Express Townhall: ‘Covid has been a sobering learning experience; after initial shock, we pulled up our socks’ | #education | #technology | #training


In an Express Townhall, Nitin Karmalkar, the Vice-Chancellor of Savitribai Phule Pune University, shares his thoughts on the impact of Covid-19 on education, from learning and research to structural changes and affordability. Edited excerpts:

Alifiya Khan: As we get back to normalcy, what is in store for students? Online, offline or a combination of the two?

Dr Karmalkar: It’s going to be a little difficult both for students as well as teachers. Over the last two years, most of the institutions have been operating through the online mode of education. Technologies have been put in place. Some pedagogical changes have also been made. But the challenges are many, especially for the science and technology students, for example. Practicals and hands-on explanation and instruction are a very important part of their education. While we are moving towards normalcy, not everyone is still very comfortable getting back to physical classrooms. Some students want to continue in the online mode, while others prefer physical classrooms. This will be a challenge.

Teaching in this kind of hybrid mode will also be a bit difficult. Right now, Covid-19 seems to be retreating in India, but there is no guarantee it won’t come back. That might force us to switch to the online mode again. I think we need to be prepared for at least one or two more years of online education.

Students have missed the opportunities of peer-learning which is an important part of their development. This is a serious challenge from the perspective of their employment opportunities as well. Usually, hands-on training makes them better prepared for the industry. It is going to be a challenging environment.

Alifiya Khan: There are reports that the batches that have passed out in the last two years, during Covid, are struggling to get job offers. And, when the offers come, they are being put on longer probations? How can these students be helped?

Dr Karmalkar: We can provide them some basic crash courses so that they catch up on what they missed out. It will be difficult for institutions, no doubt, since they would be expected to educate the current batches as well as offer crash courses to previous two batches. At the university, we have created experiential work centres such as the one at SPPU research foundation which can be used by students to get hands on training, internships and some certification which will make them industry-ready. Colleges can do that as well.

Nitin Karmalkar is the Vice-Chancellor of Savitribai Phule Pune University.

Manoj More: Do we have students from Ukraine and Russia on the Pune university campus?

Dr Karmalkar: We sent a lot of international students back to their home countries in initial stage of pandemic and they are continuing classes online. But we don’t have many students from these two countries, Russia and Ukraine. Most of our international students come from Southeast Asian countries. As of now, we do not have any student from Russia or Ukraine on our campus.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: Can you please tell us about the Pune University’s work on Covid. The university was part of one sero-survey conducted in Pune.

Dr Karmalkar: Yes, the serological survey wasn’t the sole effort of the university. It was done by the Pune Knowledge Cluster which is located on to the campus of the University. We were part of the exercise. The cluster is still closely tracking the pandemic.

The university has been part of many such initiatives, not just on Covid, but also on other infectious diseases as well. Our molecular diagnostic centre is involved in these efforts wherein we are concentrating on the diagnostics of other infectious diseases. The other thing that we have been advancing with is the genome mapping and creation of data pools. These kinds of works are ongoing exercises.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: How has the research work at the university been impacted due to Covid? Many PhD students, a lot of women among them, have been saying their research has been badly affected. What happens to their career prospects?

Dr Karmalkar: We have launched a couple of initiatives to address that, aimed especially at women. We have modified our C4I4, Center for Industry 4.0 lab, not just for science and technology scholars but those from humanities and other streams as well. Also, we had couple of programmes specifically for women, like enhancing their participation in data science. The pandemic has had a major impact, no doubt, but those who are native on the campus, did not miss as much as those coming from outside. Students on campus were regularly interacting with their mentors. I was criticised, but we did open the labs for sometime to provide research students whatever help they needed to continue their studies.

Amitabh Sinha: My question is not limited to Pune University. Covid has been a major disruption, but it has also an opportunity to fix a lot of legacy issues, including those in education. What are the few things in education that require structural changes, things that have not been done in decades, but now seem possible because of the disruption caused by the pandemic?

Dr Karmalkar: One important structural reform has been the switch from department to the school system that provides horizontal mobility for the students as well as teachers. There used to be a lot of duplications, with similar courses being run by several departments. We are working to further improve the new system, trying to create one single course that is convenient across faculties. Also, we are trying to implement the credit system for everyone, regardless of whether it is a diploma or a degree course.

For the technical courses, we are trying to get them as updated as possible so that the students get the opportunity for real-life problem solving. It may not be fully mature right now, but at least a step towards that kind of thing has already started happening.

We are the only university in Maharashtra to start liberal arts courses and promote that kind of curriculum. We are trying to come up with out of the box courses like, may be, design thinking and those kinds of things. Besides that, projects that have a real-life connect are being promoted research topics.

