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‘The kind of questions they ask… The 17-year-old of today is nothing like the 17-yr-old of a few years ago’

Kapil Viswanathan with Senior Associate Editor Uma Vishnu in The Indian Express newsroom. (Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

The controversy over fee hike at JNU has raised questions over sustainable models of education in India and given momentum to the public versus private university debate. As vice-chairman of Krea University, that aims to “help humanity prepare for an unpredictable world”, Kapil Viswanathan believes that the time has come for liberal arts institutions that focus on ‘interwoven learning’ — combining traditional subjects with critical reasoning, data science. While he admits that the demand-supply gap in college education must be filled by public institutions, the Harvard University graduate also emphasises on the role of private colleges in preparing graduates for the future.

UMA VISHNU: How did someone with an MBA from Harvard Business School end up in education?

After my MBA, I started a business. I ran it for 10 years and exited in 2016. As I was getting close to the exit, I was thinking about what to do next. I didn’t really feel very inspired to start another business. I wanted to do something more impactful, challenging. In March 2016, I decided to commit to this journey (Krea University). Since then, it has gathered a lot of momentum.

UMA VISHNU: So how did the team behind Krea, including former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, come together?

It was an idea whose time had come. The first thing that dawned on me when I committed to the journey was that it was far too much for any one or a few people to take on. The conversation had to widen. So I started speaking to people. One thing led to another... Mr R Seshasayee and N Vaghul made a difference in the early days. In September 2016, Raghu (Raghuram Rajan) got fully committed and interested in it.

UMA VISHU: Why did you decide on a liberal arts university? With the likes of Krea, Ashoka University and Ahmedabad University, are we witnessing a liberal arts era?

The world is changing and humanity is at an inflection point for a couple of very specific reasons. One is that humans and machines have co-existed in the physical form for hundreds of years, but we are now coming together at a cognitive level; boundaries between humans and machines are blurring. The question two-three decades ago was role technology was going to play in our lives. Now that has probably flipped over to what role we are going to play in a technology-driven world... From a human-environment standpoint also there is an inflection point. Humanity’s progress has been driven by our desire to conquer the environment. Clearly we have gone, maybe, a little too far. And many of the predictions of the last 20-30 years are starting to come true. To make it more specific... When I was in business school, Google was going IPO and people were wondering how can a company like Google be worth the same as an iconic General Motors. Today, I think, it is worth seven times. A lot has changed now. Even somebody who was in kindergarten then is getting ready to go to college now. If this pace of change continues for the next 15-20 years... it’s going to be orders of magnitude higher... how does one prepare for the life and careers of 10-15 years from now? Research tells us that somebody entering the workforce today will not just have to change their jobs but their careers five to six times before they are ready to retire. So we have to break away from thinking of college as preparation for the first job, and really think of education as a preparation for a life-long career and life itself because there is a lot to life beyond work. That is why we all came together to start Krea, to study and understand how the world is changing and to prepare learners for a world of the future.

"There is an overemphasis on rankings. I think the national imperatives for higher education are not consistent with the imperatives of a ranking. You have to calibrate for the state that a country is in and its objectives,” says Vishwanathan. (Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

HARISH DAMODARAN: You could have been one more funder for, say, Ashoka University. Why start something completely new?

We have 35-40 million students in college today, of whom you can imagine how many are really going to actually good universities. So there is a need for hundreds of thousands of institutions of this nature in the country... When we began to think about our research vision to understand how the world is changing, we started polling our governing council and academic council members about what are the five top problems that the world needs to understand and solve in the 21st century... Many of the typical things that you might expect showed up. The human-machine interface, quantum computing, machine intelligence and how it operates with human intelligence is one theme. The second one is around the environment, climate, water... South Asia is facing the largest water crisis it has ever faced in history. We also looked at topics such as demographics, because the population of the world is expected to age substantially. In smaller species like roundworms they have already expanded life spans by 6X. So a roundworm that lives for 15 days can now live up to 90 days with a small genetic modification. Now 6X in the human life span... I will let you do the math. So we are starting to direct our research across these four hubs — intelligence; environment; sapiens, where we look at migration, poverty; and hub of capital and markets.

