Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Acharya Can Move Up By Attracting Talent and Updating Infrastructure

Bangalore based Acharya Institutes is today one of the largest integrated campuses in the city for professional education in various streams. The 120-acre 15-lakh sqft campus is home to 5650 students now. But there is still much distance to be covered by Acharya, for it to be ranked within, say, the Top-5 engineering colleges of Karnataka by CET ranking. Chairman B Premnath Reddy realises this formidable challenge, more than anyone else, but believes that a dual strategy of attracting talent and updating infrastructure will one day take Acharya to better academic heights. 

But he is not really taking aim at RV College, PES Institute, MS Ramiah Institute, BMS College, or Bangalore Institute of Technology. Instead, he is trying to build up Acharya to national stature. A college is only as good as the talent of its teachers and the modernity of its facilities, says this Founder. For attracting and retaining teaching talents, Acharya became the first college in Karnataka to implement the Sixth Pay Commission reccomendations, even ahead of Government-run colleges. The best recent example of Reddy’s focus on infrastructure is the International Academy for Competency Enhancement (IACE), a finishing school that industry takes seriously. 

But are Reddy’s strategies working out? The top-most CET ranks entering Acharya is steadily improving. Acharya has also had some success on the placements front with companies like Google, Ford, Infosys, Wipro, Accenture, and many others visiting the campus and taking Acharya graduates. Seasonal Magazine tries to find out what the future holds for Acharya by interviewing Chairman, B Premnath Reddy; Director - Admissions, Shalini Reddy; and Director , Dr. C. Vijaykumar:

Seasonal Magazine: Acharya Group has grown on all fronts during the past 5 years. How far has professionalizing the teaching and non-teaching staff, advanced growth at Acharya? 

Premnath Reddy: I will give you just a brief overview of this, and let Dr. C. Vijaykumar handle the specifics. What you say is correct, around five years back we took a conscious decision to thoroughly professionalize the entire organization, and one of the most visible changes came in the top rung with the induction of Dr. Vijaykumar himself. And yes, professionalizing the entire organization has definitely helped us attract higher growth and stature, by way of better students and better faculty. Over to Dr. Vijay now.
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Since Chairman did the overview, let me get into the specifics, the examples. The first thing that should be mentioned is that for our engineering college faculty, we recruit lecturers with a minimum qualification of MTech, with preference for higher qualifications like PhD. That also means there are no guest lecturers or faculty with just BTech or any  such arrangement. We have also set up an R&D Division to ensure that even those faculty with Masters qualifications are registered for PhD, so that within  the next five years we would like to have more faculty with PhD qualification. Coming to the non- teaching staff, all of them have basic or advanced qualifications, but more than that, we provide them with an excellent in-house training programs to equip them fully. And both teaching and non- teaching staff are taken outside regularly on professional trips, where we get outside trainers to impart various professional skills. Last but not least, let me highlight an important step our Chairman has undertaken to attract the best staff. Acharya was the first college in Karnataka to implement the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations.

Seasonal Magazine: That is quite surprising. You mean Acharya was the very first college to do this?
 
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Yes, absolutely. In fact our Chairman implemented this even before it was offered in Government colleges. He did it in last October.

Seasonal Magazine: Acharya Institutes have come a long way during the past 3-4 years, with companies like Infosys, Wipro, IBM, Ford, Google etc taking your students through campus placements. But if you look at the companies, it is more skewed towards IT, Auto, & Engineering sectors. How has been the progress in placements in the other sectors, as Acharya has a wide portfolio of arts and science programs? 

Premnath Reddy: No, this is not true now. It is already changing, and Vijay will update you on this.
Dr.C Vijaykumar: Well, the pattern you mention regarding IT & Auto was there, and that was due to two things - one, our engineering college is the largest one, and secondly, this was Bangalore, where IT held the sway. But as Chairman said, this is already changing. Financial sector has been active on the placement front. Since the last couple of years, we have been successfully placing our Pharmacy, BBM, & BCA students, and even many of our arts & science students. But in this latter section, yes, there is room for improvement. One
reason is that we are not very keen on encouraging BPO recruitments. It is a policy thing, about which Our Chairman Mr. Prem is very particular, and he will update you on this.
Premnath Reddy: Yes, we are not too keen on some typical BPOs, and that is the main reason why placement is not up to our desired level in some streams. I feel that students are really losing out when they join many BPOs. The pay might be good, but the avenues for moving up are very limited, and more than that, they wouldn't go for that life-changing professional or higher degree. I strongly believe that they are better off joining either conventional careers like banking or insurance, or going for meaningful higher studies.

