Interview by Bhawna Rawat
Dr. Raj Singh is currently working as the Vice Chancellor of Ansal University and honorary Vice Chairman of Education India Foundation at New Delhi. Till recently, he was the Vice Chancellor of Rayat-Bahra University (RBU), Mohali. He was also the Director General of Amity Business School, NOIDA, Director of ICFAI Business School (IBS) New Delhi from inception in 1995. He joined Indian Air Force in 1981 at the age of 16 ½ and served there for about 14 years prior to entering the field of education in 1994.
A Postgraduate in Economics and Doctorate in Strategic Cost Management, Dr. Singh was the topper of the coveted Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program from the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) and has had an exemplary career spanning over 36 years. A strong proponent of Flexible, Inter-disciplinary and Trans-disciplinary learning, he has a unique leadership style that has significantly contributed towards the establishment and growth of some of the finest Universities in the country. A rare blend of academics and administration, he is highly regarded for his oratory skills. Dr. Singh is known for designing innovative programs in collaboration with foreign Universities from the US, UK, Australia, Italy and France.
An avid researcher, acclaimed teacher, astute administrator and Institution builder, Dr. Singh has been a trainer and consultant in areas of Corporate Governance. His clients include both Indian and Multinational companies like TATA, Air India, Telecom Consultants of India Ltd., Denso India, ANZ Grindlays, NTPC, GAIL, SAIL and others. He has trained over 4000 teachers in school as well as higher education. Dr. Singh has published and presented many research papers and delivered keynote addresses in over 80 national and international conferences and has been a panelist in many TV shows, featured as one of the movers and shakers on the Daily World Post and “My Icon” on FM channel in 2016 and 2017. He represented India at the International Design Summit held in Milan, Italy in 2013 and is a TEDx speaker.
Widely traveled, Dr. Singh has been a visiting Professor at IIT-Delhi and Delhi School of Economics. He has been on advisory boards of many Institutions and University Departments, Education Promotion Society for India (EPSI) and was the Vice Chairman of Quality Committee on Education of QCI, Govt. of India. He regularly chairs the expert committees of National Board of Accreditation (NBA) and was a member of the first Governing Council of the Rajasthan Science Congress. He has been conferred on with Awards for exemplary Education Leadership in 2012, 2016 and 2017.
Choosing the education sector was a personal choice after working for Indian Airforce
I have been in the education sector since 1994 that makes it about 24 years plus. I have worked in 5 different states and headed 5 different private universities and before working in the education sector I worked with the Indian Airforce for 14 years. Therefore, completing about 37 years of my total career.
I think the answer lies in my switch from Indian Airforce to academics. I had to come to the industry which I am meant for. Apart from my own interest, I belong to a family of teachers. So, it was very natural to come in this industry and therefore by choice and not because something compelled me. This industry has given me tremendous growth. I entered as a lecturer in 1994 and became the Vice-chancellor in the year 2010. So, I have all the reasons to be satisfied.
There are three different ways of looking at the concept of leadership
Leadership can be defined in 2-3 different ways. An organization can be run, managed or led.
So the difference is – when you run an organization it means that somebody will come and teach something so that you get some qualification but nobody knows what the “something” is. You carry on the basic activities.
When you say you are managing an organization it means you are able to gather the people who are experts in their own areas and at times more capable than you.
Leading an organization means channelizing the energy of the expertise of the people, who are more capable than you, to reach the organizational objectives. That is leadership according to me.
The second concept of leadership to me is particularly in an academic institution set up, that you act as a reflection for your colleagues and students. I have mentioned that we have people who are more capable than me. I act as a mirror which reflects the brilliance of these people and the outside world thinks that I am a great leader. You surround yourself with good people, good teachers and good students. And my firm belief is that if given a certain choice, students can do certain things better than us.
I try to give them a platform and bring them back on track. I think that it also goes with the philosophy of teaching which is being advocated these days- by making students hands-on and make them learn things by doing. That common thread runs through all the activities in the university.
