What Makes Dr. Sandeep Sancheti, VC, SRM University THE WISE CHANCELLOR – An Exclusive Conversation of Insights and Inspiration with Chetan Sharma, Founder Edumate.tv
We learn to live and live to learn in what has turned out to be an unprecedented pandemic, with history being written across the geography of Mother Earth. where a minor virus has created a major catastrophe, making all of us rewind, reboot, reset and rethink before we rebuild a new world, we rebuild a new education world. In the world of education there is one thing that comes as the biggest characteristic, is the strongest trait in a situation like this. And that word is Wisdom. Wisdom emanating from past experience and knowledge wisdom to be flexible, empathetic, exploratory and embrace as you anticipate the future which will become the new normal and it is that wisdom that gives rise to our special program for higher education. The Wise Chancellor. And today on our show The Wise Chancellor we have a very special guest with us. He is Dr. Sandeep Sancheti. He is the Vice Chancellor of one of South India’s and of course now India’s more prolific University names, the SRM University. Dr. Sancheti has been a legacy in his own right in the education space and we are so privileged to have him talk with us in today’s Wise Chancellor.
Thank you Chetan ji and I am delighted to be on this series of Wise Chancellors, a very unique way of defining the domain of Vice Chancellors to be more Wise. It’s a very attractive, very innovative and catchy title.
It’s good that you mentioned the word Innovative top of the line. Because that really has really got to be the biggest skill set, the biggest arm in the ammunition of any Vice Chancellor particularly in today’s very circumspective environment with Covid . Talk us through your experiences of Covid, your challenges and your unique solutions.
Of course, Covid has been one of the biggest challenges in each one of our lives. When you are handling a situation where you are dealing with a large set of population, the young, intelligent aspirants and with different expectations, satisfying their quest or whatever they want, is a big challenge.
But from Day 1, the moment its occurrence happened, the prime focus for people like me would be to be innovative, be different, and make sure that whatever we do comes close to the best in the situation. And I still remember on 16th of March, in a very big way we talked about online education delivery, right on that day. After that we made sure that every point where we have to decide something critical either we have to take feedback on this or fully follow the government guidelines or local requirements which are there. And therefore, we have not faced a single challenge under Covid. Though we have a hospital that is 1050 to 1100 beds in the campus itself and all our Medical staff – Doctors, nurses, PG interns and all other support staff are part of that. But we maintained that all the discipline and requirements are taken care of. As a result, the University has been able to handle all the 55,000 students well in time, appropriately. Most of the results are declared but for the arrear examinations, which are the back examinations. That is being sorted out now as the priority first was the regular examinations. Fortunately, all our Final Year students have graduated, they are able to join the organisations that they want to or go for higher studies wherever they want to, and they are very happy and satisfied. One of the biggest initiatives which has been recently approved by the ICMR as a government of India’s first major drive for the Corona Vaccine, SRM hospital, college has been identified as partners of the covid vaccine trials. The new vaccine.
Brilliant. The government has obviously been in the same sense of mental unprecedence in this scenario, like all of us, and they have been aggregating policies, they have been soliciting advice and disseminating it. Some decisions have been taken which seem to be somewhat controversial whether it be scrapping examinations, whether it was almost enforcement of online education, without ensuring that most people have access to digital infrastructure, also in a way, alluding to a very sinister digital divide. What’s your take on it?
I must say that India is a very different country, a very complex country with possibly the highest level of diversity one can imagine in any given country, be it languages, be it religions , expectations , political settings or social setting and then of course the financial well beingness, various things, whatever those 10 key indicators it will take. To satisfy everyone with one single order would be very difficult. And particularly education being a subject that is dealt both by the Centre and the State, it’s in the common place, the initial agencies which might be doing all that that what are the directives, they give it to us whether it is the HRD Ministry directly or the other statutory bodies like AICTE they in my opinion have done an immense job this time. They have given us the liberty to go as you please. In my opinion. I don’t remember a single dictate coming from them saying Dr. Sancheti do this in SRM, don’t do this in SRM. It’s not there And therefore the liberty is there with us. The most unfortunate part for us is that many of us don’t understand that liberty. When I meet many of my colleagues, in this position, as Vice Chancellors or senior academic administrators, I still find that they are waiting for more dictates, more directives coming from the government. We have to decide our own destiny, we have to make sure that we take our call, make it good and we honor it, under the given circumstances. We need to be mature enough that we can take a call, whether it is online/offline examinations, whether it is marks conversion, or extension of marks or whether it is delaying a semester or admission to +2 or whatever. Institutions have the autonomy which they want and which they deserve Now what is required is that they need to know how to use it.
