Kumari Shibulal, Founder & Chairperson, The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives

Vidyadhan is the flagship higher education scholarship program under the aegis of The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives. Since its inception in 1999, Vidyadhan has come a long way, and it currently has presence across 10 states in India. Over the years, Vidyadhan has enabled over 17K beneficiary families to break out of the poverty cycle. At the helm of its affairs is Kumari Shibulal, Founder & Chairperson of The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives, who believes in the comprehensive and holistic development of children which is not focused only on academics. In an interaction with Higher Education Digest, Kumari Shibulal talks about the inception, journey and impact created by Vidhadhan so far, the commitment of Vidyadhan beneficiaries in giving back to society through Each One Teach One, and many more.

 

India’s higher education Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands well below the global average. What are the primary reasons for this, and how can we improve the ratio in future?

While education is every child’s basic right, severe poverty, deprivation and population growth are some of the reasons that prevent many children from this right to learn. Many times, students from economically underserved backgrounds do not have the financial resources to continue with their formal education. Hence, they drop out of schools and indulge in child labour and other odd jobs to support their families. Even though the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of Higher Education in India (which currently stands close to 27%) has seen a steady increase over the years especially in terms of female GER in higher education, we are still behind many of the developed and developing countries.

Several approaches can be taken to improve the GER in India, like the Right to Education Act, passed by Parliament in 2009, aims to ensure that children between the ages of 6-14 should receive free and compulsory education. However, this act does not mention the children who don’t fall within this age group. Without education, children below age 6, who haven’t yet qualified for free and compulsory education, could fall into the clutches of child labour. This is where we, as a community, should step in, take action and make efforts to provide the necessary means for the education of such younger children. In addition to this, flexible class timings might also help in boosting up the enrollment ratio in India. And last but not least, empowerment of educated teachers and leaders is extremely important. Private schools and prominent government schools may have highly-qualified teachers to teach their students. Still, in the case of underserved children, they may face difficulties in finding qualified and capable individuals who are willing to teach them.

Since its inception, how has Vidyadhan grown over time? Tell us about the journey and impact created by Vidyadhan so far.

Both Shibu and I come from middle-class backgrounds. My father was a farmer, and we had limited means. However, our parents understood the importance of education and ensured that we got educated. Today, we have reached where we are because of their belief that education can open up many more opportunities. We came back from the USA in 1997 and wanted to participate in the social sector. It was clear to us that education has the power to transform lives, and hence we chose education as the primary focus of our philanthropic journey. We started Vidyadhan back in 1999 at a very small scale, by sponsoring scholarships for two children from the school where Shibu studied. The numbers increased year after year, and today we enrol 1000 new children every year.

So far,17,300 scholarships have been awarded. Currently, we sponsor 4,300 students for higher education every year through the Vidyadhan programme. We also run several other education programmes like ShikshaLokam, VidyaRakshak, Ankur, EduMentum, etc.  We have scaled our operations to cover 10 states. Along with financial support, we also provide life skills training, career counselling etc. Many beneficiaries of the program are successfully pursuing their careers in medicine, engineering, etc.

Out of the vast number of applications we receive each year, we take 1000 students. Soon, we found that there were another 1000 who are equally deserving. We did not have the heart to turn any of them away. However, this needed us to build partnerships and enlist a wide range of likeminded individuals and corporates, to cater to the growing demand. This is what led us to think about approaching individuals and corporates to sponsor a child leading to the launch of “Each One Teach One”.

Today the programme is known as Vidyadhan, and the students sponsored by external sponsors have crossed 1,000. It can cost as little as INR 15,000 to 60,000 per year to sponsor a child’s graduate education. Many people can afford this and are willing to provide opportunities to deserving children. Vidyadhan provides an easy to use platform for anyone interested in sponsoring the higher education of a student. The program is fully transparent, with zero administrative cost, and it is a forward pay model.

The impact of Vidyadhan is significant. An impact study was conducted by IIM Kozhikode (2018), and the results were very heartening. It revealed that within 2.5 years of completing their education, the Vidyadhan beneficiaries have been able to pull their families out of poverty. It has helped most families raise their standard of living. The students have grown in self-esteem and gained recognition and respect amongst peers, family and community.

How has Vidyadhan channelized the power of collective action by bringing the sponsors, students and beneficiaries together under one platform for a more significant social cause?

