Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Interview with Prof. SB Mujumdar, Chancellor, Symbiosis International University

Seasonal Magazine recently met Prof. (Dr.) SB Mujumdar, Founder and Chancellor of Symbiosis International University, for this exclusive interview:

University of Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to 11th century. Even today, prestigious lists like the ‘Top 200 Universities of the World’ are dominated by institutions like Oxford that are several centuries old.

That is the reason why Prof.Dr. SB Mujumdar argues that no institution in India should feel depressed that the country doesn’t have even one representation in such lists. At the same time, he is a passionate Indian to know that the Indian value system predates even the likes of Oxford.

Prof. Mujumdar, a botanist by training and in early career, gives credit where it is due. He feels that India has a lot to learn from the West including their prowess in science & technology, and their penchant for innovation.

As the Founding Chancellor of Symbiosis International University (SIU), his dream is to see India come up with her own model in modern higher education, by mixing the best of East and West, a lofty ideal in which he is guiding SIU. Already, Symbiosis is known for attracting students from most nationalities across the globe.

Pune headquartered Symbiosis group of institutions is one of the country’s oldest private higher education providers. It has evolved over the decades into a robust private university with 31 departments across 7 core faculties.

While a few relatively newer private universities have overtaken SIU in student strength and geographic spread in recent years, Prof. Mujumdar is wise enough to stay content on the wisdom that such quick-paced growth is not the best criterion for quality in academics.

That is why without much fanfare and brand ambassadors, Symbiosis has no problem in attracting fifty times students than it can accommodate, each year. Getting into Symbiosis is getting tougher by the year, as while the seat strength is increasing slowly, the number of applicants is jumping every year as is evidenced by the response to SIU’s national level entrance tests.

This year SIU has attracted around 1,63,000 applications for its undergraduate and postgraduate courses already. Candidates who pass the written test, will undergo group discussions and interviews.

Since Symbiosis is unable to admit even a fraction of the applicants, SIU has resorted to off-campus study centres in educational hubs like Bangalore.

Symbiosis is also starting a new mega campus in Nagpur with the blessings of its MLA Devendra Fadnavis who happens to be the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, and its MP Nitin Gadkari, one of the most influential Cabinet Ministers in Delhi.

To solve Nagpur’s backwardness in higher education, Nagpur Corporation has given 75 acres of land to Symbiosis to start this campus.

Aided also by the intake of better quality students, Symbiosis has no problem in delivering some of the best campus placement metrics among peer universities. But Prof. Mujumdar is not willing to gloss it over with meaningless claims like 100% placements.

In fact, despite faring well in placements, this Chancellor is one of the rare leaders in the sector to admit that placement level is never a good enough metric in assessing quality of an institution as well as its products, the degree holders.

Rather, he lays stress on the importance of overall development of the student including ethics, values, personality, sporting / cultural skills, leadership qualities, empathy, compassion, and a host of such values. Guided by this vision, SIU has been bullish in developing its Liberal Arts courses, which despite not offering campus placements, have been in increasing demand in recent years.

Prof. Mujumdar strongly feels that it is “not placements but a place in the society” that students should aspire for.

SIU has been focusing big on applied research in recent years, and has allocated Rs.30 crore for the same in its current budget. Among SIU’s research interests is a highly valued waste management program.

In sync with India’s newfound focus on skills development, and in collaboration with Maharashtra Government, Symbiosis is starting the new Symbiosis University of Skills & Open Education, which will offer job-oriented courses as well as distance education programs.

While being thankful for state government’s support for the initiatives of Symbiosis, Prof. Mujumdar is quick to point out that there is still a License Raj in the higher education sector of the country, with regard to its varied regulators and professional councils.

Parental mindsets also need to change for India to achieve its full potential in higher education, says this Chancellor. Many Indian parents still feel that Indian education is no match for overseas education, which is totally wrong according to him. Due to this, the country is losing billions of dollars every year, says he.

He also proposes a solution that revolves around opening up the sector, and inviting all good foreign universities to set shop in the country. This will not only stem the outflow of money, but increase competition and ultimately help in upping the quality of education provided by all universities in the country. 

Under Prof. Mujumdar’s vision and guidance, SIU is also a source for many best practices in the sector. With no government compulsion, SIU has been offering 22.5% reservation in seats for backward class students. They go on to win jobs in PSUs which offer similar reservation in recruitment.

SIU is also known in the sector for its transparency, with no kind of capitation fees or donation being charged for admissions.

SIU is formally run by Symbiosis Society with Prof. Mujumdar as its President, Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar as its Principal Director, and Dr. Swati Mujumdar as one of its eminent members. Both Dr. Vidya and Dr. Swati are his daughters and exceptional academicians and professionals of high repute in India and abroad.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Prof.Dr. SB Mujumdar, Chancellor, Symbiosis International University:

Since Symbiosis Entrance Test (SET) 2017 has been announced, and registrations kept open, how would you gauge the response from students, both quantitatively and qualitatively? How do you view the impact of the rising competition in recent years?

