Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Can the experiential learning of Masters' Union be the Indian MBA alternative?

A new-age university gets students to build startups in class. Without a syllabus and textbooks, can experiential learning be the Indian MBA alternative?

Mansvini Kaushik
Published: May 11, 2023 03:41:22 PM IST
Updated: May 17, 2023 06:00:37 PM IST

Can the experiential learning of Masters' Union be the Indian MBA alternative?To attract students for its first batch, MU targeted individuals who wanted an international educational experience and scouted those taking the GMAT. Image: Madhu Kapparath

When one thinks of pursuing an MBA at an Indian institution, it's common to imagine a rigorous admission process, a demanding curriculum with strict project deadlines, and a high likelihood of securing a lucrative job post graduation. However, despite the reputation of India’s legacy colleges like the IIMs, India still falls behind in global college rankings.

QS World University Rankings for Business School has only two Indian universities—IIM-Ahmedabad at rank 51 and IIM-Bangalore at 61. Despite the growing demand and competitiveness of business courses in India, what are Indian colleges lacking? "Our legacy universities want to maintain just that—legacy. They do not alter the syllabus to keep up with the times because they have achieved their position and are not willing to look beyond their horizon," says Pratham Mittal, a 32-year-old entrepreneur, who after completing his schooling at Doon School in India, went to the University of Pennsylvania for his bachelor’s in systems engineering and political science followed by a degree in international relations at the London School of Economics.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Mittal was amazed at how some of the professors conducted their classes. “Professors at universities abroad have greater autonomy on how they conduct their classes. There were some subjects where teachers didn’t follow any textbook, but gave us practical projects and asked us to build startups. It was in these classes that we learnt the most and that has stayed with us even now,” Mittal reminisces.
Outgrow, an interactive content marketing platform, emerged from one of these classes. Mittal and his classmate Randy Rayess developed a platform to assist businesses in creating and managing software products. What began as a college project became a full-fledged startup.

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After living close to 10 years in the US building Outgrow with Rayess, Mittal stepped down from the startup and returned to India in 2019. He then started exploring the idea of creating a university that provides a complete hands-on experiential learning environment by investing the money he made at Outgrow. His vision was to establish an institution that would rival the best universities in the world. Instead of relying on textbook knowledge, the courses would focus on building startups, allowing students to learn what works in the business world.
This led him to establish the Masters' Union School of Business (MU), a university that prioritises hands-on experiential learning as a teaching method. The degree offered is master's in technology and business management as an alternative to MBA. “The course is tech-focussed, as that is the need of the hour. Every business that is being built or will be in the future will revolve around technology… to survive in the ever-evolving tech-first world,” he says.
S Pasupathi, chief operating officer, HirePro, a recruitment automation and assessment solutions provider that specialised in campus recruitment services, agrees. “There is a lot of demand for tech expertise, data and machine learning capabilities, and user experience skills across all industries since an exceeding number of businesses are building a digital front,” he says.

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The course has no strict syllabi, prescribed textbooks or written exams. Instead, students are given topics to research independently, build startups as part of their evaluation, and are graded based on the profit they earn from the product or service they create.

Can the experiential learning of Masters' Union be the Indian MBA alternative?Pratham Mittal, founder, Masters' Union School of Business (MU). Image: Madhu Kapparath

Mittal has invested Rs19 crore so far towards MU's rented campus, marketing efforts, and salaries of its 200 employees. Three years into operations, the institute's first cohort had 65 students, the second 60, and the third 164. Forty-four students are running startups that were built in the classroom. Three startups out of the first cohort have also raised angel investments.
This year, the batch size will be 240 students who will be chosen from over 2,500 applications. The institute is also launching an undergraduate programme in technology and business management with a batch size of 250 students.

Eye on the prize

From the get-go, MU has pitted itself against the top management institutes in the country. The institute’s placement report for the three years was audited by Brickworks Analytics—the same firm that audits IIM-Ahmedabad’s placement report. MU claims the average domestic CTC of the 2022 cohort is Rs33 lakh, the same as the mean domestic CTC of students of IIM-Ahmedabad’s flagship programme. For the batch of 2021, it had Rs29 lakh as the median package. However, MU only shares the highlights of the audit as part of its placement report, unlike IIM-Ahmedabad which shares the complete report on its website. With the highest package at Rs64 lakh, the batch witnessed a 4.1x salary jump from pre-MBA levels.

