Monday, May 5, 2014

Assam Don Bosco University - Can it Survive North East’s Unique Challenges?

Fr. (Dr.) Stephen Mavely, Vice Chancellor & President, Assam Don Bosco University
Assam Don Bosco University will have its BTech entrance exam on May 10th and the last date for applying for the Don Bosco University Graduate Entrance Test (DBU-GET) is May 8th, which is less than 72 hours from now. However, those students who can’t make it within this time need not be disheartened. The Azara headquartered Assam Don Bosco University (ADBU) offers two more chances at this entrance on June 14th and July 5th, and the last dates for application are two days prior of the exam dates, respectively. Though ADBU has almost all core departments and in-demand courses, its flagship is the undergraduate engineering program with almost half of the on-campus students pursuing their BTech. ADBU is also unique in that its off-campus or distance learning division - Don Bosco Global - is larger in student strength than its on-campus wing. ADBU is promoted by Salesians, started by St. Don Bosco, and which is today the second-largest men’s Catholic congregation in the world. Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) is arguably one of the most experienced higher education promoters in the world, running 15 universities worldwide. Assam Don Bosco University is their 16th global university and the first in the English-speaking world. Though ADBU is a private self-financing university, its challenges are much more than a typical such university, due to the unique geography in which it is situated - India’s North East. Seasonal Magazine interviews Fr. (Dr.) Stephen Mavely, SDB, Vice Chancellor & President, Assam Don Bosco University, to understand how they have been coping with these challenges.

If you are a historian, the setting is one of India’s most backward regions. But if you are a futurist, this is one of the most promising regions for sheer growth prospects in the coming years.

The Japanese seems to be futurists. Otherwise why would Shinzo Abe want to invest massively here, rather than anywhere else in the country?

Abe must have heard from his grandpa or papa about how hospitable where the people here when the Japanese ‘invaded’ British India together with Netaji‘s INA.

It was almost like an expedition as the people here knew that Netaji was here to liberate them from the British. It was unfortunate that Netaji failed.

But an expedition of another kind preceded the Japanese by more than 20 years. The missionary expedition led by Fr. Louis Mathias, who set out from Turin in 1921 and landed here in 1922.

Fr. Mathias belonged to a Catholic Congregation that was then 77 years old and growing fast worldwide - not through religious conversions - but through their self-sacrificing work among the poor youth of different nations. Just like its Founder - one of the most venerated Catholic Saints - taught them to do. St. Don Bosco’s contributions to modern Western education is second to none.

But today -  92 more years later - we find this Congregation beyond any projections that would have been there when Fr. Mathias landed for the first time. They are now the second-largest men’s Catholic Congregation in the world, and the very largest, if you count their nuns’ wing too.

They run 15 Universities worldwide, but none in the English speaking world. For their 16th University and the first in the English world, they chose a place close to Fr. Mathias’ heart.

When he landed, the Seven Sisters were not yet born. Everything was Assam.

Fr. Mathias SDB (Salesians of Don Bosco) had landed at Shillong, its then capital. And ever since then, Salesians of North East have grown with the Seven Sisters as they emerged one by one - Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram - and even when the eighth and youngest sister, Sikkim arrived.

Today, it is doubtful whether any other NGO or social organization knows more about the problems and potential of India’s North East than the Salesians.

That is how they finally decided to set up a Salesian University for the North East. Today, that dream stands fulfilled in the form of Assam Don Bosco University (ADBU) having three campuses at Azara, Kharguli, and the picturesque 500-acres campus on the undulating hills, the Tapesia Gardens.

Still, doubtful about North East’s prospects? Wait till you read about how pivotal is North East to India’s strategic ‘Look East Policy’ that was started in 1991.

Can you dream about a highway that will enable road travel from Europe to Japan? It is called the Asian Highway I project, that has been proposed at a cost of 18 billion dollars.

The first phase of this is a highway linking India, Myanmar, & Thailand due for completion in 2016! Needless to say, this goes through India’s North East.

Want to know who is backing India in this effort? None other than US and Japan - as part of a tripartite arrangement - both of them wanting to break the stranglehold of the Chinese in these regions.

The future prospects of North East being such, Seasonal Magazine spoke to an educationalist who has made North East his home and playground for the last 40 years, Fr. (Dr.) Stephen Mavely, who has been spearheading Assam’s first private university.

Fr. Stephen’s interests include psychology, communication, literature, media, management etc apart from  theology and pastoral work. He is qualified and experienced in teaching four to five subjects at college level.

