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A class apart

www.thetelegraph.com | April 28, 2016
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Multi-disciplinary universities with their bouquet of courses and unconventional teaching methods are attracting more and more young people, says Kavitha Shanmugam

No, Krathika Parchani did not have to fill reams and reams of ruled paper to pass the mandatory history course in her first year of college. Instead, she turned in a piece of embroidery as a sample of the artwork typical of the Renaissance period.

"It was a novel way of being tested for an exam," says the 20-year-old student from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. She was a science student keen on an undergraduate degree in economics; she never expected having to do anything with history after school. And then, in 2014, she joined the Ashoka University in Haryana. As part of the university's first year foundation courses, Parchani got a taste of not just history, but also philosophy and English literature.

She also got an opportunity to read the original works of British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn and American political theorist Hannah Arendt. "I would have never have got the exposure to such books where I came from. It is a window to a wider world," she says.0

A two-hour drive from Ashoka University, on National Highway 91, lies the Shiv Nadar University (SNU). Brinda Dash, 21, is wrapping up her electronics and communications engineering degree here this year and has been placed in Tata Communications. At the time of joining SNU, Dash was not sure whether she should major in economics or engineering. But, joining an institution like SNU cleared her confusion.

"I realised I enjoyed engineering more than economics," says Dash, who did her minor in economics.


A multi-disciplinary approach to higher education seems to be catching on in India going by the emergence and growing popularity of new age private universities such as Ashoka, SNU, Azim Premji University in Bangalore, FLAME University in Pune, OP Jindal Global University in Haryana and others.

Multi-disciplinary does not just mean offering regular "jodis". Instead, the aim is to expose students to a variety of, often, completely unrelated disciplines. With the freedom of not having to choose a stream no sooner than one is out of school, students not only explore different areas of interest with an open mind, but also put a lot of heart in it.

Most places offer a range of courses in their first year that encourage students to think cogently, differently and hone their writing, research and IT skills.

"I took courses in philanthropy, physics, film editing, poetry, logic and critical thinking, before opting for a BBA in finance with a minor in marketing," says Aditya Nahar, who set up his family investment business a few years after his stint at FLAME University.

At FLAME University, which admits 300 students per year in their undergraduate course, you can a major in finance with a minor in theatre, or a major in applied mathematics with a minor in advertising and branding. Students can choose to pursue public policy with economics or international studies and psychology, with hands-on professional training in marketing, advertising, branding and TV. An MBA has to take courses in the fine and performing arts.

"A course on modern physics also looks at the philosophical implications, such as the questions of epistemology, and a course in conservation ecology may include readings from environmental humanities," says vice chancellor of FLAME University, Dr Devi Singh.


Admission to these institutions is not easy. Applicants should have a good academic record and a fair bit of interest in extra-curricular activities. They have to submit essays or personal statements of purpose, and also appear for an interview. Most of these courses stretch over a period of four years and could cost anything between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 20 lakh. But besides being different from routine courses, what really is the point of this multi-disciplinary approach?

"Real life does not recognise boundaries between disciplines. Environmental sciences have to deal with physics, politics and engineering. If you are building a bridge, a structural engineer needs to know the impact on the environment. A multi-disciplinary approach helps develop leaders who can creatively solve a problem," says Rupa Manjari Ghosh, vice chancellor, SNU.

Jonathan Gil Harris, dean of academic affairs and professor of English at Ashoka, feels the whole point is to teach students to ask questions, and move out of their comfort zones.

Ashoka has 560 students at the graduate, post graduate and doctoral levels. It does not offer professional courses for fear it might dilute their liberal arts culture and ethos.


Y.K. Alagh, a prominent economist and former union minister, agrees that multi-disciplinary institutions are good experiments since state expenditure on higher education has not increased. But he is critical of the fact that they have been attracting a certain kind of faculty. "They are relying largely on retired professors and not on young people who have published papers extensively," he says.

Alagh does not think much of the multi-disciplinary approach. "An economist wants recognition for his work from other economists, not from political scientists. Specialising requires hard work, multi-disciplinary does not," he adds.

Educationist Pabitra Sarkar, who calls it the "cafeteria approach", is less harsh. "It is a freedom of choice and gives students opportunity to learn Logic or Painting. This is good, students get time before having to choose their specialisation. However, it (the multi-disciplinary approach) cannot continue beyond a point...Unfortunately, in India our education system is geared towards finding a job and we don't have time to explore all the different disciplines of study," he says.

Finally, that is what it boils down to - jobs. According to Dash, having knowledge of more than one discipline opens up more job options. "An Electronics Engineer major with a minor in Computer Science can bag a job as a coder in an e-commerce firm," she says. Nahar also feels this kind of education prepares you for new age employments such as e-commerce and social media analysts.

(Source: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160418/jsp/you/story_80636.jsp)