03 Apr 2018 19:24 IST

Ashoka wants to further the liberal arts agenda in education

Pro-Vice Chancellor Sankar Krishnan wants to introduce science education to arts students

Sankar Krishnan, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University, is in a happy place as he reels out statistics on the liberal arts university’s progress in four short years: 1,400 students on its campus at Sonepat, a thriving under-graduate programme, students from 77 cities in India (over 20 per cent from southern India) as well as from 10 countries around the world, over 50 per cent of the students are women, and nearly 80 residential faculty.

“If you look at our UG programme, we offer 20 majors, 11 of which are pure and nine are inter-disciplinary, such as computer science and entrepreneurship; politics, philosphy and economics; and economics and finance. We have also been strengthening our pure and natural sciences courses, offering majors in physics, biology and maths,” explains Krishnan. The university has also rolled out Masters and PhD programmes.

Expansion plans

While the university can presently take up to 2,500 students, it plans to expand its campus by another 25 acres, which it acquired across the road recently. “The new campus will be built over the next few years. Our overall growth plan will continue to be based on ensuring that we maintain and improve quality, rather than be driven by numbers,” says Krishnan.

The corpus of Ashoka University for the initial phase, contributed by various donors, had touched ₹1,000 crore earlier this year. As it grows its campus, research and PhD programmes over the next five to 10 years, the funds needed will be many times this number, says Krishnan. “The funds raised so far have largely been used to meet the capital costs of our current campus and operational expenses,” he adds.

Krishnan also wants to spread the word among the student community and academicians of the benefits of a liberal arts education that Ashoka offers. “In the Indian context, liberal arts to many means humanities or painting and arts. But we want to break that myth to include the sciences as well.”

Original thinking

When asked why liberal arts and sciences struck a chord with the Ashoka founders, Krishnan explains that India has world-class medical, engineering, business and law schools but the schools in sciences and the arts are stuck in the pedagogy of the 1970s. “We really need to make a change. Young people should not get siloed into one particular slot very early on, where they learn one thing like computer science or literature and that’s all they do, instead of being able to bring multiple threads from multiple areas to fuse perspectives and solve problems.”

For example, he says, if one has to solve a problem related to the environment today, one needs to understand technology and model its economics, the environmental impact and the social and behavioural psychology of those impacted. “You need all this to come up with a credible solution. Therefore, our young people should learn to draw ideas from different streams.” In the first year, students get to experience multiple foundation courses and get to think through what they want to opt for. “It’s a process of discovery for the students. It’s very experiential, project-, discussion- and team-based; it’s a full-year immersive programme,” says Krishnan.

Ashoka also wants to encourage original thinking as change is fast and knowledge is becoming obsolete quickly. Questions such as ‘How do you interpret knowledge’ and ‘How do you think and explore’ are at the heart of a liberal arts universities, he explains. In elite institutions today, students come from a similar background, but there are smart kids in the smaller cities, and Ashoka wants to give them a chance to get a holistic education. “The interaction between students of different backgrounds in the crucible we are creating is important. We are looking to create a world-class institution in an Indian ethos. We want to become net producers of knowledge rather than mere consumers,” he adds.