An overcast sky, breeze in the air, sprawling green gardens and a state of the art university standing tall amidst its environs beckoned us into O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonepat. In a conversation with the Vice Chancellor, C. Raj Kumar, we discovered that the fresh air that surrounds the university also pervades inside; it is palpable in his ideas, approach towards education and a vision to build a globally recognized private university in India.
Considering in India we all have a very condescending view of our private universities, even you happened to mention it, what was your motivation behind establishing Jindal University?
The inspiration for me was Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU and MIT. All these world’s great private universities reinforce my belief in private higher education. I was consciously looking at how to replicate a similar model in India. But I was also mindful of the institutionalised private education in India that started somewhere in late 1980s. In that process, we didn’t end up creating great private universities, but education largely became a mediocre endeavour.
From the standpoint of an educator, if I identify why it happened, the heart of it lies in taking up educational ventures as a business itself without any vision for education in India.
Our model focuses on the best practices from around the world in a bid to connect them to the challenges that India is facing.
And how did you get involved in the project and go about implementing your ideas, back in 2009? Share the impediments that you have faced during this journey.
Envisioning a global university, we laid down the foundation of our university that comprises five schools now – Law, Business, International Affairs, Public Policy and Liberal Arts & Humanities. It is a philanthropic initiative by an Indian billionaire, Naveen Jindal. It’s not a family run institution and I am not related to Jindals. I come from Kanyakumari and Naveen Jindal is from Haryana. It is an important model for private initiatives in India because most of the private initiatives in India are either not philanthropic or are family-run, which has many adverse consequences. That model promotes nepotism and internal breeding, undermining academic freedom that is critical for growth. The institution building in this case was important from this point of view.
In India, private universities are pejoratively talked about. The best Indian institutions have been public institutions and there is a prestige that comes with history. In that context, establishing a private university and keeping it away from the concept of other run of the mill private universities; hiring faculty and giving them the aspiration of a great university is the biggest challenge in institutional building. We overcame that challenge as outstanding Indians and global faculty live on campus here as we have been able to provide them an intellectually stimulating experience. In a sea of mediocre private institutions, it was a challenge to convince parents and students to come here. But that was only limited to the first year. With the reputation of our faculty, the vision of our university and through the word of mouth, we have created a strong impresssion among people in the last four years.
What sets Jindal University apart?
The central distinguishing aspect of our university is our strongest commitment to providing the best quality education through the most outstanding faculty members who are committed to maintaining the highest standards in teaching and research. We have a residential campus that provides an ecosystem for the growth of our students and faculty. I have my own memories of hostel life in Oxford, Harvard and DU; there’s a lot of freedom coupled with responsibility that comes with a hostel life. We wanted to give that experience to our students.
Besides, we collaborate with universities around the world including, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Michigan Cornell, and UC-Berkeley in a range of collaborative programmes including, faculty and student exchanges, joint teaching and research, joint conferences, joint publications, and double degree programmes. Our faculty members are from around the world. While 20% of our faculty are foreign nationals, almost all of them are globally trained – either by way of education or work or both. We ensure a globally oriented education in our campus. It’s not just a foreign identity that we look for, our idea is to get people who have gained education abroad and have come back to India to work and people who have attained professional working experience in multiple countries- in short, to have a world class faculty on board that has greater sensitivity towards global practices, celebrate diversity and, of course, recognize and appreciate the process of globalization.
These our tumultuous times for education in India as a premier university in the country goes for an overhaul in its system. What is your take on it and does it impact you anyway?
I welcome the Delhi University’s four year programme for a number of reasons. One can agree or disagree upon whether sufficient time was allotted to the consultative process or if the courses have been structured in the right way or not, that is a separate, yet an important debate. But, in principle, I am in favour of a four year long degree. To start with, educators across the country understand that the range of options in liberal art courses or for that matter courses in sciences and other disciplines are not enough that a university ought to provide. In fact, in universities around the world, one needs to learn subjects beyond one’s core discipline as well as related disciplines. For instance, I wish I had the opportunity to study a bit of political science, history, philosophy while I did Commerce degree (B.Com) in Loyola College, Madras but almost all my courses were connected to economics, accountancy and commerce. The curriculum and the pedagogy didn’t provide for it. The time span of three years couldn’t provide the opportunity, hopefully the four-year programme can. One can argue if the DU exit model will create a new pool of people with different levels of inferiority and superiority in education, we need to be mindful of that. DU system should not create superiority -not just in terms of qualification, but also in terms of perception and standards. If we can take special efforts to overcome this, I do believe that this will be a paradigm shift in our efforts to strengthen the undergraduate education in India.
We are launching our four year integrated programme in the newly established Jindal School of Liberal arts and Humanities in 2014. Here a student is expected to study two years here and two years outside the country leading to two degrees.
What is the road ahead for the university?
As an educator, one of the challenges for us in India is the growing recognition that India doesn’t have a single university in the top 200 in the world. Our policymakers, educators, ministers, and even President and the Prime Minister have been talking about it frequently. We have about 625 universities in India and 35,000 colleges but none of them are globally regarded as world class institutions of excellence. We would have to dream high and fulfil our aspirations to become one of the leading institutions of excellence in the years to come. We want to prepare ourselves in the next decade, essentially to be a better university in Asia if not the world.