Bring back the professors, is a sentiment that has been making noises in the academic circles these days, considering the flak even prestigious institutes like IIMs and IITs are receiving these days for not being world-class. Of course, the Founding Vice-Chancellor of OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, C Raj Kumar, didn’t need anyone telling him this. “I did my BCom from Loyola College (1994), Chennai, and then went on to study Law at Delhi University (1997), Universities of Oxford (1999) and Harvard (2000). Believe me, I used to be proud of Loyola and Delhi University for a long time before Oxford and Harvard happened. I was simply disappointed at the disparities in deliverance of high-quality education as far as the two sets of institutions were concerned,” he says.
But for a long time, Kumar wasn’t able to do anything about the field of education in India, as he was a fledgling lawyer in New York from 2000 to 2001. It was during his time in The University of Hong Kong as a doctoral student (2011) that he decided to turn things around. “I recalled the numerous interactions I had with professors Peter Schuck and Norman Dawson of the Law School of New York University, US, and this put me in the right direction.”
A chance meeting with Naveen Jindal, Chairman of Jindal Steel and Power Limited, and “I actually convinced him to pump in Rs 500 crore into the University,” says Kumar, who is in his early 40s and is one of the young VCs at the helm of a University. The University, which functions as a non-profit philanthropic institute in memory of late billionaire industrialist OP Jindal, began in September 2009 with 100 students in the Law School and 10 permanent faculty members. OP Jindal University is trying to follow the lead of Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale.
The inter-disciplinary nature of the University is its primary USP, says Kumar. “Why shouldn’t a Physics major sit for a Music class or why shouldn’t a Law student sit for Philosophy was what I asked myself. We offer around 70 courses that can be taken by students from any department,” adds Kumar. Elaborating on the other pluses of the University, he says, “The faculty is the best in class; we have set in place a good ecosystem for them to work complete with all perks and benefits (Kumar has handpicked the faculty). Though it’s still early, we are a research-led university. There are four centres, where faculty and students engage in research — Jindal Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Jindal Institute of Global Studies Abroad, Jindal Institute of Leadership Development and Executive Education and Jindal Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As we would like to be known as an international university, we also have national and global engagements, like bringing in illustrious faculty from abroad for lectures and seminars, finding a way for our students to engage with international universities and the like.”
However, the going was not easy for Kumar as he admits that setting up a premier institute in India is no mean feat. “As much as Governmental regulations are appreciable, bureaucracy and other protocols did drive us mad initially. But for the thankful intervention of Naveen Jindal, the then Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and others, and others, this would have been just a dream. In fact, Sonepat is fast becoming an education hub, if not already (Ashoka and SRM Universities are present in the region).”
Kumar is also quick to compare the present situation in Sonepat with that of Hong Kong, where he spent a good deal of his academic career. “Hong Kong is such a small region but it has nine universities listed in major World University Rankings. The political climate there is amiable for universities to set up shop. Universities indeed function as private entities delivering education as a commodity as opposed to a service in a place like India and therefore there is not much tax burden, and faculty there draw enviable salaries. When faculty are well-paid and respected, there will be more motivation for them to grow along with the university and steer the younger generation to the right path.”
While it is great that India is waking up to progressive liberal arts education, the fee students have to pay is, albeit, a little worrying. When pointed out that a student can study for one-tenth of the fee at DU, a name to reckon with compared to OP Jindal, Kumar counters: “How many institutes can boast of the rich faculty we have. Watching a film in a multiplex has its own charm, doesn’t it? It’s all about the service and take-aways for the student. We are here to make them well-rounded individuals — our pedagogy is mixed with the philosophy of making them better human beings. We have to sustain the institute and pay salaries. We are trying our best to keep it affordable or put in scholarship mechanisms in place.”
We couldn’t let go of the VC without asking the now clichéd but important question nevertheless. Why aren’t Indian universities making their presence felt in international rankings? “I have wasted a great period of my youth asking the same question. The situation is especially sad for a country that established great universities like Takshila and Nalanda in the earliest centuries when others were just waking up to the idea. Somewhere down the line, we lost the way. But nothing is lost as long as you don’t give up. OP Jindal has all the makings of a global university — international faculty and a curriculum that can match up to a Harvard or a Yale. We are also working on having a good mix of international students. And our faculty have already published papers in journals of international repute. In short, we satisfy all the parameters that international agencies use to judge universities. I am confident that OP Jindal will make an entry into the best 100 international universities soon.”