While he was Principal of St. Anthony’s College, Shillong, the institution was awarded the highest Five Star status by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India (NAAC). It was also the first accreditation by NAAC in North East.

Later while Fr. Stephen was working as Principal of Don Bosco College, Guwahati, this idea of a Salesian University for North East came up, and he was entrusted with leading it. This role has been challenging as it involved formulating strategies, scouting for resources, working with a close-knit team and addressing their needs, and forging ahead with passion.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Fr. (Dr.) Stephen Mavely, Vice Chancellor & President, Assam Don Bosco University:

You have been with ADBU right from the conceptualization stage in 2006. Are you satisfied with the progress the university has made from 2008 to 2014?

Yes, that is true, I have been with Assam Don Bosco University from the time the idea was born.  Progress? I would say that I am satisfied with the progress so far - a variety of courses, a vibrant thrust on research, an abundance of extension activities, aound 2000 students on campus and another 6000 pursuing our online courses. But the growth could have been quicker, especially in recent years, if we could have obtained the sanction for the new campus earlier. That took some time, and threw a spanner into our plans; but now since we have the necessary permissions, you will see us going forward much more rapidly.

‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ has been a Salesian guiding principle in establishing educational institutions. How far is it reflected in ADBU?

Yes, it has always been a Salesian guiding principle, and I would say that ADBU reflects it in its own characteristic way. Don Bosco University is not a commercial venture – profit is not our motive. Usually what happens in the private university model is that eventually all costs are borne by the students – capital costs, maintenance and running costs, planned expansions. But in our case, our capital costs are largely met by the Salesian fraternity, both in the state, from across India, and abroad. The approval, the backing and the blessings of this international religious order has, no doubt, made the task of finding resources for getting the infrastructure in place easier. Because of this, we are able to keep the fees at affordable rates, mainly for meeting the running and maintenance costs. This is what is helping us to make higher education accessible, affordable to students from every nook and corner of the country.

What is the intended outcome of your involvement in university education?

The Salesian objective in higher education, which is followed fully at Assam Don Bosco University,  is to make all our graduates dependable human beings who, while engaged in fashioning a future for themselves, are alive to and responsive to the society around them, helping thereby to impact and transform the lives they touch. Two other principles undergird the choice of courses that we introduce in the university: (a) the employability of our graduates in a knowledge based economy and a globalized world, and, (b) the formation of our graduates to become life-long learners capable of adapting to the changing demands of the world of work. In the highly competitive world of today, it is talent and adaptability that matter, not one's background.

Being a university focused on the North East, how different is ADBU from a private university elsewhere in the country?

Well, as you are aware, the North Eastern region of India is among the least developed in the country. Hence, return on investment cannot be the principal motive for any university here for years to come. Being located at Guwahati - the gateway to North East India, we are acutely conscious of the mosaic of tribes, cultures, languages, religions that make up this society. Catering to the educational needs of this ethnically diverse and culturally rich corner of India calls for a deep understanding of these factors and a mind-set that can appreciate and celebrate this variety. The challenge is to provide quality education at an affordable rate for these people when it is a daily struggle to recruit and retain talented personnel in this part of India.

You mentioned the backing of the global Salesian organization. Apart from funding support, what kind of support was extended?

Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), a Roman Catholic Religious Congregation, traces its origins to 1845 when St. John Bosco started his first night school for boys in Turin, Italy. So the Salesian history is 169 years old, and it has been primarily a history of providing education to needy students. We are present in 132 countries, and are the second-largest men’s religious order in the world. If we count Salesian Sisters too, we are the largest such Congregation in the world. Salesians also run 16 universities worldwide. So, the global reach and educational expertise of the organization is obvious. Coming to India, we have been in India since 1922, and interestingly, our first presence in India has been in the North East, at Shillong. In India too, Salesians have made their mark in education. So, as an organization, the Salesian congregation has a rich heritage to draw from. This vast network has enabled our university to go in for several meaningful international tie ups with Salesian and non-Salesian Universities worldwide. Frequent exchanges between 'Salesian Institutions of Higher Education (IUS)' has also helped in the adoption of best practices from all around the world.

Is ADBU the sixteenth and latest university by Salesians?

Yes, we are the 16th and the latest, but we also have the distinction of being the first Don Bosco University in the English speaking world. All our other universities are in the Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries, especially in South America.

You started off with your engineering wing, the ADBU School of Engineering & Technology. What scale have you achieved over here?

