What Makes Dr. KK Agarwal, Chairman NBA THE WISE CHANCELLOR – An Exclusive Conversation of Insights and Inspiration with Chetan Sharma, Founder Edumate.tv

Today on the show, we have one of the wisest of all, Professor KK Agarwal who heads the NBA. A man of exceptional foresight, a man who’s been a signature in the field of education, a man who has been absolutely meritorious, all throughout his career. Who’s been a beacon of India’s education system. Tell us about Professor KK Agarwal. What is it that makes him so special?

You called me special, so I accept it. That’s a privilege by itself. I think my journey all has been of hard work, of determination, and of a very strong feeling that I must be able to do something exceptionally good, quality in whatever I do, and that has kept me going.

Talk us through your childhood and how you came up to where you are.

I belong to a very below average income kind of family. I studied in a government, or corporations of primary school. And I went to a school in the town of Amritsar. It was a government school. My first entry to the school itself is a great education. I went to class 1 like everybody does, and on the third day my teacher of Class 1 tells me I can’t handle you for the whole year, what will I teach you? You know everything. I was exceptionally good, quality in whatever I do.  So, let me take you to Class 2. I mean he takes me by the hand and takes me to the teacher of class 2. And he says- well I don’t think this boy has to be wasting a year. So, can we take him in class 2? The teacher of class 2 says, Okay let me try. Make him sit here, give me three days and I’ll come back to you. On the second day, the two teachers get together, and say even one year for class 2 also will be too much, but at least we can try that. And both the teachers jointly go to the principal of the school, which we used to call Headmaster that day, say this boy need not take 1 year in class 1. So we have decided to take him in class 2. And he says that if both of you agree then go ahead. Now why I’m always very happy about this incident is, there is no application from me, there is no application from my father, there is no file of my giving one year promotion, there is no approval, principal didn’t have to send the file to the director of school education, and I was promoted. And many a-times in life i feel as a vice chancellor also, I never felt that empowered which the teachers at that time were. So with the passage of time, we have lost that empowerment, which is so necessary in the academic world, and in a lighter vein, many a-time i recollect, that I became the youngest professor in the world at the age of 27, if those teachers weren’t there, it would have been 28. 

You’ve had an exceptional career. You’ve been first almost throughout. Talk us through that.

Chetan after that I did pre-engineering, we used to call that day, which was class 12. I stood first in the university, and I had beaten all previous records. That time it was Punjab university, which was the only university in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal, Chandigarh at that time. Then I studied for my B-Tech from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, and there again I stood first in the university, beating all previous records. And somehow during those years of engineering, I did start to believe that instead of doing engineering job on the ground, I’ll be better into profession of teaching engineering. And somehow, I could succeed in getting my ambitious career, and got it, and second thing I decided at that time is whatever I achieve I will achieve from the land of India. I will not go to study abroad. I will not go to lecture abroad. I will write in India, publish abroad. So i wrote a book from India, got it published from America. I wrote papers all from India, published 150 of them abroad. I went to 25 universities all over the world, to deliver lectures, not to study. So, the point is, I thought India is a land which can enable us to do everything, and I have to prove it on the ground.

The problem of being so exceptionally bright and being first all throughout at the top of your game all throughout is that- how do you continue to motivate yourself?

First of all, I do believe to some extent that god’s blessing is always there. But second motivation is my family, even extended family, parental side, maternal side, nobody had really gone to school also. So, there was no formal guidance, but somehow my parents were very strong that education is a great value. And they should allow their children to be educated. And when I stood first in the university and in class 12th, I think that was the start of the motivation. You believe, yes you can do it. And they say your own success is your best motivator. I think that happened in my case. And thereafter, God kept on giving me successes, and he kept on motivating me and by god’s grace i could keep myself on track and I kept on achieving to the level where I’m able to talk to a senior person like Chetan.

So sweet of you. You know your crowning glory has to be the founder- vice-chairman of the Indraprastha University, and that could not have been easy. Talk us through the challenges, talk us through that experience.