You know there is also a sense of confusion, when you leave things open. For instance, if the Centre comes out with a directive and the state counters that directive, which we have seen. If In the recent past when the Centre is saying something the state is contradicting this and that, that sends a message of confusion. So, while the sense of autonomy is welcomed but confusion certainly cannot prevail in an environment that is already so dynamic and already so confusing. Two things which I as a journalist have been advocating and appealing with the government is just the expenditure in education, the accountability of expenditure in education which is woefully shorter than any developing country. And when our constitution says that we need to provide free and compulsory education till the age of 16, we are 70 years past that, and we are pathetically short. That’s the concern.
In India we have an inverted model as far as the education funding is concerned. Education in the world, in the best of the schools, high quality schools is considered free and as a matter of pride is delivered to the student and the cost is not very high, it is relatively cheap. Whereas the same student when he or she goes for higher education they pay a reasonable cost. They take loans, student loans and various other things which is a common practice. Therefore, it is charged, maybe subsidized but not to a great deal. India is typically a reverse model. Here the highest quality of school education is the dearest and most difficult and parents pay through their nose. And when they come to institutions like government institutions, IITs and other such things, till recently it was highly subsidized. Even in the best of the Universities in the country, I would challenge you to find out the rates yourself, how much a student pays in Delhi University for a graduation course. Or a Hyderabad University or for that matter JNU. how much he pays for staying there or studying there, It is highly subsidized, So, after all someone has to pay for the education, The second is inversion cannot be sustained for a long time, So whatever kitty government is giving maybe meagre, maybe small, it is fine. One can always say that the world is giving 3% or 4% of GDP. we should also have. But whatever kitty we have today is also limited to a few institutions whereas it should go to others also. We have a large population. We cannot indefinitely pump money from the pockets of the public into subsidizing higher education. And just because, and that is my personal opinion, because higher education is a little cheap, everyone takes a plunge without even calculating whether it is meaningful to them or not. They just want to study BA, B. Com because they think it doesn’t cost them much , but the moment it costs them much, they will probably think about why am I studying BA or B.Com or B.Tech .Right now we are taking a blind call . What I am saying is that our models are not very worthy in the current context. No institution, no organisation can easily be called as financially autonomous unless it’s a profit-making body. Unfortunately, in case of government we always look at the government for the budgetary allocation which are generally delayed and deferred. So, when we come to private, we are playing into the hands of some of the owners and once again the control of the academicians probably is less. So, whether you are in government or you are in private, doesn’t matter, you still have a challenge of finance and I will say it will remain a challenge.
You talked about Leadership. What is it that makes Dr. Sancheti so unique a leader?
I tend to describe myself as an ordinary or average person But I am always proud to say that my efforts are above average. By the way, I am a teacher by choice and not by chance. This is the first and last profession I have been in. And I have changed hands with very few institutions. Only at the requirement of the government. That has helped me but when I started my innings way back in 1984 as a lecturer, for some reason I developed keenness to work and learn. This is my bread and butter. This is what is making me survive in life and therefore it is my duty that till the working hours are defined I will never leave my institution. As a result, I started doing work, people liked my work, those who wanted work to be done. But I was also a human being. Sometimes, the pressure worked, and I did one or two things in a hurry, so that I can complete this and also be with my friends outside. At that time, one of my initial mentors, I would say the first mentor, he told me Sandeep I love you, I like you for what you are doing but I know why this mistake has happened. And those words I think are still reverberating in my ears and I remember that was 36 years ago. So that was the foundation and probably through him I learnt many such things like how to survive in life and what to do if you want to make a difference. And wherever I went, whatever I did, I made sure that I would try and contribute and make differences to those institutions. That was my effort right from Day 1. I took a plunge into new challenges and activities.be it research, be it administration, be it teaching a new subject or starting a social thing. That choice, that foundation and probably that mentorship made a difference to me to what I am today. And anyway, my best comes when I face the challenges rather than when it is status quo. The Teamwork has been good and therefore I have survived, I have done well and now touch wood I have been Vice Chancellor for 15 years. I survived because my fundamentals were, I would say particularly clear in this respect. Yes I am aspirational but not for my personal requirements. For my Institutions requirements certainly. I’ll not let it compromise. I have many unique situations in my life which I have dealt with poise, clarity and maturity. And that has established me in my position and I still remember them and enjoy them.
Not only aspirational, I think you are also inspirational. Inspirational because I observe you’ve always had a quest for things. Always had a desire to learn, not only teach and you’ve always had a need to keep enhancing your satisfaction. That is perhaps what led you to go out of the way. Not only be a Vice Chancellor but also head associations like the AIU which has a seat in various other bodies. Talk us through that experience.
