It was during the Diwali vacation of 1969 that Dr S B Mujumdar, the then head of the botany department at Fergusson College, Pune, noticed a girl sneaking towards the boys’ hostel. She passed a small packet to someone inside one of the dormitories. Dr Mujumdar went after her to investigate and found a student from Mauritius suffering from jaundice. The girl was his sister. “I was the rector of the boys hostel and since girls were not allowed inside, she thought it wise to pass on the food. This incident occurred only a few days after I asked a student from Ghana about his experience in Pune and he said he wanted to run away. Both instances shook me,” recalls Dr Mujumdar, the founder and president of Symbiosis Educational Society and chancellor of Symbiosis International University.
From that day, Dr Mujumdar started collecting data on the number of international students studying in Pune; he could account for more than 800 students from 28 different countries. “International students were facing several problems ranging from accommodation to counselling to food. I decided to take matters in my hand and ideated Symbiosis,” says the Padma Bhushan. A simple man, who still prefers his 1977 Ambassador car and white cotton shirts, Dr Mujumdar established the Symbiosis Education Society in 1971. He built an empire with campuses stretching across 400 acres, 38 institutes and 200 courses. Dr Mujumdar feels strongly about the importance of private players in education. He says, “Privatisation of education would mean better infrastructure, competent faculty and continuous use of Information Communication Technology (ICT).”
Dr Mujumdar is one of the few pioneers of private education in India. Till recently, higher education institutions were considered certifiable only if the degree came from a Central or state university. Things have changed now. A Central university is no longer the only ticket to a decent job. The country now has 160 private institutions in 19 states, all made possible by farsighted thinkers united by their vision of India as a knowledge superpower. They are the new edupreneurs.
Dr T R Pachamuthu, chancellor of SRM University, Chennai, is one of the leading lights of this new breed. He started as a college professor in the early 1960s, moving on to establish the Nightingale Matriculation School. Seven years later, he started a full-fledged school. “Since I was from an academic background, it was natural for me to be attracted to the sector. I knew the problems students faced, especially those in the rural areas. I established the school and took over a polytechnic institute in 1984. Once I got the permission to start a technical institute, I established 20 colleges and so started the journey of SRM University,” says Pachamuthu. The university was founded in 1985 as SRM Engineering College in Kattankulathur. It now has four campuses with a student strength of 56,000.
A first-generation entrepreneur, Pachamuthu says he started his institutes and the university with the passion to educate. “This is my contribution to society and I would urge more well-qualified professionals to foray into the education spectrum,” he says.
As the expectations on gross enrolment ratio (GER) of the country reaches 30 per cent for 2020, some private players are making sure that apart from quality education, students are part of the interface with industry. A case in point is Lovely Professional University (LPU), Jalandhar. Ashok Mittal, the 46-year-old founder and chancellor of LPU started his journey from a 10-square-foot sweet shop; the university now sprawls across 600 acres. In 1961, Baldev Raj Mittal and his three sons — Ramesh Mittal, Naresh Mittal and Ashok Mittal, established a sweet shop. While the patriarch and his two sons continued to take the shop to greater heights, Ashok Mittal, a law graduate, decided to venture into the field of education. “My aspirations are aligned with the success of my endeavour in bringing the best of higher education and industry interface to students in India,” explains Mittal. What started with 240 students and 25 faculty members now has 25,000 students and a faculty strength of 3,000.
LPU, which is a township university, has led to the transformation of its surrounding areas. Mittal says, “The evolution of this university and its growth is identified with all round growth of the surrounding area in a radius of 5 km. Outlets of major retail chains have mushroomed all across, and the unorganised retail sector has also reaped the harvest of development. Land prices have skyrocketed leading to windfall gains for farmers.” He also says that massive employment opportunities have been generated for local people.
While Mittal is changing the landscape of private education in Jalandhar, another edupreneur has changed the way private engineering colleges are viewed in our country. Dr G Viswanathan established the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) University, Vellore in 1984. Till then engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu were government-run, and there were just eight of them. “This made it extremely difficult for bright students to join engineering programmes. I appealed to the state government which gave me the permission to go ahead with starting an engineering college. Thus, Vellore Engineering College was born as the first private engineering college in the district,” says Dr Viswanathan, chancellor, VIT University. This small college soon became a full-fledged university in 2001.
The VIT fact-file is impressive. The university has two campuses, including one in Chennai with more than 20,000 students representing all the states of India and 48 countries. The 73-year-old Viswanathan, who is also a veteran parliamentarian, says, “I always wanted to be a lawyer, but when I grew up there were many things I wanted to change around me. This change could only have come with education. As an institution, we are concerned with the community in which we operate and are doing our bit to improve the standard of living of the people in and around Vellore through several outreach programmes,” explains Viswanathan, whose four sons are vice-presidents at the university and help him with his administrative work. “I shall continue to work for the welfare of my state and the district till my last breath,” declares Viswanathan.
