Global education, made in India PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 16 April 2013 00:13
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The investors behind Ashoka University, one of several US-style liberal arts colleges coming up in India, explain to Sunil Jain why the non-profit could be their best investment ever


Shiv Nadar University has a tie-up with Carnegie Mellon University, OP Jindal University with Indiana University, Lavasa Education Hub with the Saïd Business School, Ashoka University with University of Pennsylvania … suddenly there’s a clutch of new choices for India’s 2 lakh kids who go abroad—spending $8-10 billion—to study each year and probably ten times as many who want to go but can’t afford to, more so since horror stories abound of the havoc the government’s affirmative action policy is wreaking on the quality of teaching in top Indian universities.

It’s a lot worse actually, says Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of the 7-8 investor-promoters behind Ashoka University who I meet for lunch at the capital’s IIC along with Ashish Dhawan—while both Sanjeev and Ashish have put in R20 crore each of their own funds in this not-for-profit, others who have contributed large sums include Vineet Gupta, Puneet Dalmia, Jerry Rao and Sid Yog. Sanjeev is still known as the founder of jobs search firm Naukri, and Ashish, despite his work in education, is for the lay public, still the man who raised $2 billion at Chrysalis Capital.

Lunch is a frugal affair—I chose grilled fish, not just to reduce my “wasteline”, but so I can eat with my left hand while taking notes with the right—the health conscious Ashish follows suit, and while Sanjeev loves his food, he wants to eat light as he has some more meetings ahead of him. Not surprisingly, given Ashish was in the business of finding various Sanjeevs to fund, they met over a spreadsheet. Sadly, though Ashish had just raised $64 million from his first India fund (yes, he makes the obligatory crack over this literally being his life’s $64 million question!), it didn’t quite work out with Sanjeev—Sanjeev instead went with ICICI Ventures which, if memory serves, got a 25-30x return on its R7.5 crore investment, and Ashish with ZipAhead that later morphed into JobsAhead. I wouldn’t worry about it, a fledgling venture capitalist himself, Sanjeev tells Ashish who says this was one investment he regretted not making, I’ve seen a lot of opportunities I wish I’d invested in.

Sanjeev’s R300 crore of investments, of course, is loose change compared to Ashish’s $2 billion, but unlike Ashish, he invests at a start-up stage—he’s written off 2 of his 9 investments, he tells us as he adds some spice to the cream of chicken soup he’s ordered before the fish. Zomato (restaurant listings) and Meritnation (online teaching for K12) are reportedly doing well though he’s not in the money yet. As for Ashish, some of his big wins have been Spectramind, UTI Bank, Transworks, MphasiS and Suzlon.

Why is the PE fund industry in all manner of trouble, I ask Ashish—despite his work with Ashoka and some great successes in the K12 space (a computer-based intuitive maths programme has seen marks of the underprivileged kids rise dramatically), Ashish still spends a fifth of his time at Chrysalis. A large part of the funding, he says, came at the Sensex’s peak and so got invested at high multiples and was also invested in infrastructure, etc, where they are now stuck. “A lot of investors haven’t seen returns for a long time and so have, if you will, downgraded India.”

So what was their eureka moment? Why did two obviously successful entrepreneurs decide to get into the education space, especially since it is a genuine non-profit and they have no hope of getting any of their money back? Ashish claims he knew he wanted to be in education when, in sixth grade, he got to teach a junior class. His mother thought little of the idea—thankfully for the investors he’s given 30%-plus annual returns from 40 successful exits of the 60-odd investments he’s made so far—and encouraged him to apply to Yale. The rest is history. After working at Wall Street, he came back to India in 1999, started dabbling with Akanksha Foundation in Mumbai which was working with street kids, but remained essentially a VC. Gurcharan Das, the ex-P&G head and author, introduced him to Parth Shah whose Centre for Civil Society was doing a lot of work in education policy, including the ills of the Right to Education.