Symbiosis International University conducts two entrance examinations. The one for postgraduate courses like MBA, MA, MSc etc is called Symbiosis National Aptitude Test (SNAP). This year around 70,000 students have applied for SNAP. For the undergraduate courses like Engineering, Law, Liberal Arts etc SIU conducts another test, which is the one you mentioned, the Symbiosis Entrance Test (SET). This year, around 93,000 students have already applied for SET. The response has been absolutely big. And both these numbers have been increasing each year. While part of this growth is due to the population growth, there is no doubt that the popularity of Symbiosis has been on the rise. So, we have been successful in competing effectively.

But what about the qualitative side? Are you getting better and better quality students with passing years?

Definitely. I will explain. At Symbiosis Institute of Business Management (SIBM) we have just 180 seats, for which we get 40,000 applications. Similarly, our Law Institute has two batches of 60 students, and for these 120 students intake, we get 10,000 applications. On an average, I think Symbiosis International University gets 50 times applications for the total number of seats. As a result, we can afford to keep our screening standards high. Subsequent to the entrance tests, we have Group Discussions and Personal Interviews, and we even take into consideration the marks obtained at plus-two and matriculation levels. This preference for intake quality helps in better campus placements too, as companies are always on the lookout for highly talented students.

Do you think intake of students at Symbiosis should be increased?

It is not possible immediately, especially in a place like Pune, and that is why we had started the off-campus centres in Bangalore.

SIU had 31 departments across 7 broad disciplines last year. Are you starting any new departments or courses this upcoming academic year?

We call them faculties. Last year we had started a new course in Culinary Arts. This year, rather than start new courses, we are focusing on our new Nagpur campus.

How was the response to Culinary Arts?

The response was good, but not as far as we had expected. But it will pick up in the coming years. We started this under our management institute, and maybe we should consider shifting this to a new hotel management institute.

Can you tell us more about your Nagpur campus?

Well, we have been fortunate in that Nagpur Corporation has given us 75 acres of land to start this campus. Both our Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavisji and Central Minister Nitin Gadkariji were quite supportive of this campus as they wanted a quality higher educational institution like Symbiosis in Nagpur which they represent and from where they hail from.  

Symbiosis has been a leader in the country when it comes to enrollment of overseas students. How has this changed in quantum and quality during the last couple of years? Is India’s visibility getting better in global higher education sphere?

I would answer this question with a yes and a no. Yes because India is no longer a third-world country but the third largest country in education. From two or three major universities during the time of Independence, today India has over 800 universities, 40,000 colleges, 2 crore students enrolled, and a few lakhs of teachers. This is, in fact, the second largest educational setup in the world, next only to China, and ahead of traditional education leaders including UK and even USA. While I agree that many Indian private institutions are mediocre, some of them like Narsee Monjee, Symbiosis, BITS Pilani, Manipal, Ashoka, and many such institutions have improved like anything.

And why would you answer that question with a ‘no’ too?

Yes, I was coming to that. This is due to two factors. Firstly, the mindset of many parents and students haven’t changed a bit, and they still prefer going abroad to Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon etc. What they fail to understand is that some of our IITs and IIMs are no less than Harvard or Stanford. I view this as a social tragedy as while these overseas universities are quite good, our students stand to lose all their Indian values by the time they return, if at all. Also, if they return, many Indian companies are timid to employ them as somebody like a Harvard MBA expects a salary that is not practical for most Indian companies to offer. They will prefer MBAs from IIMs or even good private institutions like Symbiosis as their students are willing to start off their careers at reasonable salaries and grow their earnings slowly. So this is the first issue, that of the mindset of parents and students that haven’t changed. Secondly, it is still a License Raj or Permit Raj in Indian higher education space. This should change and it is up to the government to do so.

Would you elaborate on that second point?

You see, around 65% of the Indian higher education space is promoted by the private sector. They don’t have any government support and operate from much smaller campuses with lower staff strength, but make up due to their higher productivity. Despite this, they have to clear so many obstacles created by the various regulators before any institution can be started. You will be surprised to know that there are over 13 professional educational councils like bar council, medical council, pharmacy council etc apart from governments, UGC, AICTE etc all of whose permissions are necessary to run a full-fledged university. You will hear people talking about their roles as 3C – Control, Command, & Compliance, but I would add a fourth C which is that of corruption. See, this was the situation in the business world too before 1991 when Dr. Manmohan Singh liberalized the Indian economy. You had to wait years for a Bajaj Scooter or a telephone land line! And see the buoyancy now. Numerous foreign companies have invested billions in India, since then, and it has also resulted in a climate of innovation across the sectors. But, unfortunately, in the higher education space, the License Raj is continuing.