We are a country of contradictions. On the one hand, we produce one million engineers per year, and on the other hand, we have 15 million children who are out of school. Our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) at primary level is approx 85% which falls to 26% for higher education, which is far behind countries like China with GER of 43 % and the US with 86%.

As per NEP 2020, major reforms in higher education include a target of 50% Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) by 2035 and provision for multiple entry and exits. Our current literacy rate is 76% as compared to 17% in 1950. Although we have made a significant increase in our literacy levels, we still have the largest illiterate population in the world.

Collective action is the need of the hour and the spirit behind our motto Each One, Teach One, Reach One – if everybody (be it a corporate or an individual) takes up the responsibility to teach a student and helps us reach another sponsor, the multiplier impact will be phenomenal. This motto has helped scale Vidyadhan, both to enhance its reach, as well as the quality of its reach. Five years back, the foundation was sponsoring the education of students in three states. Today with the support of like-minded individuals and corporate sponsorship, we have been able to enhance the reach to ten states and also increase the number of scholarships.

In addition to sponsorship, our sponsors have contributed to the training and mentoring of the Vidyadhan students, raising their aspirations and being a role model for them. As I mentioned earlier, our corporate sponsors, like UST Global and Flex India, actively participated in this training and also conducted technical webinars that were open to all Vidyadhan students. Many of our individual sponsors have participated in the selection process and have gone beyond their defined role to support students during the lockdown. Apart from this, we also partner with several NGOs who are working for the welfare of marginalized members of our society like tribal, people with disability, orphans etc. to identify the right set of beneficiaries and conduct house visits of the candidates.

Our efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean. Still, the collective efforts of every individual who pledges to take up the responsibility of sponsoring one child can make a qualitative difference to higher education in the country. Our endeavour is to convert Vidhyadhan into a replicable model for others to emulate; a platform, which others can make use of and take it forward. We hope that this platform will attract like-minded people who are desirous of contributing to the cause of education, thereby paving a path for future participation in larger numbers.

COVID has undoubtedly changed the climate of the Indian education system. What are some of the permanent shifts expected in the coming years, and how is it going to impact the students from economically weaker sections?

The pandemic has transformed the centuries-old classroom teaching model to one driven by technology. As the days are passing by with no immediate solution to stop the Covid-19 outbreak, school and university closures will not only have a short-term impact on the continuity of learning but also create far-reaching economic and societal consequences. Adopting online teaching methods is not always possible for low income private and government schools as they lack the necessary resources. In addition to these missed opportunities in terms of learning and education, the students from underserved communities no longer have access to healthy meals during this time and are subject to economic and social stress. This disruption in the delivery of education is pushing policymakers to figure out how to create an inclusive e-learning solution.

Apart from this, the COVID-19 outbreak has also significantly disrupted the higher education sector as well.  Every year, a large number of Indian students enrol in universities abroad for higher studies. Some of these countries are among the worst affected by the pandemic. As a result, they are unsure about visiting those countries. If this situation continues, in the long run, a decline in the demand for international higher education can be expected.

The bigger concern, however, on everybody’s mind is the effect of this pandemic on the employment rate. Recent graduates in India also fear the withdrawal of job offers and lack of employment opportunities in the corporate sector because of the current situation.

Amidst the global pandemic, Vidyadhan has come forward to support the higher education of over 1000 students from the underserved communities across the ten states where it has a presence. Tell us more about the activities of Vidyadhan during this time of the pandemic.

COVID threw up unprecedented challenges for us as it did for everyone else. However, we have turned these challenges into opportunities.  For instance, COVID has removed most of the fear and misgivings, parents and teachers had in leveraging technology for education. Previously, we had a residential training programme for all the new entrees. However, owing to the pandemic this year, we were obligated to conduct it online, which we did with great success, leveraging technology. Our children attended the classes regularly, and the feedback we received was sometimes better than the previous year’s score with one of the areas we focus on training is building life skills. Our corporate sponsors, like UST Global and Flex India, actively participated in this training and also conducted technical webinars that were open to all Vidyadhan students.  However, there were around 20% students whom we could not reach through online coaching due to lack of infrastructure. We are in the process of figuring out a solution for the same.