The Pune University is lucky to have many national institutes on its campus and these days, we are working together, creating inter-disciplinary courses which help to support the national programmes. In the new education policy, there is an emphasis on collaborations and we realised that this is what will help students in gaining knowledge of their own domain as well as areas of peripheral interest.

The Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) campus.

Amitabh Sinha: Over the years, we have seen a lot of inter-disciplinary courses being offered, especially in science and technology institutions. Engineering students, for example, are exposed to, and encouraged to study, subjects like economics or philosophy. The same kind of emphasis on inter-disciplinary study seems to be missing amongst non-science institutions. Humanities students, for example, are not often exposed to mathematics or computer science. Why is that not encouraged as much as it should be?

Dr Karmalkar: Absolutely. This kind of thing is the need of the hour, not today, it should have happened yesterday. We are making some initiative towards it. The 60:40 formula, wherein students are asked to select 60 per cent subjects from their own discipline and 40 percent from another, helps to promote inter-disciplinary education.

We are trying to sensitize the students about the importance of cross discipline knowledge. For this purpose, we at the University have come up with this platform called Degree Plus, wherein whatever is not there in the curriculum but is required for the enhancement of their employment possibilities, those courses are being promoted under one single umbrella.

We have got some of the best brands like Harvard Business School, MIT, Simplilearn, Amazon and many others on board. They help us run short, two to three week courses at a very nominal prices. We have a very large number of students, and even if five per cent get attracted to these courses, it starts to make economic sense for these companies.

I am happy to note that enrolments here are quite encouraging and even humanities students here are going for courses like artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are just baby steps but I think soon, there would be a complete realization of this particular idea.

Dipanita Nath: My question pertains to the students who are going to Ukraine. A lot is being talked about them, some say they are not very bright students, others say they are actually very good students who are unable to afford the high cost of medical education. I wanted your opinion on this and whether this indicates a lacuna in our education system and what can be done to address this.

DR Karmalkar: Most of the students who go to Ukraine are going there to study medicine. In terms of cost, medical education in Ukraine and some other parts of former USSR turns out to be less expensive than private medical education colleges in India. We have to work on that bit as medical education has become very expensive and only the upper middle class can think of doing graduation in medicine.

Perhaps this challenge can be looked at as an opportunity. We have in fact plenty of good hospitals. It is not necessary that every medical college should have its own hospital. For 10 months, I was the vice-chancellor of Maharashtra University of Health Sciences. I realised its role was largely that of an exam conducting institution. In the 10 months that it I was here, I made efforts to create some courses at least. But I was told the medical council rules required that a medical college needed to have a 400-bedded hospital. I said there is a civil hospital in Nashik. Why can’t that suffice? Rather than spend on creating this kind of infrastructure, let’s use it on sharing basis. We can start our own courses on this kind of sharing model. It should help to bring the cost of medical education down considerably.

Parthasarthi Biswas: There are complaints from the industry that the batches that graduated in the last two years lack hands-on experience and are not industry ready. How do you react to this?

Dr Karmalkar: The complaints of the industry about the students not being industry-ready actually predates Covid. The kind of education that we provide often has very little or no connect with the industry. Even pre-Covid, when physical classes and practicals were being held on schedule, there was a significant gap between the curriculum and the requirements of the industry. That is what we are trying to change.

At a recent interaction with education officials, the main focus of discussions was the need to build partnerships with the industry. We need to get the industry to come to the campus. Right now, of course, due to the pandemic since everything is happening through online mode, students have not done any project work. We need to conduct crash courses for such students.

Parthasarthi Biswas: During the pandemic, we were running short of medical personnel. Do you think we have learned our lessons? Do you see medical education becoming more affordable and more hospitals and more medical colleges which are affordable to the middle class and lower middle class coming up?

Dr Karmalkar: Yes, it has been a very sobering learning experience. After the initial shock, we did manage to pull up our socks. We understood the importance of collaborations, and all stakeholders stood up in strengthening the healthcare system. Going forward, of course, we have to think about making medical education affordable for everyone. If that happens, it would be one good thing coming out of the pandemic.

Going forward, of course, we have to think about making medical education affordable for everyone. If that happens, it would be one good thing coming out of the pandemic.

Manoj More: My question is about the amendment brought in by the government, in the Maharashtra Public Universities Act regarding the appointment of vice-chancellors. Instead of Governor directly appointing V-Cs, now state government has to approve the name. Now that you’re finishing your tenure, can you tell us what you think of this?

