‘Harvard Coming to India Inconceivable’: Ashish Dhawan on NEP 2020

Making all universities multi-disciplinary by 2040 is the biggest offering of NEP 2020, said Dhawan.

4 min read

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

“Is Harvard ever going to come and set up a Harvard equivalent in India? Inconceivable,” remarked investor-turned-philanthropist Ashish Dhawan, while discussing the impact of the much-debated National Education Policy 2020.

Apart from overhauling India’s education system, NEP 2020 also allows top 100 global universities to build campuses in India, while encouraging Indian varsities to set up shop abroad.

But what does the new policy document, being touted as revolutionary, mean for the future of higher education in India? Here’s what Dhawan, who’s one of the founding members of Ashoka University and Founder and Chairman of the Central Square Foundation, told The Quint.


All higher education institutes to become multi-disciplinary by 2040. How will this impact learning?

“We are living in a different world than the system designed for us by the British. It really puts students in a straitjacket. You study one narrow discipline after specialising post the Board exam in the 10th grade - Math, Science, Engineering, etc. It is way too narrow. In today's world, if you have to be successful, you need 21st century skills - the ability to think critically, to write and communicate well orally, to connect the dots between various disciplines, and to have a love for learning, because you are to be a continuous learner, a knowledge worker in the economy. So, I think this shift is the biggest change in the policy.”

Multiple ‘entry & exit’ points in UG a good move?

“The idea of multiple entry and exit points is very important. Not every student needs to do a 3-year degree. For some, 1 year is appropriate. It also brings things that are very vocational into the 1-year format. A 2-year diploma may be appropriate for some others, or a 3-year degree, if you want to get into the workforce, or a 4-year degree, for a specialised job or an academic track thereafter.”

What is the rationale behind four-year UG Programmes?

“We have always believed that BA or BSc could be 3 or 4 years. If you choose to overspecialise, and choose a few courses outside your domain, you can maybe complete it in 3 years, but if you really want to have a minor in something else, or you really want to broaden out a little bit, it may take you 4 years. You want to do a capstone research project in Science, if you want to work in a lab and do research, maybe you need the 4th year.”

Top 100 foreign universities can set up shop in India. But, will they?

“By and large, the best institutions are not looking to set up in India. They are, instead, looking at partnerships, and I think that is already happening. We are seeing it with some of the emerging private universities. There's knowledge transfer, joint research, programmes where students can go for a semester abroad, or come visit for a semester. So, from a foreign university standpoint, that is the opportunity that I see - for India to accelerate its research trajectory, through more joint research and collaboration. In a world where there is somewhat greater skepticism about China, particularly in the Western world, I think it is an opportunity for India, on the joint research side.”

Will the National Research Foundation help the growth of studies in India?

“I think this National Research Foundation coming in, having an overarching body, that guides research at universities, is critical. If we were to prioritise the top 20-30, and then the top 100, from a research standpoint, I think we can come a long way in this next decade. So, adequate funding for NRF, some degree of independence, I mean obviously the prime minister is providing direct oversight, but pulling in the right people, which I know is being done, so that you can prioritise the right areas and make the right grants, but also coordination with the other agencies. I believe that India can be a powerhouse in AI or ML or Bio-technology, huge potential in Bio-sciences, or even new areas that are coming up, like Nano-technology.”

NEP plans to make all colleges autonomous by 2035. What do you have to say about that?

“I think for colleges that are affiliated with universities, the ability to break away over time is a huge positive. Why should LSR, which is a leading institution, be stuck, and tethered to Delhi University forever? Can't it break free and be its own at some point? I think the only thing we need to concerned about is the over-reach of the State. I think as long as the government realises that there is a vibrant private eco-system in India, we need greater autonomy... Let there be academic freedom, let these institutions flourish, let them them charge the fees they want to charge, as long as they are not profiteering.”

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