Similarly, this year the entire selection process, including tests and interviews, will be done online. We are also mindful of the fact that some of the really needy students may not be able to attend online tests due to infrastructure issues and have decided to reach out to them over the phone. We have also increased the number of students who will be covered under the online coaching program for competitive exams like NEET/JEE since not everybody has the same access to quality education during the lockdown.

As more and more classes shift online, the sections of society that do not have access to smartphones, laptops and networks are severely disadvantaged. This digital divide may create more challenges for the underserved if we do not collectively address this right away.

One of the things we did was to reach out to those most impacted by lockdown by providing them with grocery kits. We provided 11000 kits across the states we are present in; many of our sponsors partnered with us in the distribution of the kits and identifying beneficiaries. 

How are the Vidyadhan beneficiaries giving back to society through Each One Teach One and other ways?

I believe “Each One, Teach One” is the only way we can fulfil our moral responsibility to give back to society and also to make higher education accessible to all. We believe that the Vidyadhan program is well poised to achieve both. Currently, there are 4300+ students enrolled in the program. Vidyadhan has provided over 17000 scholarships and is expected to grow to 100,000 scholarships, impacting more than 10,000 students and their families in the next 5-7 years. We urge individuals, corporates and developmental sector organizations to join our movement and bring to life our vision, Each One, Teach One.

Our students from Kerala have set a heartwarming example this year by collecting over Rs, 5,00,000 to provide education to other students of their community.

One of our beneficiaries, Parimala the eldest of four, studied in a Kannada-medium school in a remote rural area of Karnataka. Her father is an agriculturist and also runs a small shop in the village. She is the only person in her large, extended family pursuing higher education. What prompted her to take up medicine was the fact that due to a lack of education and certain prevailing social customs there were several marriages between close relatives in her village, resulting in the birth of children with severe disabilities. She appreciates the support extended by her Sponsor and Vidyadhan who stood by her during the initial difficult period at medical college. In future, she wants to help people by creating awareness about medical issues. Parimala’s story is an inspiration for many who wish to transform their lives and the lives of others in the community through education.

Another perfect example of a Vidyadhan scholar rising to the occasion in service of the humankind is Covid-19 Sainik Dr Manoj Kumar KV, interning as a doctor at the Gadag District hospital, Karnataka. Dr Manoj is on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic in the country. He is currently on daily 12-hour night shifts from 8 pm to 8 am. The present duty cycle is for 10 days, followed by a 14-day quarantine in a separate, earmarked building. These are just a few examples of how Vidyadhan beneficiaries are committed to giving back to society through their actions.

What are your goals for the next three to five years? What priorities will help you achieve them? What barriers are in your way?

As I mentioned earlier, our goal is to reach out to all the states in India in the next 5-7 years. External sponsorship has helped us scale faster and reach out to a larger number of students and will continue to remain a priority for us.

As we scaled Vidyadhan, we realized that it is important to bring in partnerships.  These partnerships are not only about sponsorships, but it is also about mentorship and creating opportunities for employment. Over the past 20 years, it has become a ‘pay it forward’ movement.  Individual and Corporate sponsors are using the Vidyadhan platform to bring in change through education. Our challenge is to reach out to more and more youth and at the same time, build these partnerships.

More about Kumari Shibulal

The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives emerged from Kumari Shibulal’s vision to transform lives through education with initiatives like Vidyadhan, Vidyarakshak, ShikshaLokam, and other similar programs. The ‘Vidyadhan’ initiative is a scholarship programme for meritorious students from underprivileged communities, starting from 11th grade till their graduation in the degree of their choice. The ‘Vidyarakshak’ program provides children of martyrs from the Central Armed Police Forces vide BSF, CRPF, CISF, ITBP, SSB & Assam Rifles with scholarship and designed to support the children till 12th grade. ‘ShikshaLokam’ is an Education Leadership Platform, enabling and amplifying leadership development opportunities for individuals and institutions in K-12 education systems. ‘ShikshaLokam’ works towards solving the gaps that exist in education-leadership development space and improving the agency of actors in the ecosystem.

Passionate about doing her bit for the underserved communities, her vision (and that of the Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives) is to level the playing field through education. She saw how underprivileged communities lack access and awareness to infrastructure and basic amenities and decided to act. The children are taught to help others with what they learn and give back to society and help wherever they can. Kumari Shibulal believes in the endless possibilities and potential that can be created through education.

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