I have taken known plunges into certain things which might be of societal needs, which might be slightly diverse from the institutional normal requirements. For example, today I am on the advisory board of SPIC MACAY. I have helped bodies and societies like Jaipur Foot, if you know, which is providing more than 100 countries in the world and doing all charitable things. So, for them we developed Jaipur Hands and so these things were perhaps not essential or not required in any case. So, I think that they reflect that you have an interest in that. But then leadership is very different in this particular context. For example, one of the institutions that I joined, in my early years, as Head of an institution it was on 2 sides of a national highway.
Every year we have loss of life at least two to three people will die because of accidents on that national highway. I was not happy. I said something must be done. And something was in the pipeline also, but I sort of accelerated and catalyzed that. I found that, across three locations in my institution, we can create an underpass, I understood the best of technology for creating underpass and finally all the proposals we got assessed within our Institution, design,, drawing, costing , timing etc, technology requirements and I decided that it is time to go. So, how do we go about it. I knew that I have got to do something from the Ministry of Surface transport of the government of India because it is a national highway. I contacted people there and then I found a connect. There I learnt some things as my right, my institutional rights, not individual ones and certain dos and don’ts and the whole thing galvanised and within 4 hours whatever my requirements were there in terms of my design, drawings, everything was done. And that’s how you push for certain things because you have passion and clarity and you do preparation for that. But when that Project of underpass came for inauguration knowing my passion and my push for that Project, they said no one else can inaugurate that Project, it has to be you. So that is the kind of recognition that you get when you do things with passion. That is the difference I think I try to make in my leadership.
Passion and Perseverance, two takeaways from that part of the conservation from you Dr, Sancheti. And tell, us how you use these two virtues of yours at the helm of the AIU association of universities which is one of India’s finest associations.
With AIU I have been associated for a long time. It has been headed by many big luminaries and former Presidents of the country also. I’ve been a board member, I’ve been the Vice President, the President and also the Immediate Past President. I got a stint of 4 to 5 years. That allowed me to make a difference. I made a commitment that I am a sports lover and since no one is taking care of the sports in higher education, we revived things and AIU last year was the most integral and key part in Khelo India. I was also invited to grace, and it was my dream. One of the best awards for the performance, one of the biggest aspirants of Indian athlete Dutee Chand was given by me. AIU is now playing a big role for example, I got an opportunity to defend certain things of the Parliamentary Standing Committee in terms of what changes the new Education policy should bring. One and half, two years back that was done by us. Also, on the important issue of what roles some of these bodies should play when the new nomenclature of some bodies was floating. So we were formally asked what should be done in terms of going further. So in that sense, policy planning, a little bit of research in higher education space AIU is doing it. I played a minor role in terms of whatever time I got with them, but I am very happy that it is in safe hands, it has very good policies and it will drive Indian higher education into good positioning in times to come.
Well we talked about Dr. Sancheti as a legacy of leadership. Let’s talk about the legacy that you now run, The SRM, which has been of very high repute in this country. Talk us through your experience with SRM and what is it that makes SRM so unique.
When I entered into SRM I was also once again a Planning and Monitoring Board member of SRM. So, I knew the institution well and they also knew me and that helped me. SRM is one of the biggest challenges I have seen because 1) it has the biggest diversity. Everything in terms of domain and in terms of disciplines which can be offered is offered. I have learnt about many other such disciplines which were not in my kitty earlier. 2) on top of that SRM is one of the biggest self-financed institutions in the country, as a deemed university. That is the other one. And this is the only one that I have handled with multiple campuses. Our campus is also there in Delhi, also some parts of Chennai and Tamil Nadu and of course the place where I sit. Therefore, many different kinds of experiences. It’s one of the unique ones when it comes to research. It has pioneered very interesting avenues for the faculty and today it is doing an extremely good number of publications. We were awarded and rewarded by the government of India, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, for our performance two years ago. Last year various agencies put together, Government and professional institutions like CII, FICCI etc must have given us at least half a dozen awards including the Best University Award which is there. The best Swachata Award which is the focus for the MHRD these days. The 3rd best Smart and Clean Campus Award. Most of the Innovation Awards have fallen in our way. We are doing very big in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. I would say that the ecosystem is very good. We are able to tray and experiment with some very good things which are there here. And we cater to a large number of disciplines of B.A, B.Com, some dual degrees, some international collaborations , abroad programs, exchange programs etc. And I would say that we are in the top 10 in the country in almost all categories of definitions.
What about the New Normal courses? New career options and the new adaptations online? Any update with that?
