‘Skilling students for GenX jobs is crucial’
Dr H Vinod Bhat, Vice-Chancellor of Manipal University has been leading a silent revolution in propelling research in private universities, implementing ways to plug the growing gap between education and careers and collaborating with knowledge centres across the spectrum to incentivize teaching. MEENAKSHI RAO caught up with him to discuss issues around the higher education system on the sidelines of the university’s convocation ceremony. Excerpts
How focussed is higher education on the job market? Why this growing disconnect between education and careers?
The year 2004-5 was when the McKinsey report came, saying that only 25 per cent of Indian graduates are employable. That was the first shock to the Indian education system. The main problem at that time was lack of job skills. We were good in programming, coding etc but were found lacking in team work, management jobs and skills. Immediately, the institutions and industry took corrective steps by strengthening and reinforcing curriculum. Industries started campus connect programmes.
The immediate concern, of course, is jobs being lost or jobs not being created. But the bigger worry is the kind of skills expected in the next generation jobs. And, we are not ready. The jobs that are now being talked about are data analytics, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning etc. A lot of universities don’t have these courses. We anticipated this and started these courses. We have electives for our undergraduate students and have even started masters in some of these courses. We have masters in big data science, in cloud computing. We have identified technology jobs and given the right kind of mix to students. So, to an extent, we have insulated the gap between learning and careers.
We need to have the right training leading to jobs, design and creativity in product designs in engineering. That’s what we need to do. We work with Srishti School of Design, Bangalore. We need to look at how we can involve more such schools for starting design programmes.
What is the biggest challenge in education as far as private universities are concerned?
For an institute like Manipal, we have no problem. But I can’t say it is the same for every institute. You got to have professional development, find means of sending teachers back to industries every summer, just like students.
Why does India have such a small pool of teachers?
One is entry level, someone who is just out of college. Our own students join the faculty and sometimes teach for one or two years before they make up their minds about their future. To me, this is a tragedy. Our best students are satisfied with one university degree and at age 21 go and join a company — they are lost to education forever. They are not pursuing their masters, not doing research and ceasing to be students. All they want is a good job. A good job means a well-paid job. Now, the ones who don’t get a job turn to teaching as a profession.
In the medical post-graduation, for example, a part of the assessment is how well you teach. Pedagogy is an assessment in medical school and not anywhere else. So, by inclination, medical students come back into teaching. In engineering, it is different. There is no mechanism of introducing them to the pleasure of teaching.
Retaining a good faculty is a challenge. Is it all about money?
Money is one aspect. If you look at a typical teacher’s mindset, what does he want? It is not always money. He wants a good place to work, he wants a caring employer, he wants a quality of life which is near-ideal, he wants certain protection against the fear of loss of job, he wants assurances about healthcare and his children’s education. Some of our best teachers are the ones who have stayed for 30 and 40 years.
Why do universities restrict themselves to teaching and producing graduates?
That is one of the least important for a university. For me, one of the most important things is research and the impact it can have on society. But, everybody can’t be a great research scholar nor can everybody be a great teacher. We have created a directorate of research, with a director for health sciences and a director for technical education. These take care of the research by creating awareness across the university on how to make use of researchers.
We have invested in research equipment, laboratories, people, data-based work and tools for analysis. We have incentivized research, depending on the impact factor and publication.
But years go into research...
It is a passion, not a problem. A good researcher is always the one who asks a good question and not the one who is looking for an answer. It is not always that positive research contributes to science. Even negative results do. So do copycat results. It is not necessary that it has to be cutting-edge research. Research that can contribute anything to the body of science is good enough.
Then why are there such few research papers?
In the last year, a dozen major publications have gone from the university. This is a small number but, we are improving. A decade back, we did not have a single paper, today we have 10 in a year. We want to grow that to international standards in terms of publications per faculty.
How difficult is it to get Government funding for research?
Funding is important. For private universities, there is a dual disadvantage. One is the scepticism that exists in people who decide on funding. That research is done only in public sector laboratories is a perception we have fought for the last 10 years and it is only now that it has become a level playing field. So much so that the chief of ICMR Dr Katoch gambled for the first time in funding a private institution and gave a small amount to Manipal University for setting up a virology centre. They set up 14 labs in the country, of them only one in the private sector.
We co-invested with that funding. One-and-a-half years later when he reviewed the centres, he asked the 13 others to visit Manipal. ‘They have done four times with one-fourth of the money that I have given you’, he told them. That was high praise, but more than that, an acknowledgement that private sector too can contribute significantly.
Why does India’s higher education lag so far behind countries like Canada and Finland?
Sadly, our interest in higher education has been a disjointed effort. There were always very good research labs in the country but doing very little teaching. You have great institutes in the country like IITs and NITs doing well in research. In India, there’s always been a disconnect between teaching and research. Outside, higher education is all the time connected to research. Take Canada. They have the University of Waterloo which is not as famous as, say, a University of British Columbia or Ottawa. Waterloo is much smaller too, but they produced a product, the BlackBerry, which became world famous. BlackBerry came out of a company which was incubated in the university by the research of engineering students in a company called Research in Motion (RIM). So you have research as foundation.
Students from India go for masters in technology and business administration to universities in America. Very rarely will you find students going for undergraduate engineering. This tells us that the focus on research, equipment and people needs a regulation which is conducive for research.
Today, the regulator in the country for higher education focuses on how many hours to be taught, how to teach. You don’t have a flexible approach to higher education. Mostly higher education is everyday assessment, it is not the end of term examination. I evaluate a student not merely on what he can do in examinations, but also on how sincere he is, how he has approached a problem, how he has written his thesis. Private universities have a problem because they don’t have enough money. Government universities have the equipment but don’t have the people to man it. So you do have this disjointed approach – great universities with little research but great teaching, great laboratories with good research but no teaching. When you bring them together, you will find a solution.
The University of Hyderabad, for example, has set up a biotechnology with Reddy’s lab which is the right thing to do. Get the
R&D people they will fund some and get state-of-the-art government labs connected to an existing university.
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