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Plaksha University: A new school of thought

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Published: April 29, 2019 2:52:52 AM

Now, Plaksha (Sanskrit for the ficus tree; many a gurukulas are imagined to have flourished under its shade) joins the league.

school, school thought, Plaksha university, Nalanda, Takshashila, Ashoka, education newsPlaksha University.

Interestingly, when it comes to naming, many new institutes and universities are borrowing from the past. Nalanda was an ancient seat of learning, and is a modern university now. Takshashila and Ashoka, too, invoke a celebrated past. Now, Plaksha (Sanskrit for the ficus tree; many a gurukulas are imagined to have flourished under its shade) joins the league.

“Names rooted in Indianness are, at some level, connected to the founding community,” says Vineet Gupta, founder & trustee of Ashoka University, and part of founding team at Plaksha. “Also, it is about making a statement that these institutes are a global brand coming from India.”

Scriptures state that River Sarasvati, synonymous with learning, originated from a world tree called plaksha, which grew in the foothills of the Sivalik. The name Plaksha, the founders say, reflects the idea of the university as a tree, from which a river of learning flows.

The university will launch in 2021; it’ll be spread over a 50-acre campus close to Chandigarh International Airport. Phase 1 (by 2021) will take in 1,000 students. “By 2035, we expect to have 8,000 students on the campus,” says Gupta. Plaksha also aims to catalyse 1,000 start-ups in 10 years.

Collective philanthropy

Plaksha is founded on the collective philanthropy model—like-minded people joining forces—just like Ashoka, ISB, Krea and others. Gupta says the network this model provides can make a big impact. “Imagine the power of this network of 40-odd people who have come together to create Plaksha … it’s exponential. The other benefit is that none of the 40 owns the university, and that makes Plaksha a private university for public good. Thirdly, people who want to be part of it can join,” he says. “Ashoka started with four people; it’s 120 now.”

First programme

While the campus will be ready only by 2021, Plaksha has announced its first course, the Technology Leaders Fellowship Program (TLFP), curated by Arvind Raman, senior associate dean of Faculty, Purdue University, and an academic advisor to Plaksha. A residential programme, TLFP will start in August 2019 at the upcoming Plaksha Innovation Center in Gurgaon.

Raman, who, by his own admission, is passionate about the transformation of engineering education and the need to use interdisciplinary approaches—to address grand challenges such as agriculture, clean water, health, factories of the future and cybersecurity—says as a greenfield university, Plaksha is a sandbox. “You can try and pilot many different things.”

Plaksha, Raman adds, has three goals: “One is reimagining engineering education for the 21st century, and how to integrate social sciences with engineering. Two, how can engineering solve grand challenges India is facing—such as cleaning River Ganga or making agriculture sustainable in Punjab—and to solve these problems, we need interdisciplinary approaches. For example, we are talking about AI and ML, but we need to think how these new-age technologies will solve societal challenges. Three, making an impact beyond the walls of the university; innovation cannot be standalone.”

TLFP, Raman says, tries to capture this philosophy within a one-year programme. It has a technology core, societal relevance, industry internship, and a programme based on grand challenges. “Because engineering, ultimately, is about creating solutions for the people—I call it engineering to the power of humanities.” Gupta adds, “Essentially, TLFP will try to make students better thinkers, ready to take on big challenges.”

TLFP will have visiting faculty from India and across the world. Courses are divided into modules of 3-6 weeks. “It’s a fellowship, so it’s subsidised. There are 60 seats, of which 20 are full scholarships, 20 are 50% scholarships, and 20 are 25% scholarships,” Raman says. Recent graduates, working professionals or entrepreneurs who have a UG degree in engineering, maths or sciences are eligible.

Engineering education

Engineering institutes have lately been struggling due to a fall in enrolments. According to Ind-Ra, the credit rating agency, enrolments are down 3.56% year-on-year in FY18 (2.82% down in FY17). “This led to the closure of 106 engineering institutions across India in academic year 2017-18,” the agency noted.

Hitesh Oberoi, MD & CEO of InfoEdge and part of founding team at Plaksha, says that while there is no dearth of engineering talent—India produces more than a million—we clearly need better, more employable engineers. “Most start-ups have jobs that need engineers working in emerging areas. So, even though India is producing a million engineers each year, few of them are fit for new-age jobs. And that is the reason salaries of IIT freshers are going through the roof. Some are getting Rs 20-25 lakh straight out of college, especially in data science, machine learning and other new-age jobs.”

Companies, he adds, want engineers who have deep technical capability, as also who can manage a group, can collaborate, and have soft skills. “That is what TLFP aims to do; create such engineers.”

On why engineering colleges are shutting down, Gupta says because of privatisation in the 1990s, many colleges sprang up, but now there is a glut. “Weeding out is taking place. Good quality ones will stay and bad ones will shut down.”

New-age institutions

With such lofty goals, it’s natural to compare the unborn Plaksha with existing engineering colleges. Gupta, however, differs. “When Ashoka was set up, people asked, will it be another St Stephen’s College? I replied it’ll be different. St Stephen’s is a top college, no doubt, and Ashoka is a top university, but both are different. Ashoka, I think, is far more contemporary, far more innovative in curriculum and in faculty. That doesn’t mean St Stephen’s is any lesser in what they do.”

Raman adds: “Plaksha’s design is such that it takes the best elements of the iconic engineering colleges in the US, will adapt these into Indian context, and will create its own identity. It’s jugaad at its finest.”

Plaksha’s capex is Rs 2,000 crore. It includes the cost of land and building, and the entire associated infrastructure till 2035. It’s an engineering college, but it won’t be called Plaksha University of science or technology or engineering. “In the long run, universities will be interdisciplinary. You never know which path it’ll take a few decades from today. So it shouldn’t be wed to a particular theme,” Gupta says. From 2021 onwards, both bachelor’s and master’s degrees will start at Plaksha, and later on a PhD. It’s regulated by the Punjab private university Act.

vikram.chaudhary@expressindia.com

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