Seasonal Magazine: Engineering education remains your key thrust area at Acharya. How do you see the Karnataka Government's recent ordinance on engineering admissions that force the consensual route?
 
Dr. C Vijaykumar: It is a non-issue really as far as Acharya is concerned, but let me ask Ms. Shalini who is the real expert over here to fill in the specifics.
Shalini Reddy: You see, in Karnataka, we have a proliferation of engineering colleges. The seats are basically divided between 45% based on CET, and 25%  based on COMED-K and 25%  is college's own admissions. Many of the newer colleges have trouble in attracting students, and  they  surrender those seats to the government quota. Acharya is unaffected with this development because our own quota, COMED-K as well as CET quota are full.

Seasonal Magazine: At 120 acres and 15 lakh sq ft, Acharya Institutes has become one of the largest integrated academic facilities in the country catering to students from Plus-2 to Research. But with a good percentage of your over 5500 students hailing from neighbouring states, why have you decided to stick on with Bangalore? 

Dr. C Vijaykumar: Well, long back maybe Our Chairman had this idea to spread out, but now the statistics have changed. Acharya is no longer catering to just the neighbouring states. We have sizeable number of students from almost every state and centrally administered areas. So, the fact is that Acharya @ Bangalore has clicked big time. In one way, you can say that Acharya's growth has been perfectly synchronous with Bangalore's growth as an educational and career destination. Now, when students from across India want to come to Bangalore to study, it doesn't make much sense to branch out.

Seasonal Magazine: Overseas students have always been a niche strength of yours. How do you feel about India's policies towards foreign students? Where all can things be improved to attract more foreign students?  

Premnath Reddy: In fact, I wanted to discuss the aspect of overseas students in the last question itself. Overseas students are also one of the reasons why we have concentrated on Bangalore. This city has tremendous mindshare among not only NRIs, but parents and students of foreign origin. Over to Dr. Vijay for the details.
Dr. C Vijaykumar: I think we at Acharya are very much qualified to speak about this aspect you raised. Because, Acharya is now home to over 450 students from nearly 30 countries. Two improvements that are possible by the Government come readily to my mind. Number one, the student visa process has much room for simplification, and speeding up. Secondly, there is absolutely no quality criteria now regarding the institutes admitting overseas students. This should change immediately because, if it doesn't, sooner or later, it is going to backfire on “Brand India” as an Educational destination. We are not calling for any complex quality standards that only a few institutions will pass. There should be at least some criteria regarding an institution's track-record, quality of infrastructure, experience of faculty etc.
Shalini Reddy: Maybe Dr. Vijay should also speak about his personal qualification, or should I say, personal experience in this line, of servicing foreign students.
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Well, if it helps the discussion, definitely. I was earlier with EdCIL India Ltd., which as you might know, is a public sector undertaking under MHRD providing educational consultancy services. Working there, I had pioneered India's first educational exhibition abroad, in which I took a group of 30 select institutions to participate in road shows across 5 countries. We started off with Middle East, targeting NRIs, but later took the show to Africa. I repeated the exercise two more times in the years that followed, taking a larger contingent of Indian colleges, across Africa, South Asia, South East Asia  etc. I was inspired by the way UK was promoting their educational institutions in India and across the world, through such road-shows. Today, private organizers are conducting too many road-shows of Indian institutions abroad, but unfortunately, there is absolutely no quality criteria being followed in selecting the institutes.

Seasonal Magazine: You had started a polytechnic at Tanzania a few years back. How has been the performance, and do you intend to take the Acharya brand to more countries?
 
Premnath Reddy: Yes, definitely, at least two more countries in South and South East Asia are in our immediate horizon. But your question is interesting in more ways than one. Will you fill it up for me, Vijay?
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Well, it is quite interesting for me too, on a personal level. I was instrumental in acquainting Acharya with the African market, especially Tanzania. Later, over here, I worked closely with our Chairman in fulfilling his ambition to start a high-quality institution in Tanzania. It is a very successful polytechnic and we have an intake of around 150 students across three engineering streams there. It is doing quite well, and the opportunity over there is huge, as Indian education is highly regarded there. The reason why our Chairman is now bullish to spread our wings to more countries is something more. We are already predicting that post WTO/GATT, India is going to open her doors fully to international universities and you are going to see a flooding of foreign institutions here. To be competitive in this regime, we too have to spread our wings to more countries and make the best use of the opportunities that will emerge due to this new international trade treaty. Our first stop will be in a South or South East Asian country where we may go in for a large-scale tie-up.

Seasonal Magazine: How do you view the recent row over Minister Jairam Ramesh's statement that IIT/IIM's brilliance is more due to meritorious students than meritorious faculty? Do you think private institutions like Acharya can one day equal the quality offered by IIT/IIMs?
 
