‘Education should not be elitist’: Ahmedabad University Chancellor

Sanjay Lalbhai, chancellor, Ahmedabad University, and chairman, CEPT University, spoke on education, diversity and reforms

Sanjay Lalbhai, chairman and managing director of Arvind Ltd and chancellor, Ahmedabad UniversitySanjay Lalbhai, chairman and managing director of Arvind Ltd and chancellor, Ahmedabad University

Aeshwarya Tiwari | July 10, 2023 | 05:02 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Why did Sanjay Lalbhai, chairman and managing director of Arvind Ltd, a group with a 1.7 billion USD turnover, set up Ahmedabad University? It’s because that’s just who he is. Born to a family that was instrumental in setting up Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad, National Institute of Design (NID), and CEPT University, contributing toward society and building institutions are “part of his DNA”.

Q. What inspired you to set up Ahmedabad University and what’s the road ahead?

A. I have always been close to my grandfather and father. Following in my grandfather’s footsteps, my father served as the chairman of the Ahmedabad Education Society for a significant period. This society, initiated by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, played a pivotal role in establishing various higher education institutions such as HL Commerce, LD Arts, MG Science, LM Pharmacy (one of the earliest pharmaceutical institutions in India), and AG Teachers’ College. These institutions were established around the 1930s and became iconic educational establishments.

My grandfather, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, was basically responsible for raising the resources and mobilising everything for the university and higher education and Vikram Sarabhai would bring in collaborations with Harvard University and others to form IIM and NID (National Institute of Design).

I have had the privilege of witnessing my grandfather’s remarkable journey in building an institution of eminence, one that has flourished over 60 years. It has gained substantial prominence on a global scale. Growing up in this family. I have had the opportunity to observe numerous distinguished individuals, including directors, visit our home. I believe in creating a policy framework that can have a significant impact on the entire country. This is part of our DNA – to contribute towards society.

When we provide education to individuals, we empower them to become self-sufficient and learn how to thrive independently. It is even more important to contribute our time and abilities. Simply giving money is not enough. If one has achieved something in the world, it becomes essential to dedicate their time, abilities, resources, networking skills, and connections with government and various individuals to an institution, without any personal agenda. It is because it is inherent in who I am. It is a part of my upbringing, and over the years, we have all imbibed these values.

A major limitation in the existing educational landscape was the numerous constraints and permissions associated with affiliated universities. To overcome these limitations, the idea of starting a private university emerged. Pankaj Chandra and Anand Shah presented me with a feasibility study and a vision statement for a world-class university, which aligned with my own passion for education.

Q. Why in Ahmedabad?

A. When we consider global locations, only two places come to mind [that have a high concentration of the best minds]. One is Boston. The same principle applies here. Within our vicinity, we have PRL, ATIRA, the School of Human Habitat, the School of Architecture, LM Pharmacy, Ahmedabad University, Nirma, IIT, and NID—all within this 9 km2 area.

This concentration of intellectual prowess is what gives it power. Creating such an ecosystem is a rare gift that cannot be easily replicated. While anyone can purchase land and establish a remarkable university, it is impossible to recreate the unique ecosystem that exists in Ahmedabad.

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Q. How do you transform through education?

A. Highly-intelligent individuals entering institutions like IIMA don’t need a basic MBA course. Generative AI and online resources make understanding concepts easier. Bringing bright minds together promotes diverse perspectives and multiple solutions. Embracing diversity and broadening mindsets are important.

Great institutions foster collaboration among individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. Engaging in debates, appreciating differences, and solving problems are essential for learning. Top percentile individuals acquire these skills, reducing the focus on textbook knowledge. Pursuing a finance major doesn’t require complex learning.

Q. How can an 18-year-old determine their talents and choose their path?

A. We offer a foundation course that differs from the traditional approach where individuals are expected to immediately decide their career path or follow their parents’ suggestions Our foundation course allows you to explore passions and avoid limiting potential. We guide them to choose a right career path.

Flexibility is a key feature of US universities that my children also benefited from. American universities allow students the space to explore and decide what they want to pursue. This is exactly what we are offering here—a supportive environment with counselling sessions and opportunities for discussing and discovering one’s passion. However, I understand that there are societal pressures in India. Families often expect certain career paths [and] it is true that financial stability is an important consideration, but true happiness is not solely dependent on material gain. Material outcomes are secondary and not entirely controllable. Genuine happiness comes from pursuing one’s passion.

