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Liberal arts degree programmes are now starting to make some headway in India's higher education landscape, dominated by subject-focused college degree programmes.
“A young person needs to be educated for life and not just for an occupation. Liberal arts give a broader perspective. Student need to learn science, social science, global studies, need to also engage in performing arts and need to see how there is place for everything,” said Dr Indira J. Parikh, the Founder President of Foundation of Liberal and Management Education (FLAME) in Pune, which was established in 2004.
Many educationists believe that multi-disciplinary education prepares students for professional life and even makes them better leaders.
“Students with a liberal education can see the simultaneity because there are multi-linkages across streams. They try to understand why and not just what. Just putting students into streams of arts, science, commerce and engineering limits their ability to visualise, imagine, think, innovate and be creative,” Dr Parikh added.
Dr Parikh served as faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) for 30 years and as Dean between 2002 and 2005.
The undergraduate student in liberal arts is exposed to subjects in science, social science, humanities, global studies, performing arts, law, sociology, language skills and several other streams.
The increasing demand for liberal arts education is also giving rise to a number of liberal education institutes.
The International Foundation for Research and Education (IFRE), founded by a group of businessmen including Mr Pramath Sinha of 9.9 Mediaworx, Co-founder and CEO of Naukri.com, Mr Sanjeev Bikhchandani, and Director of Jamboree, Mr Vineet Gupta, among others, is already in the process of setting up a University dedicated to liberal education.
Taking the concept of liberal arts even further, the new Ashoka University will not only have liberal education but will work on the idea of cross-fertilisation.
Giving the example of Delhi University, Mr Sinha said, “A student at St Stephens can't really go and take a course at Delhi School of Economics or at Hansraj College or a student of English taking up a course in International Relations.”
IFRE is trying to create a system where students can take advantage of multiple faculties and multiple colleges, he said.
“Here (Ashoka University) a student can take a course in politics or international relations or philosophy or any other course if they are interested. The idea is to give them exposure to a larger number of areas so you can appreciate what is happening in the world,” said Mr Sinha, who was the founding Dean of Indian School of Business (ISB).
The Ashoka University is likely to come up within the next two years.
“We are in deep trouble as a country. See how many people need higher education and what is the capacity we are creating to fulfil that demand. No one is creating any capacity in humanities and liberal arts, which is a warped way of developing a society,” Mr Sinha added.
Establishments providing liberal education in India include Apeejay Stya University, School of Liberal Arts at the Noida International University, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts.
Mr Sinha, who is a businessman as well, added that there is an increasing need for business managers and professionals with understanding of history, politics, economics and other subjects.