Dr Karmalkar: I would vehemently oppose this. It is a shame that they are trying to bring in control over institutions that should remain autonomous. Such kind of political interference should not be there. I would not say that the earlier process was 100 per cent correct. But at the same time, making such change also doesn’t guarantee you that you will get a good person. I do not recommend this kind of a change that they’re trying to bring in.

Alifiya Khan: There are other amendments as well like creation of the post of a pro-chancellor. There are objections relating to the kind of interference which it will bring in day to day affairs and the amount of power that it will give to the state. What is your opinion?

Dr Karmalkar: I haven’t been able to access the entire draft, I have read whatever changes are being brought through newspaper reports. Based on that I am commenting. In some cases, like agricultural universities, it is existing practice that pro-chancellor is the minister. That is true even in some medical institutions. But in traditional university system where the number is very large, I do not think it would be a good step.

Manoj More: I am very curious to know about the role of chancellor. Does the chancellor regularly interact with vice-chancellors? Has the present governor, who’s the chancellor, interacted with you? Has he given any suggestions and insights?

Dr Karmalkar: There is a mechanism for the chancellor to the interact with the vice-chancellors. The present governor has been in regular touch with most of the universities. I haven’t seen him missing out any single occasion that he’s been called for, and whenever he comes there is always a very strong interaction that he has with the teaching community and with the administration. Generally, whatever issues we raise, he makes an effort to resolve them. For example, on the campus of the University of Pune, there are so many constructions that happened, where we had issues with the PMC in getting them regularised. We were being asked to pay development charges, but our proposition was that we are part of the government, and therefore should not be charged for the infrastructure that is being created. Because of this particular issue, we had not been getting permissions for installing the lifts that are required in some multi-storey buildings. The governor made it a point to intervene and call the concerned officials for a meeting.

Sushant Kulkarni: What do you think are the lessons for the ecosystem of education, especially higher education from the pandemic?

Dr Karmalkar: The most important lesson is to not invest too much on creating this brick-and-mortar type of infrastructure. In fact, you should invest more into technology. The blended mode of education is going to continue, so we in fact should focus on technology and building more partnerships. That is what perhaps the biggest outcome of this problem.

The blended mode of education is going to continue, so we in fact should focus on technology and building more partnerships. That is what perhaps the biggest outcome of this problem

Alifiya Khan: Recently the NAAC announced some relaxation in its accreditation process, allowing even one-year-old colleges and universities to apply for accreditation instead of the earlier criteria of six years. The NAAC said it will help to widen the ambit. Are you in favour of these changes?

Dr Karmalkar: Diluting the guidelines is not the right solution. In fact, these should made more stringent. A few days ago, I was speaking to Bhushan Patwardhan who has taken over as chairperson of the executive committee of NAAC. We discussed these things. I have given him my inputs, which I think the NAAC would find useful. The dilution of criteria doesn’t guarantee the kind of quality education that we are expecting.

Alifiya Khan: Recently there was a report that said that the number of students who go abroad for postgraduate education and the amount of fees that they spend on it constitutes nearly one per cent of the GDP, which is enough to start 10 new IITs and IIMs. So where do you think is the problem in creating these new institutions and seats and stopping our students from going abroad?

Dr Karmalkar: Why are students going abroad? They generally go for the purpose of getting a quality education, which really is missing in many of our institutions. Time and again, I have been saying, we have to combine our resources and collaborate, rather than allow student to go abroad. Besides, there is no willingness to spend so much on education, whether it is Centre or state governments. Somewhere there is lack of seriousness. In fact, during the recent interaction which I had while being considered for position of UGC chairman, I had proposed that we should have the corporate sector on board. There has to be some investment coming from their end. Not just as a CSR but a serious partnership. Obviously, what we are worried about, is about things like education getting costly if we bring in corporate sector. But there are ways and means to recover costs while being considerate to the needs of students coming from economically weaker sections. Fellowships can be considered. Students who are going abroad are certainly willing to pay more for quality education, so this section can be charged a little higher. But we should be able to ensure that the education that we provide on our campuses is qualitatively the same kind as elsewhere.

Alifiya Khan: There is an argument that online exams compromise the sanctity of examination system. At the same time, many argue that we have to move away from the traditional systems of evaluating our students. What do you see the way ahead?

Dr Karmalkar: Actually, the examination system does require a complete overhaul. In fact, we at Pune University have created this examination reform committee, and no one from university or colleges is involved. Most of the experts are outsiders. The idea for reforms is that this traditional question-answer kind of system should be completely eliminated. Students should be given projects or project-based assessment, group discussion-based assessment, presentation-based assessment. I believe 90 percent should be based on such thing and maybe ten percent can be answering question-answer. These reforms need to be done at the earliest, if you intend to actually improve on the quality of education and the quality of graduation. The current examination system is absolutely bogus.





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