And Sanjeev? A chance meeting with an old classmate who is now teaching at Delhi University—we’re nearly done and wrestling against an ice-cold kulfi—and he learnt the course hadn’t changed since he graduated from St Stephen’s in 1984; of the 800 marks in all papers when we were in college, he says, 100 marks were for planning, 100 marks for Marx ... I nod intelligently, but college is a bit of a haze now—I remember not getting a job with Prannoy Roy’s The Policy Group after I told my ex-teacher Omkar Goswami who consulted with TPG that academic stuff was all crap. This was after I failed to remember what some arcane (they sounded arcane!) economic terms meant.

His wife’s niece, Sanjeev isn’t quite done yet, was at Cambridge and her first year course had more than he’d learnt in all three years at Stephen’s. The pièce de résistance, Sanjeev says, is that if you do BA Economics from Delhi University (DU), you can get into Cambridge in only the second year while if you do your BA from Cambridge, you can get to teach in DU without the required MA—this seems a bit of an exaggeration, but I take his word for it. It must be, he’s told me this twice before on different occasions, the last time over a delicious breakfast at the Chambers in the Taj.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ashish and Sanjeev went to meet Pramath Sinha, the founding dean of the Indian School of Business, to discuss liberal arts colleges. Since Pramath was at that time also talking to a group of ex-IITians who wanted to set up an engineering colleges, he got them to collaborate, and Ashoka was born—a liberal arts college, also teaching science but not detailed engineering since 2008 crisis left them with less cash than they’d wanted. They have raised R80 crore so far and have a letter of credit for R100 crore. The UPenn tie up gives them access to a classy global faculty, they are in the process of hiring a VC. Unlike DU, they claim, Ashoka will offer students both “breadth and later depth” since there will be general courses in the first two years and a specialisation only in the next two—DU is in the process of introducing a similar system.

Convinced the Indian BA was good and the better option is to send kids overseas for MA/PhDs—my son goes to college in two years, so this is a cheaper option!—I argue that Indian-style rote also has a place. Cramming up the dates of Alexander and Porus’ battles may be tedious—remember Mohan Choti’s Sikandar ne Porus se ki thi ladai, jo ki thi ladai, to main kya karoon?—but it trains us to easily assimilate important facts, around which we later weave the theory. I cite the fact that India’s GDP rise and fall can easily be traced to government dissavings falling and then rising in a QED-kind of manner.

An American undergrad, I say with the conviction only a journalist can get away with, offers too much choice—should I do oriental studies along with history of religion while majoring in economics? Ashish looks indulgently and says sure rote has a place in learning and he, for instance, grasps the ‘facts’ a bit faster because of this—but he says, the rote is what we get in K12, college should be about broadening your horizons. Sanjeev is more dismissive. You can have the facts and look for a theory or, while researching a theory, get to know the facts. He cites the example of some of the research his daughter is doing on why the Mughal empire broke up while the British empire held—the Mughals, he says, gave revenue collection powers to the satraps, the British didn’t. QED, he says with a grin.

Would you hire from Yale, Ashoka or DU? In that order, I’m told—Yale, Ashoka and DU. Seriously? Students with a foreign education—both Ashish and Sanjeev are talking only of the top global schools—do a lot more lateral thinking. Ashish is more explicit: most IITians get into non-tech corporate jobs, do they really need all the engineering stuff they learn at IIT, wouldn’t they be better for learning some history, some economics? Not being an educationist, I agree though I can see my teachers, some in their graves sadly, tut-tutting.

Will you send your kids to Ashoka I ask—that’s the real test I reckon. Ashish’s kids are too young but Sanjeev’s daughter is already in Columbia. Given a choice, Ashish says, to an Ivy League—but, he hastens to add, that’s because Ashoka’s just about beginning and also education is not just the university itself, it’s also about the ecosystem—Silicon Valley versus Bangalore, to cite the most obvious example.

Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary—where does my 16-year old go? The good thing, and Ashish endorses this, is that with coursera.org around, he can experiment with both Yale and Harvard—and many many more online courses—before taking a final call.


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