Dr. Sunder Ramaswamy, Vice-Chancellor of KREA University, in conversation with Rajaram Sukumar talks about the model, philosophy and genesis of the new university...
Q. India has over a thousand degree awarding institutes. So, why KREA?
A. I think the reason we all came together was that we wanted to do something that is not really being addressed in education; in how we admit students, the curriculum, etc. We started with the idea that as the world is changing, are we preparing our students to handle this change? We want to focus on a curriculum that focuses on creativity and action, teaches students to learn how to learn, rather than simply what to learn which is what a lot of degree programmes end up becoming. We started with those core values which we wanted to be woven throughout in the life experience of students at KREA, regardless of whether they want to be a History major or Mathematics or Economics, and so on.
Q. Who ideated the concept of this university?
A. A young entrepreneur by the name of Kapil Vishwanath began to talk with me and then the group expanded to include R. Seshasayee who at that time was the Chairman of the Board of Infosys and N. Vaghul who had been the Chairman of the Institute of Financial Management Research (IFMR). Four of us were the key people but it expanded beyond us to include Raghuram G. Rajan, Srinivas Raju and others who you see on the academic council. We launched KREA officially, I believe, on March 23, 2018.
Q. Starting a university with a good faculty and infrastructure needs a huge corpus of funds. How did you pool in so much of money?
A. We want to be a privately-funded, not-for-profit university. We have a mission to admit high potential students even if they don’t have the ability to pay. So, we do admissions very differently. We admit students even before we find out if they can afford it and then afterwards decide what you need by way of money. So, we obviously needed money for both financial aid plus faculty salaries which we want to make sure are on par with the western institutions. Initially, we went about asking people. A lot of people on the governing council and other donors who believe in the mission of KREA stepped in. Fundraising is not done yet. We had a target of about Rs. 750 crores, which may go up to Rs.1000 crores and we are steadily on the path. We are quite not halfway there but it’s happening.
Q. You say you are admitting the best of minds in the country. Can you elaborate on your selection process?
A. One of the things we decided was that we should look at academics, obviously, but we should consider records from 9th standard onwards, to get a good look at the student’s profile. So, we will start with 9th and go all the way to 12th. But, academics is only a part of it. I have taught for years both in the US and here, and I have seen students who end up doing really well in life and they may not be the best of students. I mean they may not be 99 percenter, but have other attributes and skills. So, we wanted to have a holistic look at it. We have about 19 criteria that we evaluate a student on, like ability to write, interview, etc. We do this in stages.
We are doing around four rounds of admissions. To select the top 125 students of the first batch, we will start with around 1,000 applications. In the first round, we had 300 student applicants and we shortlisted 150 based on various criteria. We looked at their academic scores, essays, extra-curricular activities and all that. Then the shortlisted candidates were brought to a nearby city in groups of 10 for an immersion test with real-life case, which was run by faculty.
Q. What about the real-life manner in which you test applicants?
A. Let’s say, you are in Delhi. One of the cases we took in Delhi was Chandni Chowk. We took students there. The area has got its history but it also is an urban development nightmare. So, we wanted these students, whether they are from science, commerce, accounts, or arts background, to be given a sense of Chandni Chowk by the faculty. Then when they go back, they answered questions based on the case, to help us watch how these students think, how can they write on the spot and so on. Then, since some students can do this better than others due to their exposure to such projects, we also conduct individual interviews. We also make them do some math problems on the spot because KREA has a very quantitative bent as well. So, all of this constitutes our 19 data points, and 12th grade is just one of them.
Q. One of the biggest challenges is that we don’t get quality faculty and they come at a price. How do you tackle this?
A. I am confident that we have managed to line up a very good faculty. We went through five rounds of selection. We have made about 27 hires by now and each faculty had to produce a very thick dossier, everything from their cover letter to their CV to samples of writing, their teaching experience to statement on teaching, statement of research, references, etc. Each of the dossiers was reviewed by a selection panel of 9 consisting of academic council and outside experts. Each of our faculty was unanimously selected or at best by 8 to 1 vote. About 75 percent of them have PhDs from abroad and 98 percent of them have foreign experience.
Q. What is KREA’s vision for its students?
A. Every student of KREA is going to get a really thorough education across all the disciplines. We have made that compulsory in the first year for everybody across 11 courses, where everything from literature to humanities to science to maths to computers and data and so on will be taught. After that, they can decide their niche. At the same time, I want them to be ready to face the world through any six or seven pathways they take -- further studies, civil service, corporate or banking, non-profit, entrepreneurship, etc. So, my job is not to position them for any one of this. My job is to prepare them for all six. My goal is to prepare you for any career you think you are ready for. As an educator I don’t believe we have to figure out what the student wants to become, it is also a function of economy. We are confident that the skills you have will make you suitable for any of the options we have provided.
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