Monday, May 5, 2014

Is Nirma University Walking the Talk?

Karsanbhai Patel, Founder-President, Nirma University
On 8th May 2014, less than 72 hours from now, Nirma University, will start its admission process for BTech, which is one of its largest undergraduate programs. Nirma University (NU) is one of the oldest private universities in the country and the oldest such university in Gujarat, and the BTech program now spanning 8 branches and 780 seats is the oldest and flagship program of Nirma, and as such, the success of this admission is of mission-critical importance to not only NU, but to the entire private university sector in the country, especially in Gujarat and the Western states. While the engineering applications will be on till 10th June, the undergraduate law degree (BA LLB & BCom LLB) application process that has already commenced will be on till only 1st June 2014. Nirma University is not expected to face any issues in filling up the seats in both the faculties, but the real challenge being a self-financing university is whether NU is able to attract better ranked students than in the previous years. Seasonal Magazine interviews Dr. Anup K Singh, Director-General and Chairman of Academic Council, at Nirma University.

Nirma University believes that higher education is all about students and faculty, more than anything else. In fact, its students and faculty are outdoing each other in innovation, entrepreneurship, and social engagement. The vision of noted entrepreneur and Nirma University Founder-President Dr. Karsanbhai Patel is fully playing out here.

This oldest private university of Gujarat is innovating by appointing Professors of Eminence and conducting world-class conferences in varied fields, spurring its faculty and students to achieve higher. Gujarat Government is likely to elevate NU’s Institute of Technology to a Centre of Excellence, thereby adding to the autonomy and stature.

If the highest achievement of a university can be measured by the success of its students and faculty in engaging effectively with the society, Gujarat based Nirma University deserves a closer look.

Such has been the social momentum from the students and faculty of this Ahmedabad based private university, that has outpaced even many older public universities in this regard.

It is election season now, and a short film titled, 'Ek Vote - Our Constitutional Right', by final-year engineering students of Nirma University urges the common man to vote. The five-minute film has been directed by Deep Desai, a final-year BTech student of Nirma University. Desai, along with six batch-mates, did everything from writing the script, handling the camera, to getting the statistics of the country's voters.

NU's faculty has been faring even better on the elections front. Despite political parties spending massively on social media during this elections, it has failed to add any revenue to the exchequer due to India's Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty (DTAT) with USA. Now, while legal activists like Mahendra Limaye are planning to move court on this huge loss, the initiative will also be based on a landmark study by two Nirma University professors, Apoorva Mehta and Manisha Visrani, that proved that MNCs are exploiting the India's DTAT status, and on their proposal that an agency be set up to investigate the same.

Nirma University is also attracting eminent professors from more conventional institutes due to its proactiveness. Recently, Professor Utpal Sharma, Faculty of Planning at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, had resigned after a long tenure to join Nirma University as the Director of Faculty of Architecture. "I decided to join Nirma University as they have ambitious future plans,” Prof. Sharma said explaining his unusual decision.

Earlier, in a shocking case that attracted national attention, Allahabad High Court had ordered Uttar Pradesh Government to reply on the circumstances of the death of Chameli Devi, a 75-year old landless Dalit woman who is reported to have died of starvation. The court also ordered a review of UP’s Public Distribution System (PDS) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) norms. The Public Interest Litigation (PIL)  in this regard was filed by four law students, one of them being Pranav Singh Rathore of Nirma University.

Rohit Moonka is an Assistant Professor at Nirma University’s Institute of Law. A Right to Information (RTI) application filed by Prof. Moonka recently grabbed not just national eyeballs, but international attention. The reply to Prof. Moonka’s RTI from Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) exposed that 177 Indians prisoners are languishing in foreign jails even after completion of their prison sentence!

Prof. Moonka is teaching a course on RTI at Nirma University, and this is his walking-the-talk, but don’t think it ends there. He has already written to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and President of India to intervene urgently in this matter, failing which he has made it clear to them that he will move the Supreme Court. The case grabbed international attention as some of the large culprits were so-called friendly nations of India like Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia.

And it is not just in the Law Department. If Instagram has taken the mobile world by storm, forcing Facebook to buy it, a start-up by students at Nirma University is taking ‘Instagrammed’ photographs to a new level. Printajoy is the name of this start-up venture and is already making waves. Printajoy prints Instagrammed photos on fine-quality matte paper, hand crafts it further, and delivers at your doorstep. The start-up recently attracted admiration at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design’s Makerfest 2014 that also had a keynote address by Sam Pitroda.

Nirma University students have also went on from this campus, to pursue even more groundbreaking innovations. Abhijit Karnik is perhaps the best example. Now a final year doctoral student at University of Bristol, UK, his work on mobile computing is widely recognised. Abhijit has achieved several awards for his exemplary work, and this Nirma University alumni was in news recently for inventing a shape-changing mobile phone.

Nirma University by itself is taking innovations to the next level. It is inviting path-breaking innovators to teach and mentor its students. Mansukhbhai Patel, a grassroots level innovator, recently delivered a lecture at Nirma University on innovation. His invention of a cotton-stripping machine dramatically changed cotton cultivation in Gujarat and elsewhere. Nirma students were full of questions, and this rags-to-riches entrepreneur patiently explained why it is so difficult but so important to innovate.

Nirma’s efforts are not going unnoticed. Gujarat Government is all set to elevate five universities and institutes in the state to ‘Centres of Excellence’ status. Nirma University’s Institute of Technology is likely to be awarded this status which will give greater prestige and autonomy to the institute.