Indraprastha university was a very great project for me. And when it was offered to me, it was a bit of a challenge to begin with, but the university was born. A very challenging issue at that time which motivated me, in person was, the town of Delhi, which was the seat of power, not only the government of Delhi but the entire central government, we did not establish an engineering college for 25 years. We did not establish a medical college for 35 years, and with such a good school system. So many a-times i used to talk to families and all, that the bright children had very less opportunities in the town of Delhi. And the second thing in this process was- I think the girls were suffering like anything. In our traditional system, still, people were reluctant to send girls outside. So, girls were practically not getting a professional education at all.  So, I thought this is an opportunity which god is providing me, and I accepted this challenge.  

You currently head the NBA. Not too many people are aware of the education system of this country. So just give us a brief of the NBA, what does it do and what has been your contribution to it.

This country has at the moment two accreditation bodies. One is NAAC, another is NBA. NAAC is for the total system of Indian higher education system. NBA is only for technical programs. So, we consider accreditation of only engineering, architecture, management, pharmacy programs. Nothing else. Number 2: we consider in tune with international standards, accreditation of the departments, of the programs, not of the institutions, because like all good universities abroad, we do find that some institutions may have an excellent mechanical engineering but not so good electrical engineering.  So therefore, we do not accredit a college as such or a university as such but accredit program-wise. You are accredited for mechanical engineering, or you are accredited for civil engineering, so on and so forth. So that is one difference. Third important difference is: that we are a member of what we call as Washington Accord. Washington Accord is a consortium of 20 countries’ accreditation bodies which includes USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, etc. And these 20 countries have decided to evolve a uniform method of accreditation. So, the purpose is: if you are a graduate of an engineering college, which is accredited by any of these 20 countries’ agencies, you are fit for placement in any of these 20 countries. So that’s a great thing for international mobility. The whole philosophy was international mobility, at lesser hassles when you go abroad. So that is how Washington Accord enables National Board of Accreditation to acquire a status.

We follow the international standards, international methodology. We’re little tough in evaluation but I believe because this is accreditation, this is not approval, so it’s good to be maintaining standards. And at the moment in the country we have just about 15% programmed accredited. So, we are encouraging more and more people. At the moment the government has issued guidelines that by 2022 at least 50% programs should be accredited. It’s a purpose to encourage them to improve the quality.  So that’s how we go about.

Well, obviously this requires high integrity but also it requires a lot of flexibility and I’ll tell you why: a) because the sense of dynamism now not just in the education system in India and across the world now in the post Covid  environment, it’s even going to get more dynamic, which means there is going to be no new career options, which also means teaching us to be inter-disciplinary. So how flexible, how updated are you and how much are you giving cognisance to India’s external employability when India itself requires employability within itself. 

First is employability, second is employment. Employability-wise, today, in engineering, whether it’s external employability or internal employability, there is very little difference, because the technology is the same and the method of working is the same, so therefore employability is almost the same. Employment is a different pursuit. Second is: as far as these graduate attributes are concerned which I mentioned, they are more or less subject-independent. Because we see Engineers must be able to solve complex problems, and an engineer should have a sound knowledge of science. An engineer should be able to demonstrate good ethics, and so on and so forth. These are the kind of attributes which we have defined, are not so heavily dependent on thermodynamics or design, so on and so forth. Therefore, flexibility in terms of change of knowledge, is built in. That’s not an issue. And I agree with you that the rate of change at this point in the history of civilisation is the highest ever. It has never happened again. And with this rate of change, our education system has to change very fast. And I’m frankly telling you that I’m not very satisfied with the rate of change. We have to change faster. All sorts of combinations are there in the world, we just have to adopt them. I came across a student abroad. I said: What are you studying? He says: Sir I’m studying medical science and economics. As a professor from India, I just cannot imagine how can you study mechanical science and economics formally together. It’s impossible in India as of now at least. So, what I’m trying to tell you is that we need to give opportunities to these types of young thinkers and students who can plan for themselves. A beautiful side of Covid, which is a very negative thing otherwise, is that we are now accepting some flexibility. I always say: our graduates now, not only engineers, everybody will have to have what they say is the T-shaped personality. From T-shaped personality I mean that you need to have a Depth of Knowledge in a subject but the Breadth of Knowledge in several subjects. Unless you do not have breadth of knowledge in several subjects, and only depth of knowledge in some subjects, may not make you a problem solver.