The other aspect is ethics. In a world where machines are, let’s say, driving a lot of economic activity, and in a world where inequality has largely been addressed through the use of machines for economic productivity, what is human purpose? How are we going to spend our time? The 6X time that we are going to have... These are some topics that we starting to study.

HARISH DAMODARAN: Can an undergraduate mind handle the things that you are talking about?

We are definitely adding Master’s and PhD programmes in the near future... However, I have been blown away by the kind of kids that I have been spending a little bit of time with. When I was 17, I certainly did not have this kind of perspective... The kind of questions that they come up with, the kind of discussions... It’s just mind blowing... The 17-year-old of today is nothing like the 17-year-old of a few years ago.

UMA VISHNU: So what does an undergraduate at Krea typically do?

We have just completed the first trimester. Our students did three courses in the first trimester — creativity, reasoning, communication. This pattern is going to continue in the second and third trimesters in the first year. Our students are now studying data science. Next trimester, ethics will come in. From the second and third year onwards, they branch into specific majors. Even there we are trying to break the mould and not really thinking of even an economics major in the way it is currently thought of. Economics in the 21st century is very different from economics of say 40-50 years ago. Economics pre-2008 and post-2008 is completely different. Yet, I think, the traditional instruction in economics has not really changed that much in universities across the world.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: How is the university funded? How is the funding pattern different and what are the advantages of such a model?

We are a fully charitable, not-for-profit cause, both de facto and de jure. A lot of the initial funds have come through generous contributions from members of our governing council and companies in India etc. In order for any one donor not to have undue influence over the university, and to maintain good governance, we capped the contribution limit.

MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: For an institution like this to be sustainable, you need the faculty, among other things, to be consistently ahead of the curve. Is that a challenge?

If we see something as a challenge, it is that. To make a university you need faculty, and you need students. So far we have been attracting the kind of faculty that we really want. These are folks who are not just highly qualified in the traditional sense, but they are also folks who are raring to break the mould. It’s a combination of fresh young PhDs, almost millennial, and therefore in sync with what we are doing, and there are also people who have been in the system for years, who are frustrated with the system and are looking for an opportunity to do things differently.

We also have these research centres. One is J-PAL South Asia, which is Abhijit Banerjee’s... Our sponsoring body, IFMR, has been doing his and Esther’s (Duflo) work in India for the last 12 years. We have an initiative for gender that works on what works for women in the workplace in India, funded by the Gates Foundation.

“There are 35-40 mn students (in college)... The number needs to be more. Public institutions will have to fill the gap. Given the scale, there is only so much that private colleges can do," says Kapil Vishwanathan. (Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: Your university has a very forward looking vision for education, but you have students who are coming from a very ‘backward’ system. How do you bridge the gap?

It is a challenge that we are facing. Actually, we all come from the same system. We have to constantly keep reminding ourselves that there is this trade-off between the practical and the ideal. On the one hand we are setting a very lofty ideal and we want to stick to it as closely as we can, and on the other hand we are dealing with these practical constraints. For example, in our math reasoning class this past trimester, a good chunk of the students, maybe a third of them, hadn’t taken maths after Class 10. So we need to have bridge programmes. From next year, we could have foundation modules online which students could complete before they join us. That is one solution. But it’s a real problem... Understanding and preparing for a world of the future doesn’t start when you are 17, it starts much early. Even the draft education policy focuses on early education.

KARISHMA MEHROTRA: You mentioned having faculty who were frustrated with the system. Do you see any sort of political clamping down on free academic research in the country?

I have only been in this realm for the past three years, and Krea has not encountered any such constraints. It’s not something we are losing sleep over. I think being in south of India has its advantages.

NEETI NIGAM: Only 14 per cent of researchers are women. At the PhD level, the number falls drastically. How do you plan to address this?

India as a country has a long way to go in terms of gender equality and labour participation, as well as in various other aspects of gender equality. So research is one area where we would like to make a dent. We have this centre that we have set up in collaboration with the Gates Foundation last year where we are trying to study what would encourage or help women succeed more in the workplace. We are trying to take a more holistic approach.