NU’s efforts in conducting prestigious conferences in various fields are also bearing rich fruits. Each such conference had something from the attending luminaries for the public to know. In the recently concluded Nirma International Conference on Management (NICOM) 2014, Dr. Dilip Nachane - Member, Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council & Professor Emeritus, IGIDR, had something shocking to reveal regarding why inflation can’t be tamed by RBI alone. Both public and private banks control only 55% of the credit flow in this country, according to Dr. Nachane, and if black-money too is included in this picture the ratio will be even lower, he explained. This was the root problem to be corrected, if RBI was to fully control the financial system.

Another shocker for the public, this time from the pharma sector, was also revealed at a recent international conference hosted by Nirma University’s Institute of Pharmacy. Delivering the keynote address, Prof. YK Gupta, Head of Department of Pharmacology at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), New Delhi, explained that due to extreme safety concerns regarding clinical trials and excessive regulations, India had completely lost out on new drug discoveries. While in 2008, India was emerging as the leader in this industry, by 2013, our new drug discoveries had fallen by eleven fold.

Such initiatives are inspiring Nirma students to push all frontiers. Take the case of Parth Shah, aged 21 years, from Vasna. Despite studying in a Gujarati Medium school, Shah cracked this year’s CAT with 99.32% percentile in his first attempt, and now has a call from none other than IIM Ahmedabad. CAT has a strong verbal or English language requirement too that initially left Shah petrified, but this final year engineering student from Nirma University finally achieved his dream.

Nirma University is the oldest private university in Gujarat. However, NU is not just a powerhouse in its oldest faculty of Engineering & Technology - but in almost all its departments like Business Management, Science, Pharmacy, & Law. The secret is, of course, in the name itself.

Nirma University is the brainchild of Padma Shri Dr. Karsanbhai K Patel, one of India’s most super-achieving first-generation entrepreneurs, who literally built the multi-billion dollar Nirma Ltd from scratch, beating mammoth multinational corporations like Unilever and P&G.

Such ambition and planning is also evident in his educational venture. While Dr. Patel is the Founder and President of Nirma University, and Ambubhai Patel is the Vice-President and Managing Trustee of Nirma Education & Research Foundation which runs Nirma University, they have also created one of the most respectable professional Board of Governors and Academic Councils among all private universities.

Dr. Anup K Singh, Director-General and Chairman of Academic Council as well as Finance Committee, is a prime example of this professional culture. Dr. Singh has been trained at University of Allahabad, University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Harvard University, and has taught at leading B-Schools, and done corporate training for several leading corporates and organizations including ONGC, IOC, Bharti, L&T, New Holland, Nirma, British Council, Cadila etc.

Seasonal Magazine interviews Dr. Anup K Singh, Director General, to bring you the latest news from Nirma University:

How do you assess the main outcomes from the recently concluded NICOM 2014, which was well attended by management experts from various fields?

Nirma International Conference on Management (NICOM) is one of the oldest management conferences in the country. Every year it focuses on a contemporary theme and invites scholars, researchers and practitioners to deliberate on it.   At the end of the conference, we publish the proceeding which is a valuable document and circulated to different stakeholders and the same is expected to be useful in revamping the policies.  It also facilitates the process of industry-academia interaction.

You have recently started a program to add innovators as adjunct professors at Nirma. What prompted you for this change?

University is committed to systematic quality improvement in teaching, research and extension activities through which we try to contribute to the society in different ways.  It is believed that the teacher and only the teacher can bring constructive change in the different fields of the society at large and therefore University has approved a scheme of appointing Professor of Eminence who has very rich academic experience and knowledge and who can help in strengthening innovation particularly in teaching and research through different modules.  The Professor of Eminence helps the University in three folds, viz: Promoting the environment of research in different institutions; Training faculties and strengthen that wing in teaching and learning process; and Moulding young faculties towards research. 

How far have you advanced in your distance/hybrid delivery models of education? Are you making use of distance learning models like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and Flipped Classrooms?

ICT is changing education in a big way. Nirma University has embraced recent technologies in the ICT in the delivery of instruction. The University has robust ICT infrastructure.  We have initiated to use ICT by having virtual class room under a tie-up with IIT Mumbai.  However, we are in the initial phase of MOOC and flipped classroom. We are open to innovations in educational technology.

Have you made a breakthrough in creating industry/philanthropy funded endowments for scholarships?

The University has various scholarship schemes for meritorious and needy students in different institutions.  The scholarships are categorized in two category namely, (i) some scholarships are given only on merit and under this category scholarships are provided of different amount towards fees which ranges from Rs. 25,000/- to Rs. 1.00 Lakh. (ii) Second category is merit-cum-means scholarships under that depending upon the annual income of the parents the scholarships are awarded of different amount ranges from Rs. 25,000/- to Rs. 1.00 Lakh.  In addition to these we have also a scheme of giving interest on the loan obtained from the bank again on the basis of merit-cum-means ranges from 100% to 50% interest.  We have also a Needy Student Fund from where we give financial assistance of different amount to the needy students.  We have also a provision of Book Bank from where every year we give free books to the students throughout his study based on certain criteria.  In short we ensure that meritorious students are not deprived of education if he gets admission under Nirma University.

What is the thrust you are planning for in 2014 for augmenting your research activities?

Research is integral to a higher education institution. The University has emphasised research from the very beginning of its existence. All the institutes of the University have vibrant doctoral programmes. A large number of students are enrolled in various doctoral programmes. Further, the University closely works with leading institutions, like Space Research Centre, Physical Research Laboratory and Institute of Plasma Research and R&D of some prominent industries in the different areas of research. The University has received funding from bodies like Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, GUJCOST, GSBTM among others for its several research projects. The University also provides grants for minor research projects to its faculty so that they can test their ideas and initiate work for major research projects.  The University has also established Idea Labs for students where students can work on any idea which is generated in his mind irrespective of the fact whether it is covered under the syllabus or not. Nirma University is a learning organisation and it invests continuously in research and innovation.

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