Well you pointed out of course about one opportunity which Covid has thrown out. But there’s been several downsides and challenges. Talk us through the challenges you think are the most poignant and the most difficult and the possible solutions. And why I say this, and particularly for you because you have shown through your experience, particularly with the Indraprastha University how to become self-reliant. And here is a Prime Minister who talks about making a self-reliant country. So what is required to make the Indian education system self-reliant, post-Covid?

We believe and hope that this Prime Minister will be able to give thrust to these educational areas also. For example, number 1, instead of doing compartmentalisation in education, we should rather remove the boundaries. For example, I even believe that knowledge and skills to be treated separately may not be very good today. Because these skills are not uneducated skills of today. Today when I say that 3-d printing is a skill then we must have a knowledge of something. My takes and suggestions which i have formally given also: let us integrate skill courses in these courses itself. Some of the combinations can be very, very unique. For example, In BSc, to a physics student, if I give a course on TV Repair, a person with a background of physics, if he becomes a TV Repair mechanic, he’ll be a wonderful mechanic. Today’s TV is not what it used to be. So, somebody ought to understand it. So, this is one combination. Then another combination I’ve suggested are tourist line, if he has formally studied history and geography, and the third skill subject is tourist guide, the tourist guide who has formally studied the formal subject of history and geography, I don’t think we can produce a better tourist guy in the country than this. My take is that we have come to a point where skills and knowledge must be combined. Our boundaries must be killed. So, the point is that something gets birth somewhere is to be used somewhere else. But encouragement has to be done. That culture has to be encouraged and that can only be done when we remove boundaries. That is why there is a beautiful recommendation in the new education policy, that is yet to be announced, so I don’t think that I am not making a serious mistake by revealing it . One of the strongest recommendations is: from now on we will not establish single disciplinary institutions. We will go with multidisciplinary institutions. And I think that is a great recommendation.

This sir is the era of lateral thinking. And you have just spoken so eloquently about the theory of not just disruption but more important the theory of discovery. That is what is going to enhance the power of learning. Not so much of educating, but we need to learn, we need to become a learner. We have to open up minds. So thank you for encouraging us to do that. Professor Agarwal you spoke about how you turned around and in fact made the Indraprastha University completely self-sufficient financially. What has been the mantra? What would be your advice your advice to them?

85% of the graduates in higher education system are in state universities and are very poorly funded, many of them- very poor standard. We have excellent IITs, we have AIMS of the highest quality. We have some central universities which are better than the best in the world, but the number is very few. Unless we are able to improve the general quality of education which I am sorry to say is pathetic to say the least. So funding is one issue, administration of the university is another issue and secondly this concept that we have a very low fees and all, so either we should say that education is responsibility of the state and we do taxation, whatever we wish to, but we will allow everybody to get quality education – that’s one method. Second is: the ones who can pay were also asked not to pay for several years. For example, I know we made a study in IIT system. All through we admitted students at a fee of 50 rupees a month or 60 rupees a month and 95% plus of them belong to very affluent families. So, the point is education should not be deprived to anybody but those who can pay may be asked to pay without any problem. I am very happy that IITs are recognised world over and with a great degree of recognition and respect, but again I say out of 5000 engineering colleges why I am able to accredit only 15%. Why not at least 50%? Why not at least 60%? So that is the direction in which we have to move. Because I have been very strongly believing that higher education without quality maybe a negative asset.

