Born on 21 January 1953 in a village named Thullur, situated in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Vajja Sambasiva Rao began his academic career in 1980 as an Assistant Lecturer at BITS-Pilani, Pilani Campus, Rajasthan. In a career spanning 38 years, Prof. Rao has held various faculty positions at BITS Pilani. As an Administrator he has held positions including Acting Vice Chancellor & Director BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus; Deputy Director, Off-campus Programmes & Dean, Practice School Division amongst others. After working with BITS Pilani for more than four decades in various capacities, Dr. Rao is currently working as the President of NIIT University, which inherits three decades of rich expertise and global know-how of its principal sponsor, the NIIT Group.
The Top 200 list of various global ranking agencies continue elude Indian institutes due to our poor performance in research and innovation. Except a few premier colleges like IISc and IITs, a culture of research is missing across the board. Be it in private universities or public universities, lack of incentives for research is one of the major reasons why we are not able to imbibe research culture in our campuses. It is high time that we should talk about introducing outcome-based research funding, like the way we did it for outcome-based learning. Both faculty members and students who are doing quality research should receive adequate funding and rewards, which will help us to elevate our status as a knowledge economy.
On the other hand, our scholars should conduct mission-oriented, deliverable and robust researches that are relevant to the society. Today, most of our researches are stereotyped, as they are conducted for the sake of counting the number of publications. Conducting relevant and markable research comes with a lot of responsibilities. Unfortunately, not many Indian research aspirants are not ready embark on this journey of responsible research. How many of our research publications have a good impact factor and citation index? How many of these researches are patentable? How many of these researches have created intellectual property? How many of these research findings have been converted into successful businesses? We need to evaluate our work in this backdrop, so that research and innovation culture in our institutions will take prime position.
If we care about our research and do things that matters to the society and world at large, we can circulate a culture of research down to the undergraduate level
Institutes like NIIT University have centers for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship to promote researches that can not only solve the real-life problems but also can be viable in the market. In fact, if we care about our research and do things that matters to the society and world at large, we can circulate a culture of research down to the undergraduate level. We have seen it in premier institutions across the globe; when students are sent to industries for internships, they put in a lot of hard work irrespective of their academic performance. We should also integrate and empower women in this direction to reap more benefits.
Challenges in Developing a Qualified Faculty Pool
Dearth of qualified faculty members who can lead the research activities remain as one of the major roadblocks for Indian institutions, especially for those who fall into the category of tier II and tier III colleges. Just because we do not have enough faculty strength in staffrooms, we cannot wait eternally to build the much-needed research culture in the campus. Unlike IITs and other premier institutions who have qualified academicians at their disposal, faulty members and students of tier II and tier III colleges need to work together to improve the research activities inside the campus.
Fundamentally, administrators of these colleges need to work on creating a research mindset among the students and faculty members by giving them proper incentives. At NIIT University, we give research assistance to relevant projects taken up by the students and faculty members. Similarly, by creating effective processes and platforms to improve research, tier II and tier III colleges can eventually become tier I colleges. The moment we start operating academic intuitions by focusing on research, we can see a good amount of research-oriented faculty members coming out from our institutions. These faculty members will inspire the students to look at the problems prevailing in the society, instead of loading them with information written in the text books.
The curriculum must be completely re-oriented from education 2.0 to education 4.0, to serve the needs of industry 4.0
Collaborating with foreign universities will help Indian institutions in a big way to create such a research ecosystem. Unfortunately, most of our MoUs with international universities are passive, as they are there only for the sake of publicity. We should consider making active relationship with global and premier Indian institutions as the way forward. Through these MoUs, our faculty members will get to experience a different culture of education and it will bring a lot of improvement in their thought process. It will also broaden their perspective, especially in the field of research. Similarly, we should also consider making a provision for sending our PhD students to experience the research culture of global universities. Leaders in the areas like Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley and many more can teach our students a few lessons that we may not be able to do right now.
Making Leaders and Talent for the Future
In this era of industry 4.0, we can call our young generation digital natives. In the light of emerging technologies, we should ponder on how better the education transaction can be conducted. However, many of our universities are still preparing our students for the past. The curriculum must be completely re-oriented from education 2.0 to education 4.0, to serve the needs of industry 4.0. We should understand that knowledge is going to rule the world. Be it Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Cyber Security or any other digital technologies, we need to prepare our students to face the challenges of Industry 4.0. In that way, I will appreciate the efforts of NIIT University. Because of our deep industry engagements, we get feedbacks from the industry rapidly and make dynamic changes in the curriculum, as responsiveness of the institute is so high.
The presence of a strong leadership is also imperative to achieve all the goals that we set to achieve in our journey ahead. The leaders should be able to communicate and generate solutions with the involvement of people around them. It should not be from the top to bottom, it should be from the bottom to top. My advice is to take the best practice. Whether it is from the past or the present, or whether it is available with you or outside, try to follow the best practices and continuously strive to improve upon those. (As told to Sarath Shyam)