How does it affect an institution like Symbiosis today?

Even a mature university like Symbiosis faces the challenges from this Permit Raj. Take for instance the NAAC Accreditation. We have already been assessed and accredited twice, but within a couple of years, we have to go in for the accreditation again. Why can’t they allow a permanent accreditation for the better private institutions? It is very much possible.

But a collapse of the License Raj in higher education would also mean influx of foreign universities into India. Are you ready for that?

Of course, we are ready. In fact, I prefer that, as for quality to improve there should be competition from better and world-renowned players. Also, it will be extremely good for the country as 1 lakh students to USA amounts to a money outflow of $4 billion from India, currently.  

SIU has come a long way in the private university space, and for such a successful institution getting into the next rung of qualitative growth invariably involves attracting higher quality students at every level from undergraduate to doctoral. Scholarships remains a powerful tool in this regard, and what are your initiatives to attract better quality students?

Symbiosis provides liberal scholarships on merit basis. But we attract quality students also due to several other factors. The first reason I already told you, which is admission based on only two national level tests. Secondly, there is absolutely no donation or capitation at any Symbiosis institutes. Thirdly, the staff members including the entire faculty are chosen only on merit and no religion or caste biases are there. Quality has to be there. Lastly, better quality students prefer the unique ambience of Symbiosis campus as here there are students from all over the world, as well as students from across India. We are also completely apolitical, which means no distraction from such concerns.

SIU has been an early mover in research, and can you mention a few areas where research by SIU scholars has been making a difference?

Our emphasis on research has improved in recent years. In our latest budget, we have earmarked Rs.30 crore for furthering our research initiatives. One of SIU’s thrust areas in research has been waste management. Renowned scholars from BAARC as well as from abroad like Thakur and Dhanorkar are guiding our research teams. We encourage our scholars – both students and faculty – to publish in the best international research journals. In the field of waste management research we have also tied up with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) of Singapore.

Since last year, there has been a lull in placements that has affected even premier institutions like IITs & IIMs. How was the performance of Symbiosis in placements?

In our flagship institution, which is this campus, the placement has been 90% to 95%. At other Symbiosis institutes it has been above 80%.  There is a reason why the placement is not 100% at SIU, like some other institutions boast. No private or deemed university, other than Symbiosis, offers 22.5% reservation in seats to backward class students. When it comes to placements, some of these students lag, but we aren’t bothered as when PSUs recruit, they have a quota for these students and they easily get good jobs. I have personally introduced this reservation quota without any compulsion as I feel that there is no real social progress if we don’t handhold the weaker classes which come up to around 50% in India. Also, I feel that campus placement metrics is a poor way to assess the quality of education imparted by an institution.

Why do you say so?

I would any day give higher weight to overall personality development of the student. How he or she fares in ethics, sports, culture, etiquette etc. Education is all about whether you have developed a large heart with a pleasing and winning personality. Just landing a job in the campus shouldn’t be the measure of success. You will be surprised to know that since the last four years, we offer Liberal Arts courses with no scope for campus placements. They also have to study an additional fourth year to get their degree. But we still get thousands of applications each year for these courses. For many parents and families, landing a job is secondary and they give top priority to whether their son or daughter has achieved a well-rounded personality and leadership qualities. Some of these students hail from business families and they are the future leaders in their family businesses. With regard to the objective of such courses I often say that it is not placement, but a place in society that is aimed at. This is not only the case with Symbiosis, but even many reputed B-Schools like Narsee Monjee are following such ideals.

Still, more students are in need of immediate jobs in a country like India, isn’t it?

Of course, and Symbiosis is not unaware of this fact. On the contrary, in order to serve such students better, we are starting a new institution – Symbiosis University of Skills & Open Education. This is coming up along the Mumbai Pune Highway, and is based on a Letter of Intent we have signed with Government of Maharashtra. Construction is complete, and we will start operation this upcoming academic year or the next. While a focus on skills development would ensure faster placements, the Open or Distance Education mode will help the thousands of students who would prefer to work while studying. Currently the country has only one Open University of high stature, which is the IGNOU in the government sector, and this would be a very effective player in skills and open education from the private sector.

As an educationalist and edupreneur who has achieved much, what remains your dream in Indian higher education?

My dream is that India shouldn’t imitate Western models in higher education, but evolve her own successful model. We hear so much about not even one Indian institution being in the Top 200 Universities. It is ok to self-criticize but don’t self-condemn. There is no point in comparing any Indian university with Oxford, as it was founded in 1096, over 900 years back! Indian institutions have their own strengths like our values, traditional knowledge, centuries old wisdom etc. We should forge it with the best of West like their objectivity in Science & Technology, their focus on innovation etc, and come up with a new Indian model in higher education. This is the dream we are pursuing at Symbiosis.

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