. For us, doing is learning, and towards this end, we are gearing up to prepare our students to do things and apply the theory they have learnt.”
Interestingly, AU’s unique project-based pedagogy has an apt acronym—ENABLE, short for “Engagement and Application Based Learning & Education.” At AU, the conventional departments are renamed schools and centres, such as the School of Arts and Sciences, the Amrut Mody School of Management, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Computer Studies.
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That apart, three interesting centres form the cornerstones of AU’s learning philosophy. Foremost among these is VentureStudio, a centre for design of enterprises that has been set up to help design and incubate start-ups as well as build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. It has developed a unique fellowship programme in partnership with the Center for Design Research at Stanford University that helps identify needs, build a product and service, and launch a start-up. Another centre that is creating a buzz is the Centre for Heritage Management that works in the area of management of tangible and intangible heritage in India and has partnerships with the University of Valladolid in Spain and the University of Ferrara in Italy, which are globally renowned for their heritage studies. The third is the Centre for Learning Futures to support teaching and learning at AU.
Two other research centres are under consideration—a centre for engineering and biology, and a centre for sustainability with a focus on water. Also in the pipeline are plans for the second phase of development of the university, which, apart from creation of physical state-of-the-art infrastructure, would include development of a School of Public Health, a School of Governance, Policy and International Affairs, and a School of Law. Once fully developed, the AU campus would spread over a grand expanse of 180 acres.
Another thing on the to-do list of the AU V-C is to spread awareness about this relatively young entrant into the fiercely competitive academic arena. “Our faculty is fanning across the best schools across the country to attract the brightest students. My aim is that we should be a national institution within the next three to four years,” says Chandra. With an enviable track record of 100% placements already, with top companies making a beeline for the thus-far local university, AU is on track to give the established names in academia a run for their money in the not too distant future.