Then there are those who changed career directions midway. Like Dr O P Bhalla, who left medical practice in 1982 to jump into a co-operative housing movement to provide shelter to lower middle and middle class citizens. After having established his credentials, he joined the Manav Rachna Education Society in 1995 and started the first private unaided engineering college in the area—Career Institute of Technology and Management. “But this was just the beginning of many more institutes and one of the largest university townships in Faridabad,” he says.
In 2001, Dr O P Bhalla and his three sons started a string of colleges that later transformed into Manav Rachna International University (MRIU), Faridabad. “The idea was to provide quality education at affordable cost to students from NCR who were seeking admission in universities located in South and West India,” he explains. Today, MRIU has become a township university. “The campus has triggered a proliferation of educational institutions around it so much so that soon after its inception two CBSE-affiliated schools came up within 500 m,” Bhalla says with pride.
For most of us, role models include parents or grandparents. P K Gupta, chairman and founder of Sharda University, Noida, is no different. “I saw the work that my grandfather Babu Nohanlal Arya did and the conviction with which he did it. I decided to follow in his footsteps and give back to society,” says Gupta. He established the Sharda Group of Institutions and its first self-financing Engineering College in Mathura, UP in 1996 with 160 students. Today, it is one of the largest private education groups in North India with six colleges and a university spread across 44 lakh square feet built-up area, asset base of over 900 crores and student strength of more than 25,000.
“In our country higher education is crippled with the problem of quality trainers as well as competent infrastructure. If the government as well as private players make it a point to work on these problems, our education system can see a new light,” he says. Gupta also points at the importance of research. He explains, “More focus on research is essential. If a country cannot fulfill its research needs, then development would still be a distant dream.”
R Sethuraman, founder and vice chancellor, SASTRA University, Thanjavur, also believes in creating an environment of capability and knowledge. He lives by one golden rule — to solve a problem, face it. SASTRA was started as Shanmugha College of Engineering in 1984. The 64-year-old educationist once wanted to become a banker, but investment in education, he says, was much better. SASTRA University has been responsible for putting Thanjvaur district on the global education map. “Set in a rural setting, the university is the largest physical landscape providing employment and small business opportunities that is able to sustain the livelihood of over 100 families within the village,” he says.
Another visionary whose contribution to the education sector is remarkable is Dr Stya Paul. A scholar and a freedom fighter, he always aspired to teach but faced rejection due to his physical handicap (he had polio since he was a small child and used to walk with the help of crutches). So he went back to the family business and evolved it into one of the biggest known industrial houses of India. He soon started the Apeejay Stya Group which is now run by his daughter Sushma Berlia. She shares the story of its inception and contribution to the society. “Apeejay Stya Group ventured into education over 45 years ago, not as a business or an enterprise, but rather as a way of contributing towards society. The inspiration and the prime mover at that time was my father, Dr Stya Paul. He encouraged me to be involved with activities related to education and therefore perhaps in the natural state of things, I developed an abiding passion for education,” says Berlia, president, Apeejay Education Society.
Being one of the largest groups of education providers, Berlia says, it is an opportune time for other private players to enter the market. “Today the challenges facing India and the world at large are the issues of access, equity, quality and relevance. The challenge is to bring in quality and innovation while making it equitable by increasing the reach of the current system (in terms of GER). The government has set a target of 30 per cent GER by 2020 and for that, it will require an additional 10,000 technical institutions, 15,000 colleges and more than 800 universities. This is a humongous task and cannot be achieved by the government alone,” she points out. Our next edupreneur is known for his tangible presence in North India. Suneel Galgotia, 56, currently the chancellor of the Galgotias University, was always ambitious. His family has been in the book publishing and retailing business since 1930 when they set up a bookstore under the marquee of E D Galgotia and Sons. From there, a venture into education was a natural progression. “I was always extremely ambitious and wanted to reach the pinnacle of entrepreneurship in the education field. I expanded into publishing and soon thereafter as the opportunities opened up I entered the engineering and management education space. This has now culminated into Galgotias University,” he says.
Unlike others, Galgotia does not think increasing the number of colleges is the way to attain equilibrium in education. He says, “Education should be in the private space so that the competition thus generated propels the education system towards quality, relevance, choice and excellence.” He says that the record of government educational institutes has been inadequate and the key reason for industry facing major problems of availability of human capital despite a large population. “If you only do what you know you can do, you never do very much, is my rule in life,” he says.
With life-rules like that, the future of the edupreneur looks bright. As does India’s.