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Mittal aims to become the 10th best business school in the world by 2028, and have AASCB and EQUIS accreditations, which are global accreditations that these universities follow instead of seeking AICTE or UGC approval. Mittal explains why he is confident about the institute ranking among the best in the world by then. “Pay and placements are the biggest criteria for evaluating an institute for its QS ranking… we’re already placing students with as great packages as IIMs. Diversity is another important consideration… we have 85 percent women on board as faculty and 40 percent of our batch comprises women. The student base should have at least 5 percent international students… we meet the criterion with students from Nepal,” he says.
The institute has a unique approach to teaching—each subject is taught by both an in-house professor and an industry expert. The in-house faculty teaches the basics, while the expert provides practical knowledge about what works in the industry. This approach is the backbone of the course, and the faculty consists of more than 210 members. “None of our faculty is allowed to read out of the book or through slides, but rather get students to work on practical implacable projects,” he says.
With former SoftBank India head Manoj Kohli as chairperson, the institute has close to 210 MDs, CEOs and founders as part of the faculty. These include Rajat Mathur, MD Morgan Stanley, Naveen Mumjal, MD, Hero Electric Vehicles, Dr Narendra Jadhav, MP, Rajya Sabha & chief economist, RBI, and Ghazal Alagh, co-founder, Mamaearth, among others.

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Mittal wanted the university to follow the same model as medical colleges. “In medical colleges, the faculty members come down from the hospital to teach a subject. The students and the teachers are on the same campus… why can’t it be the same for MBA colleges?” he asks. That’s why he rented two floors at DLF Cyber Park in Gurugram, the IT Hub of Delhi-NCR. The building houses the headquarters of American Express Banking Corporation, Toshiba, BMW India, and Mitsubishi Electric India, among others. Mittal says most of the faculty just comes down from their offices to the campus to teach, giving students the experience of life outside a college while being in one.
This idea of following a medical college education pattern is what excited Atul Mehta, senior vice president of Razorpay, the most to be MU’s faculty member. “When Pratham first came to me to propose the idea of Masters’ Union, he spoke so passionately about how he wants to build a hands-on experiential university. I realised how India lacks such universities,” he says. Razorpay has been one of the biggest recruiters for MU in the last three years. Mittal says as the faculty members are industry veterans, they get to know the students first-hand while teaching. This helps students to get placed at these companies. “A lot of people who come to teach end up hiring these students,” he says.  
To attract students for its first batch, MU targeted individuals who wanted an international educational experience and scouted those taking the GMAT. They evaluated the database of students who had scored above 600 in their GMATs—data for which is available online—shortlisted a hundred who showed interest, and offered scholarships to the 65 who became part of MU's first cohort.

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The way IIMs approach education needs to evolve, believes Samar Dutta, a retired IIM-Ahmedabad professor. “There are set syllabuses, and ways of teaching and evaluation. But there are a lot of issues not being taught at IIMs,” he says. Dutta says he had proposed revamping the syllabus multiple times to make it more accommodating to real-world business problems. “Masters’ Union can really be a success provided it doesn’t lose sight of the basics for each subject. With the model that it follows, it can create more entrepreneurs than managers,” he says.
Pasupathi is, however, wary of MU being a competitor to IIM placements. “While students from experiential institutions like Masters’ Union may be able to learn and adapt quickly, these institutions may only be able to fill the talent gap to some extent since most firms still rely on the tried-and-tested conventional educational model and evaluate candidates for long-term associations through that,” he says.

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Neeti Sethi, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Chitkara University, says experiential learning is essential for students today. “Work-integrated learning is a very popular model that has worked well in other countries. I think MU’s model may be more relevant for the new-age student with employment as their goal. Not only does it provide the students with the necessary experience, but it also gives them appropriate guidance to improve their academic and social skills, and learn from and for life,” she says.

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