The academic block of OP Jindal Global University, with its façade of steel trusses and glass walls, has the air of a building conjured upon the landscape rather than built incrementally. Ashoka University, not far from it, is less jarringly incongruous to the eye despite its hostels soaring ten-storeys. But culturally, it too is light years from its context – the rural part of Haryana’s Sonipat district, 10 km from Delhi’s northern border.

Everyday, shuttle services run on the National Highway 1 and bring visitors, teachers and students to what is fast becoming a much sought-after centre of higher education. The area’s most distinguished institutions are aiming for a spot on the global higher education stage. They may be set amidst fields and villages but their faculty members come from across the world, their students from many states and their courses with a hefty price tag.

OP Jindal Global University, the oldest among them, is turning 10 next year. Ashoka University is just four years old. The two other private institutions in the area are of a similar or even more recent vintage. Over the short period of time, they have done reasonably well on university rankings and ratings, and gained a large measure of influence.

Jindal Global, for instance, was part of the team that drafted Haryana’s higher education policy in 2016 and in March, it was one of just 60 institutions to be granted a degree of autonomy from the higher education regulator, University Grants Commission. India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee visited the campus in 2017 and residents of the surrounding areas who were earlier indifferent began associating the university with prestige and power, said the vice chancellor, C Raj Kumar.

Three Nobel laureates have visited Ashoka University – Kailash Satyarthi, Muhammad Yunus and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. It has also hosted authors, actors, activists and members of parties from across the political spectrum.

Academic block, OP Jindal Global University

But these universities have also seen their share of controversies – sexual harassment, drug abuse, sudden departures of staff, student unrest. In addition to this, teachers as well as some students are concerned about the lack of diversity in the classrooms.

The genesis

The main nucleus of the area is the Rajiv Gandhi Education City. The state government planned it as a “hub for higher learning and a centre for research” in the mid-2000s, and acquired more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land from farmers over 2006-’07.

But the first private university that came up in the area was built outside the Education City – the OP Jindal Global University. Build on land purchased separately, it was the first university to be set up under the Haryana Private Universities Act 2006, and was practically willed into existence over a few months in 2009.

Professor Chockalingam Raj Kumar, after studying law at Delhi University, Oxford University, Harvard University and University of Hong Kong, returned to India in January 2008 with the intention of setting up a university. He talked industrialist and member of Parliament from the Congress party, Naveen Jindal, into financing the plan – his first undertaking in higher education – through his charity, the Om Prakash Jindal Gramin Jan Kalyan Sansthan. Jindal had a large plot of land in Kurukshetra, also his constituency, but Raj Kumar said they “needed to stay close to Delhi.”

An amendment in the law governing private universities also helped. Haryana Private Universities Act 2006 required state private universities to reserve 25% of their seats for students domiciled in Haryana and give them fee concessions ranging from 25% to full waivers. An amendment in 2009 reduced reservation to 10% for universities that would collaborate with foreign institutions. The opposition alleged this was done to favour Jindal Global, which was subsequently added to the schedule of the 2006 Act.

The Education City began to take shape around the same time, with the state government starting land allotments in 2009. Till 2017, it had leased plots of land to 13 private and public institutions.

Once completed, the Education City was to have within one contiguous zone over a dozen public and private higher education institutions that can compete with the best abroad and all the supporting infrastructure required – a primary school, a multi-level car park, serviced apartments, police and fire stations. However, close to a decade later, it is a large expanse of farmland, some parts still under cultivation, with a few buildings strewn about. Only three universities are functional and these are essentially self-contained islands.

World University of Design occupies Plot No 1. On Plot No. 2, over 25 acres, stands Ashoka University, arguably the best-known of the complex. Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, a public institution, has a “technopark” further down the same road. Inaugurated in April, it offers space for collaborative research with the private sector and start-ups. National Law University, also public, is under construction. The third functional institution SRM University, is separated from this grouping by many empty plots.

Ashoka University was founded by four entrepreneurs – Ashish Dhawan, Sanjay Bikhchandani, Vineet Gupta and Pramath Raj Sinha. They made the initial investment but their model of funding – through big-ticket endowments from individuals and companies – has meant the number of founders keeps growing. At present, it has over 90, a combined fund of over Rs 750 crore and is apparently the largest joint philanthropic exercise in the country. Ali Imran, the university’s vice president of external engagement, said the university is “in the process of acquiring” another plot in the Education City and looking to expand its existing programmes.

The origins of SRM University, which teaches engineering and management at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, are more conventional. Its parent institution is SRM Institute of Science and Technology, based in Andhra Pradesh and over 30 years old. The university’s registrar, Manish Bhalla, said the owners have cement production factories, run medical colleges, three other universities, hotels, hospitals and a transport business – all of it in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Some members of the new university’s leadership are former officials or members of regulatory bodies. Bhalla is from the All India Council for Technical Education which regulates most professional courses including engineering and management. Vice-chancellor, P Prakash was an additional secretary in the University Grants Commission.

Plot No. 1 may have had another engineering college if Sanjay Gupta, former dean of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, had not convinced the owners of RIMT University, a private institution in Punjab, to go with design instead. “RIMT [the Punjab institute] had acquired land with the usual courses like engineering in mind but the interest in it was waning so they were looking for something unusual,” said Gupta. World University of Design was launched this year. It offers 26 programmes, the bulk of them undergraduate, and teaches courses never taught in India before – fashion art, including tattooing and body art, and fashion illustration – and more conventional ones such as architecture.

