Autonomy Without Responsibility Will Be of No Use

We need serious reforms in our examination system says VC Shevgaonkar of Bennett University in an interview with Waqar Ahmed Fahad

Prof Shevgaonkar, VC- Bennett University

Raghunath K Shevgaonkar took over as Bennett University's Vice-Chancellor on January 22' 2018. An alumnus of the Indian Institutes of Technology at Kanpur and Mumbai, Shevgaonkar was previously Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pune and Director of IIT Delhi. He has an experience of teaching engineering for almost 4 decades.  A few excerpts from his interview are placed below

Q. As a renowned veteran in the field of engineering education, can you help understand why Engineering continues to be a preferred option? In the last decade or so, Liberal Arts, Design etc have been received well. But not as much as engineering. Why?

This is related to job opportunities and the quality of life that one gets after the graduation. The jobs in the core engineering sector are still limited but there are plenty of opportunities in the IT sector which accept any discipline of engineering. In fact, due to this demand, many engineering institutions started in last in two decades. However, in recent time, many more non-engineering avenues are emerging that can give good living after graduation. As a result, students are not sticking to only engineering though engineering still remains the first preference. 


Q. Global rankings like QS and Times are quite popular, do you think a competitive environment created by these will help bring quality to the education sector?

The ranking is a measure of quality, only to some extent. Appearing in a ranking list cannot be the sole objective of an institution. If an institution has quality, it has a potential to appear in the ranking list. However, it should be noted that each ranking system has an emphasis on certain parameters, and there is no weight for certain activities. For example, work done towards industrial development or defense-related development is given no weight although it plays an important role in national needs. Also, some of the parameters are non-objective. For example, ‘perception’ about an institution is one of the high weight parameters that is non-objective in some rankings. So, some of the parameters if tweaked can alter the ranks significantly. It would, therefore, be better if the institutions are categorized in blocks like A, B, C etc. as per their performance (as is done by NAAC) rather than a numerical rank.   

Q. For those institutions who do not believe in rankings, how does one measure their performance as an institution?

Institutions should certainly believe in quality and excellence. One may define a very objective way of defining excellence. For example, research published in quality journals, industrial development, qualification of faculty, state of art infrastructure, transparent processes, students’ performance in placement and competitive examinations, etc. may serve as a measure of defining excellence. 

Q. The Bennett university recently received funding from the UK for an Artificial intelligence skilling project. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, Royal Academy has provided funding for creating skilled manpower in AI and deep learning. The Bennett University will lead the project. The project was formally inaugurated by Chairman, AICTE. Under the project 25 primary institutions will be identified. Each of these institutions will then mentor 10 institutions each. So 250 institutions in a hub and spoke model will train few thousand teachers who then will train few lakhs skilled manpower across the country. Further, AICTE is providing support for adding more institutions in the whole chain. In addition to the skilled manpower creation, the project will help in developing AI applications for societal needs. An industrial partnership is also envisaged under the project.

Q. Do you believe that AI will determine and change the course of the various streams of engineering?

With time, AI is certainly going to play an increasing role in all streams of engineering. 

Q. You have been the frontrunner in asking for autonomy for educational institutions, the recent update by UGC, do you see that as a step towards your vision of better quality education in India?

Autonomy is extremely important for an educational institute. However, autonomy comes with responsibility. If autonomy is not handled with responsibility, it can destroy the education standard instead of improving it. We have both type of institutions: Institutions like IITs that use autonomy for creating highest standard of education, and institutions that exploit autonomy for maximizing personal gains. The UGC has given autonomy to those institutions which have shown consistency in their performance. The step by UGC, therefore, is the most welcome step. Hopefully, more and more institutions will qualify for autonomy with time and the education standard as whole will rise in the country!  

What is your vision for Bennett University and what are the challenges that you need to overcome to compete with other established institutions?

Bennett university is a comprehensive university with four schools to start with a name, school of engineering and applied sciences, school of management, school of law, and school of mass communication and liberal arts. We, therefore, want to create something unique that cuts across these diverse disciplines. A culture of entrepreneurship is inculcated in all the students right from the beginning of all the programs. Within the guidelines provided by the regulatory bodies, ample flexibility has been provided in the curriculum to bring out the best from the students. My vision is, Bennett university should become an intellectually stimulating place that creates original thinkers, innovators, researchers who provide solutions to societal problems, citizens of highest values, and professionals of with high integrity and ethical standards. 

Q. When does an institute/ university achieve academic excellence? Is such an excellence a reality? Can it be achieved? How?

Excellence in education indeed is a reality. However, to achieve it, all the university stakeholders should share the same vision. Students and faculty are the two main pillars of an educational institution. If these two pillars are of high quality, other things automatically fall into place. In addition to these two pillars, institutions must have a strong governance, a governance that nurtures excellence and not mediocrity. A strong leader with high integrity and ethical values is also a need of the hour.     

Q. There is little doubt that private universities provide quality exposure to students, but government colleges are far more affordable. Is there any way we can bridge this gap or is it wishful thinking?

First of all, we must realize that quality education is not a cheap proposition. High-quality education does require substantial investment and recurring funds. Govt. institutions absorb part of the cost to make the education more affordable to students. Since the private institutions do not get Govt. subsidy, the entire cost of education is to be borne by the students. In fact, that is the true cost of quality education. It is highly desirable that we develop a realistic financial model for educational institutions that are at least self-sustaining. A strong mechanism to make the institutions accountable is also needed. There should be ample borrowing opportunities with lowest interest rates so that students can borrow funds for their education at affordable price. It is clear that to meet the educational needs of the country private players have to play a substantial role. A good financial model for educational institute needs to be created with the highest priority. 

Q. Finally, as engineering aspirants continue to constitute a major percentage of the student community in our country, what would you advise them?

A good engineer needs three things namely, solid foundation, good logical reasoning, and up to date technical skills and subject knowledge. The first two have to be acquired in formative years of engineering education. The third part is continuously evolving and therefore requires lifelong learning and hands-on experience. However, to make the first two attributes strong, we need serious reform in our examination system. The success of engineering education, therefore, does not lie only in state of art curriculum but in the execution of that. Students should realize that a marks-centric education cannot make them a successful engineer unless they show performance worthy of their marks.   

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