Even as he embarks on his new turnaround venture, Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean of ISB, Hyderabad, is trying to make Ashoka University, which he helped found, among the best liberal arts colleges in the world. The university's undergraduate programme has 133 students, many of whom would have otherwise left for studies overseas. Whether it makes a mark for education quality is anybody's guess, but Sinha spoke to Business Standard about where the university had reached in its attempt. Edited excerpts: I know three or four students who got into Ashoka University this year but eventually chose Delhi University or went abroad... We received almost 1,000 applications. Our yield - number of offers versus number of acceptances - was 50 per cent, we made around 250 offers. Interestingly, we just happened to be in discussions with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and they mentioned their yield was 40 per cent for undergraduate courses. Four in 10 students accept their offer to join. The point is every student applies to multiple places. But I think the people who didn't come are the ones who were worried about this being the first year. I think our yield will go up significantly next year. I think we will get a yield like ISB (80-90 per cent) because you don't have a choice. Students who will now apply to Ashoka University - after seeing its first year - will be those who really want to be here. Also, remember they are leaving us to go to Stephen's, Miranda, LSR - fairly high-quality alternatives, so we are already placed in that bracket. We have students from 80-odd schools and 40 cities. A very diverse mix. Almost 60 per cent are on some kind of scholarship, 10 per cent on complete scholarship.
The median SAT is 2050. Our median Class 12 grade is 91 per cent but the good news is that students are assessed on an all-round basis. We don't have absolute cut-offs. We had a capacity to handle 350 students but we held the class at 133 as we didn't want to dilute quality. How will you build an institution with just temporary and visiting professors ? We have 15 permanent faculty for the first year. We plan to build a 4,000-student university over the next eight years. This means roughly 200 full-time faculty for at least one semester. Once we get going, scaling up is not an issue as there is a dearth of institutions in India and the demand for high-quality undergraduate programmes far outstrips supply. Finding faculty of the quality we need is an issue. But it's not insurmountable. Remember, in engineering and medicine and so on there is huge competition. But nobody is really going after liberal arts faculty. Maybe a Shiv Nadar University or a Jindal University. What are the similarities or differences between Shiv Nadar University and Ashoka University? They (Shiv Nadar University) have, I think, around 100 students in liberal arts in the last two years. But what is the big difference is that we are clear we are not doing engineering or law because these distract and the intake gets skewed in those directions. Shiv Nadar University and others are doing liberal arts among other stuff. I don't want to make a value judgement but I can say this: students who came to us were not looking at these other options. Disclaimer: This interview was modified to correct an earlier version.