A liberal education

In a country long obsessed with professional education, what has helped the area’s institutions to rise to prominence is the idea that they offer what public universities do not: a liberal arts education with progressive staff members and a tolerant campus.

A “liberal arts” education, Princeton University’s page for undergraduate applicants explains, “offers an expansive intellectual grounding in all kinds of humanistic inquiry”. It comprehends within its definition all general areas of study – arts, humanities, social sciences and physical sciences. These are already taught in the country’s public universities, of course, but the vital difference is that unlike public universities where “the administrative instinct is to herd [students] into single degree programmes”, as Pallavi Raghavan who teaches history at Jindal put it, in Sonipat’s private ones, students, guided by their teachers, can chart their own course through the programme.

“It is an idea, a construct,” explained Imran of Ashoka University. “The founders felt that the ability to learn is more important than what you learn and the skills you need for that may not be technical skills.”

Before setting up Ashoka University, the founders had instituted the Young India Fellowship. A one-year postgraduate programme in liberal arts, it began in 2011 in south Delhi. Each year, it draws close to 300 students from varying educational and even professional backgrounds – about 45% of last year’s batch were engineers – and leads to a “multidisciplinary diploma”. All do the course on critical thinking and writing and they have a large plethora of electives in “relevant areas of study for the 21st century” to pick from, said Aniha Brar, who has been with the programme since inception and is now its assistant dean.

Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

At Jindal and Ashoka, students study a set of compulsory foundation courses, pick a bunch of electives almost purely on the basis of what they find interesting and then “declare a major” – the discipline they will collect their degree in. To earn the degree, however, they must study a minimum number of courses in it, some of which may be compulsory. Public universities have attempted to replicate this with the “choice-based credit system” but have been hamstrung by very large class sizes, centrally-designed syllabuses and shortage of staff. Till last year, Jindal Global had one teacher for every 13 students – a ratio practically impossible in even the best-known public colleges.

Each university has recruited faculty members but also hosts dozens of visiting staff and teaching assistants through the year. While designated academic staff have all qualifications mandated by the University Grants Commission, courses may be offered and taught also by experts who are not necessarily academics – publishers, dancers, activists.

All this comes at a hefty price tag. The three-year BA(Hons) Liberal Arts and Humanities programme at Jindal Global costs Rs 6.5 lakh per year. At Ashoka, tuition for an undergraduate programme is Rs 6.45 lakh in a year. An undergraduate programme in any of the humanities or social science disciplines costs under Rs 15,000 at Delhi University’s Hindu College.

SRM University has advertisements posted on practically every road to and from the Education City.

Privileged campuses

But India’s well-heeled are willing to foot the bill – it is lower than the cost of education abroad. As a parent whose daughter attends Ashoka explained: “Outside the very best of public institutions, where competition is the fiercest, we have an opportunity to have the same level of education in India.”

Both Jindal and Ashoka have partnerships with top-ranking foreign universities and programmes for studying courses there. Ashoka’s partners include University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and King’s College, London. Jindal has collaborated with Trinity College Dublin, Sciences Po and Cambridge University.

Both campuses are teeming with foreigners serving as teachers and advisors or running special research centres. Two of six teachers at Jindal Global’s new architecture school are foreigners. Its journalism school is headed by Tom Goldstein, former dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Similarly, Ashoka has foreign representation in practically every department. Its research programme in English is headed by Jonathan Gil Harris from George Washington University; Gilles Verniers, earlier Science Po’s representative in India, is co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.

“Recruitment is the single most important thing I do,” said Raj Kumar. “We even conducted campus interviews – abroad and now, in India too.” The result is a large number of young faculty members from some of the best universities in the world who have gathered together and are also learning from each other, Raghavan said. She earned her PhD from Cambridge University. “The promotion prospect is bright and decision-making swifter,” said YSR Murthy, the registrar. “Here, from the interview to the acceptance of the offer takes less than a day.”

The method of selection is also flexible. Professor of history at Ashoka, Nayanjot Lahiri said that posts are advertised but they “also proactively seek out potential candidates who you believe would add to the academic heft of the university”.

Both have poached teachers from public universities and drawn young academics who, despite being qualified, were unable to find a place in them.

“It is a question of resources and that is always a challenge with the public institutions,” said Raj Kumar. For him, the sort of charitable activity that set up OP Jindal Global University and Ashoka University is the answer. It has afforded them lavish campuses – they are centrally air-conditioned, have basketball courts and swimming pools, there are numerous eateries and shops for the essentials, Ashoka has two golf carts, Jindal Global has a helipad.

Aqua-yoga class on World Yoga Day at OP Jindal Global University (Credit: Twitter/ Jindal Global)

Sonipat and the universities

Even then, a few teachers told that given a chance, they would forego the high salaries, annual research grants and air-conditioned classrooms to teach in public institutions. They cited the lack of diversity among students and expressed a faint disquiet about serving in a culture that is corporatised in many respects. Some even complained about the location, worrying about the permanent change that the universities have brought to surrounding villages and their residents – encouraging commerce in some cases, wiping out livelihoods in others.

The place, in turn, has impacted them. Every institution has buses to ferry students back and forth from the Jahangirpuri metro station in Delhi. Security is a perpetual concern. And Sanjay Gupta has had to keep his fees low. “This is because I am sitting a few kilometres from Delhi,” he said. The maximum tuition for a course at the World University of Design is Rs 2.25 lakh which is on par or lower than even public institutions teaching design.

This is the first part of a three-part series. Read the other parts here.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version had incorrectly said Ashoka University has partnerships with Oxford University, Harvard University and the London School of Economics. This has been corrected.