Very much. Online is the way to go. I have been a strong advocate of the Online and therefore this online or Distance or Virtual or whatever you call them, they are all belonging to the same kitty. And I call them Flexible education from my side because they all deliver flexibility to the learner. Because the learner goes up to 65, so this Flexible education is going to be the future of the world. After 25 years of my graduation. Let’s say I graduate at 25 and I want to acquire new knowledge, I will not be able to sit in a class because I have to earn my bread and better. I will have to continue with my job. My company does not like to lose me if they like me. So online is what one should prepare. SRM is already big into that. Almost from Day 1 we have delivered everything online. We discussed it in our very first meeting. We are not only in the classroom delivery. I must say that within the first 10 days of our working under the Covid functioning, maybe from the first week of April we bought 10000 licenses of a particular software to deliver our entire library remotely to our students at their homes if they so wish. So, you can imagine our attention to that kind of detail, in our interest and our investment. We must be the highest in the country for buying such licenses for delivering the classes online. And not only that, now we have started working in a big way in the virtual laboratory space. Lab work sometimes suffers. Not all lab work can be converted into online, but many engineering and some disciplines can be converted so we are working on that. Fortunately, we had an internal system called CARE, Centre for Applied Research and Education which was doing a lot of inhouse such things for peoples training in Analytics, Job related Training or Communication Skills and we also had our own in-house platforms for testing and examinations for such things online. So, at no point we are found wanting as far as the online is concerned. Yes, we have developed the tools in house, dashboards in terms of detailing all such things and taking the feedback and analysing which are to be seen to be believed. I may be in policy planning and deciding but in execution those people count a lot. The Deans, the Directors, the HODs, the Coordinators, they have all been on their toes and yes very few challenges. One with the examinations which we face. When we are about to launch the examination online fully and imagine 50,000 students, 6 subjects, 3 lac papers and some more back papers so you can imagine 35 to 40 lac papers to be done online, a huge task. We are about to engage a party and then we learnt how our sister organisation of similar size and nature, they were facing a lot of heat. We decided to conduct a very beautiful survey with our students in a very controlled and perfect survey and in that we got the flu insight what our students want and with that survey we made sure that we deliver that and we are satisfied. Most of the results are declared. Every semester typically I will have one meeting with all my students of my institution. An open house for the students. Another one in the semester would be an open house for the faculty. Come and discuss anything but for your individual problems. You cannot come and say why am I not promoted or why payment is not given. Any policy matter will be brought to my attention and we will deal with it and talk about it and these practices always allow good connect with our stakeholders. We did not have any challenge and the last point, in this context I would like to make is that, in my life as a Vice Chancellor in 14 years now I never had a single day breakdown in my operations.
Everything that is happening, as the crisis unfolds, its unprecedented, is affecting the entire ecosphere, students, teachers, parents, Vice Principals and the government at large. In an environment like that I would like to draw from your experience and knowledge to give a sense of advice to each of these role players.
There are 5 Ps, you can say, that I use in my functioning and that is Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. If in your planning, you can embed the extremities of the cases which this planning has to deal with. I am sure your planning will be successful. If the last of the students who might face a challenge is covered in this plan, I think your plan is successful because it will not create more work for you, it will create more happiness. My role as a leader, whether I am dealing with my seniors or whether I am dealing with my juniors, I have always maintained this position that I will speak my mind and I tell them that I am doing it purposely to make sure that your decision is robust . When I do that, I also promote people who differ from me. In most cases my team has understood that I will be a team player with them as long as they are putting on a thinking hat and as long as they are coming with their perspectives and ideas. If you have a challenge and don’t have an idea and can’t resolve the situation, you can very well come to me. That is the kind of advice I will give that is to speak your mind, make sure that you are doing it for the institution, no personal angle, no liking/ disliking of any individual to promote. If you play right, with a straight bat I am sure that the chances of getting out will be less. I leave my office problems in the office and go back the next day and solve them, the same thing that we spoke also. But I certainly make sure that my table remains clean with my wok that is due. Today’s work will be done today only. I let important things happen, but I don’t let emergencies come into my work, generally speaking.
Absolutely wonderful! I will add three Ps to your list of 5 Ps -In this environment you have got to be Pragmatic, you have got to be Positive and you have got to be Progressive. If we do that we will always be in a state of preparedness. And you will not fail. And even if delay comes our way it will be a learning. Thank you for adorning the show.
I was immediately impressed when I was connected with Edumate with whatever efforts you are doing, the way you conducted your webinars and other events which I followed, and I have seen online. And of course, I have also had an opportunity to participate. This particular event which we are doing right now as Wise Chancellor, I think is an unbelievable thought.