A conversation with Hitesh Oberoi, Co-Promoter, MD and CEO, Info Edge Ltd, and Founder and Trustee of Plaksha University, on the need for a different sort of tech university. Excerpts from an interview.
What was the gap you spotted?
We have over 1,000 universities, we have 40,000 colleges, we have maybe 5,000 engineering colleges. At the same time, what is happening is that more and more students are going overseas. Earlier it was more at a master’s level, but now at the undergrad level itself, the number of students going abroad is mind boggling. Many of our best students today end up in Harvard, Stanford, MIT and once they go there, only a handful of them come back.
At the same time, I am in the jobs business (Naukri.com) and know the opportunities in India are growing. Fast forward 10 years from now, India will be even more attractive as a country to be in. In fact, what we’ve seen in the job market is that whenever India starts growing at 6 per cent per annum, we are out of talent. And partly why India will not able to grow at 6 per cent or more for a long time is we don’t have good talent. It’s a chicken and egg situation. In many ways the government is focused, and rightly so in my view, on providing higher education at affordable prices in India, keeping in mind, inclusion, social equity.
These are all good goals. But at the same time, building high quality research institutions is an imperative and it is not easy. It can cost maybe half a billion dollars or even more to build a high quality research institution. Many things have to fall in place for this to work out. This is where Plaksha comes in. The foundation behind Plaksha is actually called reimagining higher education.
How are you re-imagining it?
We believe that everything around higher education needs to be re-imagined, right from the admission process, which needs to become more holistic, to the pedagogy, to the curriculum. Plaksha believes in interdisciplinary education, multidisciplinary education, more holistic development.
If India has to move from being a services economy to an innovation economy, we need to teach kids how to think. They need to become more creative. They need to be able to address gaps and spot opportunities. They need to be able to build products, not just write code. They need to be able to commercialise their ventures, take them to market. So these are all things which they need to be taught.
So rather than sort of just giving them narrow technical education, which is what a lot of our engineering colleges today do, we believe in a more holistic sort of approach. So more liberal arts in the curriculum, more interdisciplinary curriculum, more hands on and experiential learning which requires investments to be made in building the right labs and other things on campus. Indian education has at large been focused on theoretical sort of learning. So when people enter industry, they’re not really prepared to get straight to work. They have to be retrained and re-skilled often.
What you are trying to do is great, but often the parent will weigh a university based on fees. And the government colleges are heavily subsidised so they are able to offer cheaper education. How do you compete against that?
I don’t see any reason why both can’t coexist. In the US also you have private universities and even public colleges, right. I don’t see why the same cannot happen in India. And I think the right model is the collective philanthropy model to enable that. Because these funds are required to get the institution to a certain size and scale. Once you have the right model, the fee and the other programmes offered at the university can help pay for and make the operating model sustainable. But you will still need money for some more time for CapEx and for growth and for research because if you want to build a world class education institution, it requires investments for 10-15 years.
Over time people will see the benefit and the rest will follow. But even if the fees seem higher, we also give a lot of need based financial aid. So if you get in on merit and if you can afford to pay full fee, we charge you full fees. But if you can’t afford to pay full fees, there are generous scholarships available. So about a third of our class is full fee today. About a third of our class actually pays no fee, zero fees. And another 3rd of class, is somewhere in the middle, they get between 25 per cent to 75 per cent financial aid. This model we think can be made viable and sustainable over time to fund the operation.
When you look at how students choose universities, one of the criteria seems to be ranking. Are you thinking about that and is it a challenge?
So when ISB was set up in India, people said the same thing. It took ten years for ISB to make a name. But it is an institute that students aspire to now. A lot of outreach and brand building is required in the initial years. And this is where the founders and faculty of Plaksha come in. We set up a young technology scholars programme almost five years ago. And we got two faculty members from the US, one from Northeastern and one from Harvard to teach that programme and they were aided by research assistants from Dell, IIT and other places. Today that programme is a very popular. It’s a two week summer program, fully residential which we’ve been running. Last year we had 200 students.
Now we don’t have the capacity to meet the applications for that programme. It’s very differentiated. We have also get been getting our faculty to engage with schools and counselors and and principals to get a message across to them, to help them understand how we are different from other institutions in India.
We are conscious of the fact that it’s going to take us at least 10 years to get somewhere and we are not in a hurry. We are focused on delivering a great product. In the end, great products win. Of course, marketing can amplify and accelerate. But unless and until you deliver a great experience inside the classroom and to the faculty, you have no hope. And that is what we are investing in substantially.
Why did you choose Mohali?
That is an easy one. A lot of the first set of Plaksha founders were based in Delhi. The state government of Punjab was very supportive. They realised that we had very different aspirations and we were not your standard, engineering college. We wanted to do something, build something world class out of India. Also having seen Ashoka University come up in Haryana, the feeling was let’s get something in Punjab as well. That helped too. The state government has been very supportive. The central government too has been very supportive. We are affiliated to the UGC. Also while researching locations, we chose Mohali as from the faculty standpoint, it makes a huge difference.
The faculty members are academically inclined and want their own sort of space. At the same time, they don’t want to be in a place where there are no opportunities, and is too far-flung, or where there are no good schools for their children. Also Mohali is today becoming a good education hub with institutes like ISB, and IISER.