Learning how to learn, think and master
Meghaa Aggarwal, 06 Apr 2019
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In recent years, liberal arts programmes have become extremely popular…

What do HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Chairman of the Mahindra group Anand Mahindra have in common? They all give great credit to their liberal arts background!

What is Liberal Arts?

More than a degree, the liberal arts are a form of education distinguished by a wide variety of subject choices drawn from social sciences, natural sciences as well as humanities, and an emphasis on critical thinking and communication.

Speaking in her personal capacity, Vishakha Desai, Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University, USA and a member of the Board and Academic Council of KREA University in India, says, “… liberal arts education is a comprehensive approach to think creatively and deliberately about all aspects of life involving both arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences. It is less about learning a particular skill (in a rapidly changing and automating work environment, any particular skill learnt today will become obsolete in a decade), and more about learning how to learn, think and master any skill for the future.”

Tracing Liberal Arts in India

The concept of liberal arts is not new to India. Traditional Indian universities like Nalanda also encouraged this form of education. However, the onset of colonial education and a growing emphasis on professional courses, especially in the decades since independence, led to disintegration in it. However, Desai says, “In recent years, there is a resurgent interest in establishing new liberal arts institutions that are comparable to good universities in the U. S. and Europe.”

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This has a lot to do with the growing economic prosperity and global exposure of India, since liberalisation in 1990s. “With the opening up of the private sector, job opportunities have burgeoned and affluence has increased. Today, many Indians are studying and working overseas. Growing wealth and exposure has created a generation of students and parents who are aware of the value of a liberal arts education,” explains international education consultant Viral Doshi.

Making the Choice

Currently, there are a number of universities offering liberal arts education in India. However, before making a choice, students need to be fully aware of a few things.

Unlike traditional degrees, a liberal arts programme does not make it mandatory for students to pick a specialisation at the time of admission. Typically, they will study a variety of subjects across the sciences and humanities in their first year before picking a specialisation, or declaring a major, as it’s called, in which they will graduate.

However, it’s always preferable for students to have a short list of the subjects they may want to specialise in, so as to make sure that the university offers these.

One of the merits of liberal arts programmes is that students are often given the choice to graduate with a major-minor combination or even with a double major.

Deep Vakil, who is currently in his second year at Ashoka University, shares, “I was initially keen on pursuing international relations and political science and made a list of universities offering these subjects. However, at the end of my first semester, where I studied a number of different subjects, I decided to major in Politics and Society – an interdisciplinary subject with components from political science, sociology and anthropology, and pursue a minor in international relations.

“To get my degree, I need to complete 15 courses in Politics and Society and six courses in international relations, apart from various other courses that are part of the curriculum.”

Also, admission to Liberal Arts courses is not based purely on percentages scored in Class 12. Applications are reviewed for holistic merit and applicants often need to appear for an admission test and/or a personal interview.

Word to the wise, a liberal arts programme is very intensive and students have to be ready to read, think and apply themselves thoroughly. “There are a lot of readings and classroom discussions. The faculty are very open to debates and disagreements. We have very few written exams and are usually evaluated through research papers, essays and various other hands-on assignments,” says Vakil.

Public Vs Private

Even though the most popular liberal arts programmes in India are offered at private universities, a few colleges such as St Xavier’s (Mumbai), Lady Shri Ram and St Stephen’s (Delhi), MCC and Loyola (Chennai) also offer somewhat similar formats.

While public institutions are more affordable and have a long-standing legacy, they usually lack the flexibility and choice available in a typical liberal arts programme. Students may have to declare their major either in the sciences or in the humanities at the beginning of the programme and may not be able to switch from one to the other, or even study a variety of subjects across both disciplines.

Campus visits

Vakil advises students inclined towards private universities to make campus visits. “You can get a sense of the classroom environment by visiting the campus, speaking with existing students and faculty.” It’s also useful to read information about the faculty as well as student reviews that may be available online.

Doshi corroborates, “Most private liberal arts universities in India are relatively recent. It will take at least a decade for liberal arts programmes here to consolidate their position, develop a strong placement record and build a significant alumni network.“However, private universities like Ashoka that are backed by several eminent personalities, have a substantial corpus of funding and a competitive admission process which have done a lot to popularise liberal arts programmes in India.”

An elitist education?

Affordability is one of the most common concerns about liberal arts programmes, especially at private universities that typically charge anywhere between two to six lakh rupees per year.

While this still makes them more affordable than liberal arts universities overseas, it keeps them beyond the reach of a large percentage of the local population.

To overcome this challenge, most private liberal arts universities in India offer financial aid and students keen on pursuing the programme should inquire on this. “These are often well-endowed institutions that seek holistic merit above everything else. They look at the student first and if he or she shows genuine promise or brings value, they ensure that financial inability does not get in the way of admission,” shares Doshi.

Students, however, observe that the socio-economic background of most students at private liberal arts universities remains largely homogenous. Vakil discloses, “Most of the students on campus come from well-off, well-educated families and belong to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. I come from Vadodra, a relatively smaller city. I came to know about liberal arts programmes independently and had to convince my parents about my choice. “While affordability was a concern, I also felt a bit of an initial culture shock on campus. Even though I have grown out of it and truly enjoy my course, I do think universities offering this programme can get more inclusive. One of the things they can do is to reach out to more students in smaller towns and cities.”

While experts like Doshi understand students’ point of view, they feel that substantial steps are being taken to bring in more diversity within private liberal arts universities and that the concern around inclusivity would holistically be addressed as these programmes gain popularity across the country and more students from around the country begin to apply for them.

Three Vs Four-year degree

Following the stipulations of university education in India, liberal arts programmes here are typically three-year undergraduate degrees. However, many universities also offer an optional fourth year where students can continue to specialise and even head overseas to a partner institution.

Opinion remains divided on the time span. Some people consider the three-year time span a merit, given that it is typically a four-year degree overseas. However, others like Doshi are not sure. “Ideally, this should be a four-year programme, so students get more time for their major, while studying other subjects across disciplines.”

Additionally, students keen to pursue further studies in the US should definitely consider the four-year degree to meet the minimum academic requirement for postgraduate education there.

Future scope

One of the primary concerns is the relative lack of job opportunities at the end of the programme though they have increased. Shares Doshi, “Today, liberal arts graduates can find gainful employment in consulting, banking, media, public relations, publishing, hospitality, merchandising, marketing, academia and the social sector.” Vakil corroborates, “I’m interested in exploring career choices within academia and engaging in social activism.”

Most students inevitably head overseas for further studies after completing their undergraduate liberal arts degree in India. For instance, if a student has majored in economics, he or she may choose to pursue a postgraduate degree in economics to specialise further. Several universities offer dedicated guidance and help with the application procedure.

Perhaps, the greatest merit of a liberal arts education is that it allows students the space to explore their interests, discover themselves and make informed choices for the future.

Liberal Arts Colleges in India

  • Ashoka University

  • Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities

  • Flame University

  • Azim Premji University

  • Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts

  • Shiv Nadar University


Vishakha Desai,

Senior Advisor to the President, Columbia University, USA

Most private liberal arts universities in India are relatively recent. It will take at least a decade for liberal arts programmes here to consolidate their position, develop a strong placement record and build a significant alumni network


Deep Vakil,

Second-year Student, Ashoka University

There are a lot of readings and classroom discussions. The faculty are very open to debates and disagreements. We have very few written exams and we are usually evaluated through research papers, essays and various other hands-on assignments

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