Friday, 25 May 2018

Get off the blackboard, engage students, says DU Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh

Critics describe Delhi University Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh as a dictator, supporters call him a reformer

Delhi University (DU) Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh is no stranger to media attention. Since he took charge in 2010, his tenure has been an eventful one, with the controversial Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) hogging the limelight. Critics describe him as a dictator, supporters call him a reformer. Yet, under him, DU retains its top position in the India Today Group-Nielsen Best Universities Survey for the third time in a row. In a candid interview with Associate Editor Kaushik Deka, the vice chancellor speaks on a range of issues. Excerpts:

Q. What makes Delhi University the best in the country?
A. We attract the best talent from all parts of India. These bright students bring strength and value. This is coupled with great faculty. When we hold interviews to appoint teachers, we see very healthy competition. For instance, we are about to hold interviews to appoint 11 assistant professors in our Cluster Innovation Centre and nearly 400 candidates have been shortlisted. It’s very important to have great teachers because mentors have to mould great minds.

At the same time, what makes us different is the innovative approach to learning. About four years ago, I launched what is known as innovation projects for undergraduate students who were asked to apply in groups-of up to 10-for any project that they can conceive of in any area of human endeavour and is trans-disciplinary, hands-on and has real-world application. You will be surprised at the number of ideas, patents and research papers that came up from these projects. We are publishing our own peer-reviewed undergraduate research papers. To connect with this effort, we have set up incubation centres that fund start-ups. Within one year of inception, we have 36 start-ups in the pipeline. Industries are coming here to pick up projects. That’s where we derive our prime strength from.

Q. Critics say DU gets the creme de la creme of students, so you are bound to perform well.
A. There is a connection between the innovative environment of learning that this university offers and the rising number of applicants. The switch to the semester system in 2011 was a game changer. Of course good students come to us, but to mould them is also a challenge.

Q. There is a perception that the quality of faculty across institutes is deteriorating. Do you think the salaries and perks aren’t lucrative enough to attract top talent?
A. I’m not very sure of that. At one level, each subject has its adherents who would pursue the subject even if you don’t give them any food. Each university has a reasonable number of such people. But if you really want to create a great institute of learning, you must put a bold person with vision, idea and insight at the helm. He must be given a little bit of freedom and some time to deliver. There should be some flexibility in the appointment of deserving teachers. Today even if I want I can’t appoint a Nobel laureate because he may not meet the prescribed norms.

Q. What are the big challenges to university education in India?
A. The university system in India is not attuned to the needs of the society. It has become laid-back because everything, from salary to infrastructure, is provided by the government. University systems must check against complacency. So I strongly advocate a change in pedagogy. Change the system of writing on the blackboard with your back to students. Get them to engage with their hands. It stimulates their minds.

We must encourage trans-disciplinary interaction. Departments in universities, including my own, don’t talk to each other. (Fields Medal-winner) Manjul Bhargava has acknowledged the contribution of (12th century mathematician) Bhaskaracharya to his research. But that has been possible because Bhargava knew Sanskrit.

Q. You strongly advocate the glory of ancient Indian scientific achievements. How do you see the recent attempts to equate Hindu mythology to science, equating the legend of Ganesha to plastic surgery?
A. The Sanskrit word for history is Itihasa, which means ‘as it happens’. One can’t bend and twist history to suit your whims and fancies and ideology. This certainly bothers me. At the same time, facts must be presented as they are. I learnt from a very famous Russian historian that India had been adept at plastic surgery even before Christ was born. India was the first country to set up a proper hospital. No Indian historian told me that.

Q. There is also a question mark on the employability of a majority of Indian graduates.
A. I compared the annual reports of Google and a top Indian IT company. Google was less than 10 years old; the Indian company was several decades old. Google had less than 10,000 employees while the Indian company had 100,000 employees. Yet, Google’s profit was three times that of the Indian company. It’s because Google is based on a knowledge system which is coming from an institution of learning, the corridors of the University of Stanford. University systems in India must be aware of this.

Q. Can there be a balance between higher educational institutes’ demand for autonomy and dependence on government funds?
A. For a long time, universities had a free hand in devising the curriculum. But look where it got us. The government gives you the money, so it has every right to question you. We must work out a deal to strike a balance.

Q. When you introduced the FYUP, the government reversed it.
A. That was unfortunate. I wish the HRD minister had been patient with me and heard me out. We got written feedback from 9,000 students who had taken this programme and 95 per cent of them favoured it.

Q. What’s your biggest achievement as DU VC? Any regrets?
A. I think I have brought in a change in mindset. No abiding regrets, but sometimes I feel I should have stuck to painting; I’m not too bad a painter. Or I should have remained a mathematician. But the administrative part of my job is also equally exciting.

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