Yes, and this has been our largest division so far, with around half of our on-campus students studying here. We have all the popular branches of engineering at the graduate level, three M Tech programs, and MCA too. Placements have been good with around 80% of students getting placed. We also have over 20 doctoral candidates in Engineering. Immediate plans call for the introduction of some more engineering courses in Tea Technology, Biotechnology, Food Processing Technology etc.

What is the speciality of ADBU’s School of Management & Commerce?

The main program being offered here is a 2-year full-time MBA program that is AICTE approved. One of the distinguishing characteristic of our School of Management & Commerce is that it is perfectly in sync with our government’s changed perspective in 'looking east'. This change in stance initiated in 1991 by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao has paid rich dividends to India enabling the country to forge strategic ties and establish commercial opportunities with countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc. This has been a strategic shift away from our conventional focus on the West, Russia and the Middle East, and acts as a counterbalance to such earlier ties. Additionally, we also offer a variety of management programmes online with various specializations, such as, general management, logistics and supply chain management, retail management etc.

What are the unique ideas at ADBU’s School of Humanities & Social Sciences?

Currently, we have five postgraduate programs over here: Masters in Social Work, in Psychological Counselling, in Human Rights (with emphasis on Child Rights), in Educational Leadership, and in Convergent Media. Among them, two programmes – Psychological Counselling and Educational Leadership - require special mention as the demand for professionals in such fields is very great. Professional Counsellors are a sine-qua-non in every educational institution today. Traditional B. Ed / M. Ed courses of study do not adequately meet the growing demand for professional management of educational institutions. Our courses are designed to plug the gap in the supply of professionals to manage the critical fields of education, social development and social work.

Any new innovative courses that you are planning to offer soon?

There are many in the works, but two that I would highlight are Philosophy and Media. While usual philosophy courses are just about philosophers and their philosophies, we are offering a course which is about philosophizing or doing philosophy. In simpler terms, it is about how philosophy can be used to explain the community around us, its problems, and how philosophy can help one to cope up with the challenges of life. It is a very innovative course. In the media space, we are coming up with a program on Convergent Media and Technologies. Increasingly, there is a seamless convergence of media where print, radio, television, journalism and internet are no more separate areas entities. Today's media personnel are expected to be savvy in every facet of the media world. Our course is designed to help develop such multi-faceted professionals.

How do you respect and promote merit at the admission level?

Here at Don Bosco University, admissions are based solely on merit. Not only that, ADBU ensures that the whole process of admission is 100% transparent. We have no management quotas, no capitation fees, and no agents to canvass admissions for us. We follow the nationally recognized entrance tests, as well as state level tests, and our own entrance exams.

Can you tell us something about your unique background in diverse fields?

I have been in the field of higher education for the major part of the 40 years of my life that I have spent in the education of young men and women in North-East India. I believe that says a lot.

The distinctive ideas of Salesian education system for school-level is well-known, including the Salesian Preventive System. Is there any such distinct Salesian touch in college or university education?

If I may attempt a response to this question, I would think of the difference as the unique setting that higher education provides to be there where the leaders of society are being formed. Here at the university, we, as followers of Don Bosco, are acutely aware of the need to help form a new breed of leaders for society who combine scholarship and professionalism with an equally strong commitment to the society that provides them with their livelihood. Consequently, we place a great emphasis on social commitment, outreach programmes and extension works to inculcate in our graduates a socially responsive outlook on life. This would be the distinct Salesian touch at the university level.

How far have you advanced in your distance / hybrid delivery models of education?

We are well set in this respect, and you will be surprised to know that our online or distance education activity is larger in student strength than our on-campus division. We call it our Centre for Online and Distance Education or DBU Global in short. The Courses are delivered through Online Virtual Classroom, with an abundance of e-learning resouces made available for various platforms including tablets and smartphones, as well as through conventional printed material. We have students from across the world studying at DBU Global – roughly 60% of our student strength are from abroad.

What is the thrust you are planning for augmenting your research activities?

Recently, the UGC Visiting Team commented the University on having a full-time Director of Research underlining the importance given to research activity in the university. Over 120 research scholars are currently pursuing their doctoral studies in the university in about 20 odd fields. Research climate is actively promoted in the University. Involvement in research and publications form an important part of the appraisal of our staff. Speaking of appraisal, we have also a full-time Director of HR (again, another innovation in a university setting that was lauded by the UGC Team), who takes care of every aspect of human resource management: job descriptions, recruitment, induction, staff development and performance appraisal.

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