Q. How do you plan to attract the best talent to enroll in Ahmedabad University?

A. To attract talent, we implement an extensive outreach program. We physically visit cities, engage with students, assure them of financial support, and connect with schools, parents, and the community. We promote safety, meritocracy, passion, and overall development. Professors, students, and volunteers visit homes, address concerns, and promote diversity. We support students from challenging backgrounds, ensuring equal opportunities. Education should not be elitist. Our goal is to attract talents from tier-two and tier-three cities, providing them a platform to excel at Ahmedabad University.

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Q. How do you find ways to motivate people when so many have lost jobs, especially in the technology sector?

A. I think life is about struggles and adversity. Wealth and status offer some protection, but everyone faces challenges. Poor and rich individuals have different problems. Never give up, believe in yourself, and have mental strength. Adapt to market conditions and explore new opportunities. If you are good, don’t limit yourself to a specific job at a certain salary or position. The world won’t change according to your expectations. You have to prove yourself in some way or the other. A capable and passionate individual will always be noticed.

Q. What administrative reforms could improve our education system? What are we currently missing?

A. Private universities have more freedom now and even aided colleges have received clear direction from the ministry regarding autonomy. Autonomy allows changing the curriculum and forming interdisciplinary clusters. The government has recognised the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and discourages siloed disciplines such as exclusively focusing on commerce, arts, or engineering.

Pedagogy must adapt to the changing world. Continuous learning is essential. Degrees may lose relevance over time. Embrace new technology and learn new skills. For instance, Generative AI, such as GPT-5, is advancing every month, indicating the fast-paced evolution we are witnessing. Consequently, certain jobs may be displaced due to these technological advancements.

Learning is a lifelong process. The knowledge you acquire during these four years is indeed valuable, but the focus is on instilling in you the ability to adapt and continually learn. Learning is an ongoing process that never ceases, even at my age. We aim to equip you with the skills to grasp new capabilities demanded by the ever-evolving world. Learning how to learn is crucial. Adapt to the market by acquiring new skills. People who learn how to learn can constantly remodel themselves.

Q. What measures are needed to improve our education system, considering that we are not ranked in the top 50 or even the top 100 universities worldwide?

A. The prime minister emphasised empowering institutions and attracting competition. There is a need for a corpus to build excellent institutions. Let deserving students have free education. Control fees but allow competition. Good institutions should have freedom. Constraints hinder progress. States are leading the way. Quality minds in India are a strength.

For a country of our size to make a change is also complicated. I think it starts with certain states because states and center are both involved in this. I think some good examples have emerged and as the change progresses, I think we will have excellence.

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Q. What are the major challenges in education today?

A. Focus on solutions, not challenges. Initially, the limited student pool from Gujarat hindered exposure and competition. We advocated for diversity, emphasising access to the best minds worldwide. We successfully gained government approval as Centers of Excellence, allowing 50% non-Gujarat admissions. We proposed reputable organisations evaluate fees for technical courses to cover costs and improve facilities. Growing a corpus to counter inflation is crucial. Donors fund state-of-the-art labs for robotics, AI, bioengineering, and more. Balancing financial sustainability and institution building is key. Embrace challenges, achieve progress and success.

Q. Do you believe that AI technologies will replace the traditional way of learning?

A. Yes, the advancements in AI should indeed contribute to delivering education in a different manner. The key focus should be on empowering learners rather than being apprehensive about the constant changes. Change is an inherent part of life, and it is crucial for everyone to embrace a mindset of continuous learning, adaptability, and innovation.

Q. What message do you have for underprivileged students to attract them to study at Ahmedabad University?

A. We wholeheartedly welcome you and assure you that we will provide whatever support you require. If you need coaching or additional assistance, we will gladly offer it to ensure you are not at a disadvantage when attending classes. We provide financial support. We design special courses for skill development. Holistic support is our commitment.

We understand that everyone has unique needs, so we offer remedial courses specifically tailored to address areas where you may feel less proficient. For instance, if English is not your strong suit, but you possess brilliant ideas, we aim to remove any disadvantage by improving your articulation, debating skills, and ability to express yourself. While language barriers may be resolved in the future through advancements in AI, we are committed to investing in and supporting you financially.

We prioritise addressing challenges, even beyond financial ones. If there are specific areas where you need additional development or support, we will design special courses to enhance those capabilities. By working on these areas before joining the semester, you will be better equipped to handle the academic demands and not face any disadvantages. Our comprehensive approach aims to support you holistically, recognising that financial support is only a small part of the equation.

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