SHALINI LANGER: Where do you stand on the Jawaharlal Nehru University fees controversy, protests on campus, and the debate over private versus public education?

I don’t know what I can say on the JNU controversy. I am not involved with JNU. But students will be students always.

Public versus private... There are 35-40 million people studying in India, whereas the number needs to be two, three, four times that much. I think public institutions will really have to fill that gap. Private institutions can play a role, but given the scale of the challenge in India... A private institution like ours, with our 240-acre campus, at steady state we could have about 10,000-12,000 students, as against the 30-40 million who are studying today... As a private institution, you can only do so much.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: With more and more private universities coming up, are we witnessing an economic divide in education?

In a country like India, higher education is itself segmented. The fact that one is going to college itself means that he or she is better off than most of the fellow citizens. I can’t speak of private institutions as a category, but speaking for ourselves, we have a policy where a student gets admitted to Krea on merit. If they are able to establish their lack of means to pay the fees, then we will support them with scholarships and financial aid. It is intended to be entirely meritocratic and diverse.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: What is the possibility of universities such as Krea turning into elite bubbles?

The possibility certainly exists. But we are guarding against it very actively. We have an outreach team that goes out to schools that are not typically the schools from where students would automatically apply. There are dozens of examples and many such students have joined us.

HARISH DAMODARAN: If you look at the balance sheets of Harvard University, MIT, their fees don’t even cover faculty salaries...

Without commenting specifically on India, there is a ‘for profit’ education world that exists. But if you are looking at the not-for-profit education world globally, even the top universities, with billions (of dollars) of endowments, do not break even on fees. Approximately, a third of the budget shortfall gets filled in by endowment contributions and interests from endowments. We would like to have a $30 billion endowment and hopefully we will get there someday. But even at 12,000 (students), I think we will get to a point where we can sustain ourselves and we may not need further endowments to keep afloat. But if we were to invest aggressively in research like the way we are considering, raising philanthropic contributions is an ongoing structural function for any university, like the top universities of the world which do it despite their billions of dollars.

“If you are looking at not-for-profit education world globally, even the top universities, with billions of dollars of endowments, do not break even on fees. A third of the shortfall is filled in by endowment," says Vishwanathan. (Caricature by E P Unny)

MALLICA JOSHI: In our policy we are moving from a grant-based system in public institutions to a loan-based system. How can public universities fit into the loan-based model, without burdening students who come from very diverse backgrounds?

The cost of delivering education is almost same, whether it is a private or public university. Public universities can have lower fees as they receive subsidies from the government. If those subsidies turn into loans, it’s not going to change the cost of delivering education... Some of the better universities across India are calling upon their alumni very aggressively and that is certainly an untapped resource for public institutions. It’s one way of filling the gap.

MALLICA JOSHI: Indian universities have not fared very well in international rankings. Why do you think that is the case?

My personal view is that there is an overemphasis on rankings. It is great that there are some universities in India that are getting into the Top 500. But looking at it from the national as well as institutional levels, I think the national imperatives for higher education are not entirely consistent with the imperatives of a ranking. You have to calibrate for the state that a country is in and its goals and objectives... For us, it is important to focus on innovation and look at a broad set of parameters for excellence and not just rankings....

MEHR GILL: While universities such as Krea and Ashoka focus on subjects such as critical reasoning etc, the students have to ultimately compete for jobs that seek traditional skills...

Is there a proven path for people with this skill set? No, because we are just sort of paving the road now... Placement processes will set in as the market starts to understand and accept (this model). There are pockets in the market that already understand and want this (model).

UMA VISHNU: How difficult is it to set up a private university in India?

A lot of things need to fall in place. You need a series of fortuitous incidents like we had. For example, the government of Andhra Pradesh had just introduced a new education Bill which was welcoming of private universities. That opened up the regulatory pathway for us, which is extremely important for granting degrees. Not all states have this. The second is land and resources. And the third is to get the right group of people coming together.