We can overcome challenges if we focus on the possibilities and stop giving excuses
Fortunately, today, private universities enjoy autonomy. Also in past 4-5 years, regularity bodies have become more flexible, they are giving more options, more choices to the institutions to work on their own. For example, choice-based credit system launched by UGC in 2014 gives you the flexibility of offering multiple pathways to the students not only from within the domain but also beyond the discipline.
For example, a student of engineering is allowed to pursue a specialization in humanities or design. Depending on what discipline you have on the campus. We have been benefiting from this. The only challenge is that we come under the state education department and the policies from one state to another are quite different. Some states do not have the system of the programs being approved by the Dept. of education but in some state, for every programme, you have to go to the education department to seek approvals. Even though you don’t go to UGC. So that is quite strange.
And the kind of challenge we have faced is, for example, I want to start a B.tech course in one of the new areas be it artificial intelligence or robotics, the state department of education treats them as a separate programme. Even the UGC says that B.Tech. Computer Science is a programme under which whatever you want to do you can do. So there is a conflict in the systems which doesn’t facilitate us to enjoy this autonomy to full extent.
Apart from this, at times, you have state policies of more socialistic kind of approach. For example, you have to grant certain scholarships on some criterion which does not go with the merit criteria and they may affect the quality of intake, apart from the financial constraints you have. Barring these 2-3 things rest is fine. There is a lot of scope for creativity. I think the problem is only with the academic universities and institutions. We don’t enjoy this autonomy and we look for areas where we are restricted by somebody and give excuses for not doing something.
The importance of time management
Time management is very important. It’s extremely important for the academic institutions that you engage with the students in the classroom as well as outside the classroom. And to engage with the students and faculty you need to manage time well. The new environment in academic institutions is that you have to provide an unfailing support to the student. It's not only for the academics but I think they expect the student service should be very efficient. This percolates down from the lower level to the top management.
If I am not efficient if I don’t attend the student’s grievances if I don’t resolve them on time, similar kind of things will go down the line. So, it has to start with me. We need to come on time and of course, there is no time for going back but we are reasonably able to manage it. We don’t delay too much. We don’t waste the time. I offer an open door policy. Student, faculty or anybody else can meet me at any time, of course, when I am free. Time management is also important because the kind of activities you perform in new age universities are much different from traditional universities and you can’t manage if you don’t attend university full time.
There are a lot of activities with which faculty members are involved which are beyond teaching. The faculty members invest a lot of their time with students and parents which again is a major factor of time management. Second thing is that we use technology. So, the repetitive work where you don’t need one to one interaction can be done through technology- be it mails, WhatsApp groups etc. Attendance, leave, assignments are done through ERP.
I am happy to say that we may be one of the most efficient universities in the country in terms of non-teaching staff versus teaching staff ratio. Even as the non-teaching staff, we have people who are very efficient, full of energy and highly qualified. Also, we have cut down on the staff which was involved in the unproductive work, repetitive kind of work.
We have adopted a transdisciplinary curriculum to ensure that the knowledge learned by students is applied in the real-life
One of the philosophies of our education is the transdisciplinary curriculum. When you teach a single discipline it is called one discipline, when you teach more than one discipline it is called multi-discipline but the difference is they don’t interact. When you teach more than two disciplines but they also interact with each other and they see the application of one discipline in other that is called interdisciplinary. When you solve the problems of life with the knowledge and skill of two or more disciplines it is called transdisciplinary.
So, you use the knowledge of different disciplines to solve larger or common problems. In our university we have adopted a trans-disciplinary curriculum and how do we ensure it? Let's say no matter which program you are enrolled to, you have to take one course from another school. For example, a student from engineering can opt for design school or whatever depending on their interest and aptitude and if throughout the program they are able to earn significant credit units, they can get a minor degree.