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Well, what I am going to say is not Acharya's official say on this. Take this as my personal opinion. Shall I proceed,?
Premnath Reddy: By all means, say what you feel like.
Dr. C Vijaykumar: I think there is much truth in what Mr. Jairam Ramesh has said. Once upon a time the strength of the faculty was everything, I admit. It facilitated better infrastructure and reputation. But nowadays, what drives IITs/IIMs really is the collective brilliance of its students. They are the cream of cream and they discuss and collaborate on a continuous basis. If you take the average faculty over there, they are more interested in extracurricular things, consultancies, research, private pursuits and what not. It is a far cry from what an average faculty at say our university, the VTU, has to undergo. Here the competition is intense and a teacher has to prove his brilliance, he has to assure quality in the graduates, in order to come up. That is why we have voluntarily and unilaterally implemented a unique quality assurance framework, where a three-member team of quality advisors oversee each and every step of the teaching-learning process. Coming back to your question, we are improving by leaps and bounds, year after year, in the average entrance rank of our students.

Seasonal Magazine: Can you give a broad outline of the industry-academicia interactions at Acharya? How far have these initiatives been helping in grooming up more employable graduates and post graduates?
 
Dr. C Vijaykumar: Since the last 2 years, we have made tremendous progress on this front. We have an IBM Excellence Centre over here. A Teacher Improvement program is under taken by Infosys. Novell is doing another program here. And the most interesting project is our  the International Academy for Competency Enhancement (IACE). This is the brain-child of our Chairman, and I request him to fill up the details here.
Premnath Reddy: Well, the objective of IACE was how to enhance employability of our graduates. We decided that we won't leave any stone unturned to achieve that objective. No amount of investment would deter us. The project has to be novel and groundbreaking in its effectiveness. We finally set it up successfully. The real innovation over here is not the beautiful infrastructure, not even the guest lectures by industry stalwarts, but the fact that the employability training starts as early as the 3rd Semester or Second Year itself. We start grooming our students for employability early itself, and we make sure that we continue with that process throughout the course, in a concurrent fashion, and the results have been quite telling.

Seasonal Magazine: What all constitute your main CSR activities? Can you briefly touch upon the contributions of management, staff, & students in CSR?
 
Premnath Reddy: Shalini here would be the best person to answer that. It is her passion which is driving much of our CSR.
Shalini Reddy: Let me say about both our core CSR activities, and the related field of how ecologically holistic our approaches are. Our main CSR work is about adopting neighbouring villages, and our nursing college has been instrumental in providing healthcare for needy women in our surrounding villages. Prem has got another ambitious CSR project in his mind, which we will be implementing shortly, and that has got to do with our Fashion Technology students teaching needy women about modern dressmaking aspects and we are creating an NGO to organize the whole thing and maybe even to market the apparels to create a sustainable livelihood for them. Our students are also involved in educating villagers about the need to vote and thus mark their voice in the democratic process. Coming to our eco-friendly features, we do water-recycling, we do organic farming for our own mess needs etc.

Seasonal Magazine: Three of you appear to be a great team in guiding Acharya to great success. Can each of you comment on others' strengths?
 
Premnath Reddy: Well, it is not just we three. We have a very broad and effective line of professional leaders. But coming to Dr. Vijay over here, he has a unique experience behind him. He did his post-graduation in applied psychology,  did his doctoral thesis on entrepreneurship with a CSIR scholarship, and has worked as a senior scientist in a national level Textile Research Association and later with EdCIL India Ltd., before joining with us. Together with all that he has the initiative to try new things, which is how we came to know each other for the first time.
Dr. C Vijaykumar: I think the Acharya Family is blessed with a visionary Founder & Chairman. While taking the difficult decision of leaving a cosy PSU job and opting for the private sector, this inspired and reassured me a lot. Unlike many other entrepreneurs in this sector, education is not just another business for him. He does only education, and it is his life. Our Chairman is not from a business family, and soon after his college, he had made up his mind to focus on education. His dream was to build a leading institution, and his dream keeps on expanding, and now it is to build a world-class group of institutions. He is also a great leader when it comes to staff welfare or remuneration, and staff is kind of assured that their Chairman is forever building a bigger and bigger opportunity for all of them. Coming to Ms. Shalini, I would say Mr Prem and Ms. Shalini  are the perfect couple. She understands Prem's dream more than anyone else, and would support him to any extend. This is remarkable on her part. I would say Ms. Shalini's dedicated hard work and attention to detail are the secret weapons in Acharya's arsenal.

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