I started out this conversation saying that we live in an unprecedented pandemic these days. And that has thrown open several challenges and a lot of fear and panic amongst almost everybody related to the education. The student, the parent, the teacher, professor, and even the vice-chancellor. I’d like you with your rich experience your meritocratic background and your excellence in whatever field that you have led each of these.

Well I have two issues on this. One is- this kind of disruption, which is once in a century kind of a thing. It’s a very bad disruption. It has disrupted the whole world. You know that 1.6 billion students are outside the classrooms in the world. In India alone 33 crores plus students, not higher education but total school and colleges, are outside the classrooms. So, they had to be taken care of. And we were never really prepared for online education, to that extent. So, if I look to the firefighting mission, we have done reasonably good.  And at least most of our teachers are trying to deliver some kind of knowledge to the students, some in very good way, some not in very good way, but it’s going on. Similarly, students are receiving it and whatever feedback I get, it’s not bad. I won’t say it’s very good, but it’s not bad. But that’s a firefighting mission and does not mean this can become a norm. So, the norm will be, when we start re-opening. When we start re-opening, the social distancing and all that will have to remain. Therefore, I don’t see in a foreseeable future that our institutions will start functioning the way they used to function in February, because I will not be able to put 60-70-80 students in a class, 30 students in a laboratory at least for a year.  And therefore, wherever I got the chance to talk to the academic world, I said you all be prepared for a blended mode of education. You will have to learn to do something online, something in the classroom. Education I feel will become flexible not only at the level of university, but at the level of the university, at the level of college, at the level of teachers. We’ll have to empower the teachers to decide well this i can cover online, for this I’ll have to have students in the classroom. It will be his decision, I can’t decide it. Students will have to be empowered. Sir, I don’t have broadband in my village, therefore I will like to attend complete course face to face, and you will have to arrange for it. So the facility and the flexibility will have to be there at every level. It will have to be a very flexible system which will come in, and we should like to make the best of it.  As far as quality systems are concerned, we are still not very thorough with the quality system of online education. We’ll have to develop that. I always say when my computer gets virus, i format it, reformat it. Similarly, Covid as a virus has given me an opportunity to reformat our education system. Because to remove the virus, best is to reformat. The system of examination, which you face, I face, everybody faces, that the end of the session every child in every subject will have to write a 3-hour theory exam, I could not find any literature where 3 hours is sacrosanct. Why not two hours? Why not 4 hours?  Why can’t it change from subject to subject? Some subjects may not be done justifiably with theory examination. They may only be justified by a talk between you and me. The best examination may be that. The best examination may be asking you to do some job. so, on and so forth. The point is, examination can vary, from subject to subject and incidentally, I did back of the envelope calculations- this 3-hour examination philosophy, in the answer books and all that, costs us 6 crore trees every year. Only to prepare answer books for this. So, if I reformat the system, and assume I’m able to the reduce this from 3 hours to 2 hours, I save 2 crore trees a year. Let us not go back to what we were, number, and number 2, let us not be too cozy with what we are doing with the firefighting mission. We will have to find a solution in between, and I personally believe this is an opportunity for me to get rid of all the trash in my system.

So, you started off by saying that this pandemic is forcing us to reboot, rethink, rewind and rebuild, and you just said that to reformat. It’s also interesting how you drew a parallel between the 3-hour examination and trees. And you talked about interdisciplinary, about physics and philosophy. In this you require management and ecology to think laterally. So very beautifully how you have exemplified in your experiences in what has to be the future. And you know, that perhaps, is the reason, that we say, that wisdom, is important. And that’s we have this need of a wise chancellor. And if there ever was a wise chancellor, it must be Professor KK Agarwal. One of India’s brightest minds. Thank you, sir, for inspiring us, giving us the opportunity to learn from you, to be the wise chancellor.

I’m so happy that you took this initiative. And in the lighter vein I have always been saying, our media space is either for film actors, for criminals, or for cricketers. Very rarely we have space for intellectuals, for academicians I think it’s a very great initiative on your part to be able to talk to some people from the academic world and take their experiences, each one of them is richly experienced.

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