‘World class’ in Sonipat: How privileged private universities are settling down in rural Haryana
It started in the mid-2000s when the state government acquired over 2,000 acres of agricultural land for a 'hub for higher learning and a centre for research’. The academic block of OP Jindal Global University, with its façade of steel trusses and glass walls, has the air of a building conjured upon the landscape rather than built incrementally. Ashoka University, not far from it, is less jarringly incongruous to the eye despite its hostels soaring ten-storeys. But culturally, it too is light years from its context – the rural part of Haryana’s Sonipat district, 10 km from Delhi’s northern border. Everyday, shuttle services run on the National Highway 1 and bring visitors, teachers and students to what is fast becoming a much sought-after centre of higher education. The area’s most distinguished institutions are aiming for a spot on the global higher education stage. They may be set amidst fields and villages but their faculty members come from across the world, their students from many states and their courses with a hefty price tag. OP Jindal Global University, the oldest among them, is turning 10 next year. Ashoka University is just four years old. The two other private institutions in the area are of a similar or even more recent vintage.
Over the short period of time, they have done reasonably well on university rankings and ratings, and gained a large measure of influence. Jindal Global, for instance, was part of the team that drafted Haryana’s higher education policy in 2016 and in March, it was one of just 60 institutions to be granted a degree of autonomy from the higher education regulator, University Grants Commission. India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee visited the campus in 2017 and residents of the surrounding areas who were earlier indifferent began associating the university with prestige and power, said the vice chancellor, C Raj Kumar. Three Nobel laureates have visited Ashoka University – Kailash Satyarthi, Muhammad Yunus and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. It has also hosted authors, actors, activists and members of parties from across the political spectrum. But these universities have also seen their share of controversies – sexual harassment, drug abuse, sudden departures of staff, student unrest. In addition to this, teachers as well as some students are concerned about the lack of diversity in the classrooms.