The recent MoU between Ashoka University and the University of Michigan comes as a boon to improving the liberal arts education in the country.

The top colleges in the country for social sciences do not figure anywhere in the top 200 institutions of study in the world. Anyone on a lookout for a good course in the humanities has to often look at options in select universities in north India. A number of students, otherwise, consider options of study abroad mainly in Europe and the U.S.

This is where several like-minded individuals with distinctive academic and professional merit joined hands to bridge the lacunae and came out with a vision for a better education in the liberal arts.

The founders of Ashoka University are realising this vision with the support of the leading academicians, from Andre Beteille to Christope Jaffrelot, and the likes of Kiran Karnik and Deepak Parekh who mentored students during the Young India Fellowship (YIF).

Skills and values

“The skills and values (critical thinking, team work, communication, social sensibility and commitment) that we acquired over the years was something we wanted young people in the country to have exposure to at an early stage rather than discover later,” says Pramath Raj Sinha, one of the founders at Ashoka University.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the University of Michigan and Ashoka University was signed for future collaborations in student and faculty exchanges. “A liberal arts education is an unparalleled foundation for a life filled with creativity and innovation. That is why we are so impressed by the plans for Ashoka University and what they mean for Indian students. We are honoured to be the first public university to be an Ashoka partner,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president, University of Michigan.

“We see this collaboration as an opportunity to contribute our long-term expertise and undergrad experience to Ashoka,” says Prof. Farina Mir, Director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. Prof. Mir emphasised the role of developing the pedagogy at Ashoka in the long run.

Ashoka University which has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania for the YIF, in terms of faculty support, was aided by it in designing the computer science programme.

Likewise, it plans to engage with the University of Michigan for shaping its faculty. Vineet Gupta, one of the founders, says that the University of Michigan will be engaged in the long run in mentoring a young faculty.

Prof. Jonathan Gil Harris, who has taught at YIF, says that he was impressed by the approach of students who enjoyed engaging in discussions, which was opposed to the rote-learning structure he was wary of before making a teaching commitment.

The undergraduate programme, with a multi-disciplinary focus, will be in place from next year. “Ashoka emphasises liberal learning. Knowledge of multiple fields will help students develop a wide perspective,” says Madhavi Menon, Professor of English.

Besides majoring in the core subject of English, Economics, History, Sociology or Computer Science, foundation courses in an array of disciplines from “Mathematics and Logic” to “‘Trends in History” and “Critical Thinking” will be offered. As part of “Ashoka Quest”, students will have to do internships in the social and corporate sector, in addition to elective courses.