‘We developed core courses around grand challenges’: Ahmedabad University VC

Liberal arts education at Ahmedabad University focuses on research and multidisciplinarity. It is launching a BTech in EEE.

'We give opportunities to our students to work on research projects from day one': AU vice-chancellor Pankaj Chandra (Image Credit: Ahmedabad University)'We give opportunities to our students to work on research projects from day one': AU vice-chancellor Pankaj Chandra (Image Credit: Ahmedabad University)

Atul Krishna | June 26, 2024 | 10:08 AM IST

Ahmedabad University, a private university, is one of the seven universities selected by the Government of Gujarat for the Centre of Excellence tag. Vice-chancellor Pankaj Chandra spoke to Atul Krishna about the unique features of the university, its multi-disciplinary structure and liberal arts education and the various ways in which students are given opportunities to work on industry research projects. Edited excerpts below.

Q. Can you explain what makes Ahmedabad University stand out from the rest?

A. Ahmedabad University was set up in 2009 and has established itself as a rigorous liberal education driven research university. We see complex issues surrounding our societies. When we were setting up, one thought was how do you bring complex problems into the classroom and into our research. We felt that such problems don’t lend themselves to single-discipline solutions. So, it was necessary that we bring multiple knowledge systems together to create an interdisciplinary university.

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Our research also had to be interdisciplinary. If we involved people from different disciplines, the possibility of us being able to solve bigger problems would be much higher. The entire structure of the university and all the programmes have been shaped accordingly. In addition, our pedagogy is experiential and learning by asking questions.

We are one of the few institutions that have a common core which is built around grand challenges. We developed core courses around grand challenges like water, climate change, democracy and justice, and neighbourhood, which is a proxy for urbanisation. And through them we engage students to understand six domains – two critical skills (communication & data science), two areas that build perspective (behavior and constitution & civilisation), and two areas of innovation (biology & life and new materials). Hence, students gain a holistic perspective and deeper understanding of issues.

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Q. What is the advantage of approaching education in such a way? What gap are you filling that the public universities are not?

A. Public university education is very narrow and limited to the domain that one is studying. When a student goes to study physics or psychology, it doesn’t matter that you have a sociology department or a biology department located next to it. The curriculum does not allow flexibility for students to take courses across disciplines. A university is a universe of learning but it does not happen in our traditional institutions. And most innovations are today happening at the boundaries of disciplines that require learning different disciplines.

Our education allows students the opportunity to take courses all across different domains of knowledge and disciplines. There are core courses and electives in a major and you can take any course offered by the university in any discipline as part of free electives.

You may come to study marketing, but you may take a minor in general engineering. It prepares young people to appreciate larger problems. More importantly, when they come in at 18, very few students know what they want to do. So, this also provides you with an opportunity to explore and discover your passion.

Q. What are some of the popular courses and popular combinations?

A. Many of our majors are interdisciplinary majors. We have a BA in social and political sciences that’s a really important major. Psychology, and Bachelor of Science (BS) in Management, which used to be a BBA programme, are also extremely popular.

Our BTech programmes, particularly in mechanical engineering, are popular. We have also launched a new one in electrical and electronics engineering. Our dual degree programme life sciences programme is probably the most experimental and hands-on. It’s a five-year dual-degree programme in Bachelor’s and Master’s and students do extremely well. Our economics programme is also very sought after. In addition to a BTech in Computer Science Engineering, we also offer a BS in Computer Science and a BS in Mathematical and Computational Science that are very contemporary programmes and sought after.

Q. Are you planning to introduce any new courses?

A. At undergraduate level, we are starting a BTech in Electrical and Electronics programme. We’ve changed our chemical engineering programme into a chemical and environmental engineering programme because the need for environmental considerations in chemical engineering now is very important, with sustainability as a focus.

We are starting several new master’s programmes. Our M.Tech in Composite Materials, is the first such programme in the country. We also have a unique programme for Master’s of Management Studies in Heritage Management. Then, next year we are starting an M.Tech in Microelectronics and Semiconductors.

Q. You mentioned that multidisciplinary research is an important part of the university. Could you talk about the research projects there?

A. There are several focused research groups emerging at the university. If you look at biology, they do research on the key areas related to ecology and environment. There is a focus group around cancer research. There’s a very strong group around infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance. In engineering, there’s the intelligent transport group that’s very active. There are folks who are working on AI and agriculture as well as Composites & New Materials. A group of new manufacturing carries out research in advanced manufacturing processes, robotics and systems. Then you have folks doing projects around environmental anthropology.

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Most importantly, we have very strong research across disciplines. Today, most discoveries require expertise from many disciplines. We have an interdisciplinary programme around sustainability, city health, and climate change. And there’s a project working with the municipal corporation looking at Chikungunya and Dengue and how climate change is affecting the incidence of these diseases. Cosmology is another strong area because we have a Centre on Cosmology and Space where there is work happening on black holes. Our sustainability and environment group is very strong and we have established a Global Centre for Environment and Energy.

Q. Are students involved in these research projects?

A. Actually, all have students working in their research groups. . That’s our strength. Right from day-one we give opportunities to our students to work on research projects of professors through an Undergraduate Research Programme (UGRP).

Our undergraduate students have to either do an individual thesis or do a capstone project, all supported by the industry. So they basically work on industry problems. We are currently working closely with industries on several projects related to wastewater, heat recovery in engineering where undergraduate students are involved.

Q. How are the placements at the university? Where do your students get placed and what are the packages?

A. About 50-60% of our students go for postgraduate studies in top institutions in India and abroad. Another 20% go back to the family business or will do a startup. Another 20 percent look for jobs. The rest might either take a year off or explore new areas of interest.

Among the 20% that will look for jobs, we generally see a 100 percent placement. This year, it has not been 20 days since the exams ended and our placements stand at 93 percent already. My feeling is that within the next month or so all of them will get placed. Our students go to prestigious companies such as Google, TCS, Infosys, Arvind, Asian Paints, Sony, Peak Ventures, Elara Capital, S&P Global, Federal Bank, L&T Tech, Asahi, Trilogy, KPMG, PwC, MRF etc. I would say our students get an above average compensation.

Q. Are there any challenges that the university faces?

A. We are a growing institution so getting to be in the consideration of a large number of students and parents is a work-in-progress although the enrolments had doubled last year. Competition for getting very good Master’s students is very high.

Other than that, I think maybe a little bit more flexibility from the regulator and the government and others probably will go a very long way. We are lucky because the Gujarat government has been very considerate to us. We were selected among the seven institutions to be Centres of Excellence, which gives us more autonomy compared to many others.

With the increased number of credits for the four year undergraduate programmes by UGC, we now have to plan for more resources.

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