So there are cases where an engineering student walks away with a minor degree in law. It's not that the faculty from the school will come to teach this course. Students from 6-7 school sit together and study the same course. We not only want that the students learn through theory but they also interact with people from different disciplines and learn how they view this course. Because at the end of the day everything converges because it is meant for human beings.
As you grow in career your domain specific knowledge takes a back seat and what is useful is if you are able to link the knowledge of one discipline to the other discipline. Essentially these programs are in a project manner. There are a few theory classes, where they are guided what kind of projects they can do. They have been able to do projects like – “Reviving Sultanpur bird sanctuary – tourist destination” “studying decision making in families in regions of Mewat in Haryana” and many myths have been broken. A myth that decisions are taken by men in a male-dominated society is contradictory to what we have found that decisions were taken by women in the family- including aborting a child. The adverse sex ratio was a point for this kind of studies. I think 3-4 years ago Haryana had the lowest gender ratio. We really got concerned but students should be sensitized to this.
Some of the issues which we never targeted also came in during the studies, which no classroom can teach. They need to go out and meet the people from all boxes of life (education, work, retirement). Students compiled the report and these conclusions were extremely significant for us. I think we were able to sensitize our students to social issues and to prepare them to face reality and make a difference to it. I can go on citing these examples where students have actually made a 3-D printer from waste just for 40 thousand rupees. So, they have learnt a lot of these things in theory and they could find its application. So I think this one feature distinguishes us from the rest- One of the major pillars.
Apart from this, here one of the mandates for us is that we need to teach the programs which are relevant to the industry. We ensure the pedagogies where the industry practices are integrated. A large part of the course is taught by industry experts. And essentially the pedagogy is project based where they work on live projects. Fortunately, we are very close to the industry in terms of location.
The fourth pillar we kept is character building. I personally believe that post-2008 economic recession the importance of character building and ethical behaviour has increased to levels which are unprecedented. I personally believe that and so do our management that some of the decisions taken by CEO and senior executives are not good because of which the companies fail. If they had been educated well, they wouldn’t have taken those decisions.
I think character and ethics have been put to greater scrutiny these days as never before. It has to find a place in the curriculum.
Placement opportunities available at ANSAL UNIVERSITY in four different ways
According to me, placements should be looked at 4 different ways. One is when you start working with a company and get a monthly salary. Our placements have been more than 80% in all the areas. The second thing is some students want to go for a startup or join the family business, so we need to develop them as entrepreneurs. So the course includes studies like how to write a business plan that is mentored by some of the industry people who have had startup experience. We have an entrepreneurship development cell.
The third program is competitive examinations. For example, if a student of Law wants to go for the judiciary exams or a management student wants to go for PO or Civil services, we provide this facility on campus. The fourth path is if they want to go for higher education and give exams like G-MAT, SAT etc. We provide that as well on our campus. These 4 paths are all inclusive and you can take care of the students from all these paths.
Establishing a relationship with the students being the VICE CHANCELLOR
Personally, I have been known as someone who is very close to the students. For me attending to the student is a top priority then comes the faculty. And thirdly the Dean. And I have deliberately kept this priority. Because if you are close to the students you get to understand the problems and the issues. For this, I regularly meet the students.
Secondly, I make use of technology in a big way. If I have some idea for the students, I opt for mass mail- I write a page and mail it to them. I am part of all the WhatsApp groups of the faculties which are maintained school wise. I think technology is a great blessing in terms of reaching out to the people. And
Thirdly, of course, we have a very efficient system for the students so that if there are any grievances which they think is not taken care of. You are most welcome to come and meet me and they do it. Every day I meet 5-6 students.
Ensuring an ideal school environment on the campus
My definition of discipline is- I call it open discipline, wherein my curiosity is not suppressed. I have allowed the students to laugh, smile, play and enjoy while my stay on the campus. But then we tell them the boundary of mannerism and the boundary of civility.
Create platforms for the students where they can express their feelings both creative as well as enjoyment activities. It doesn’t feel like the experience in the university is painful while academic rigor is always there.
But how do you ensure that they do it in a way that they enjoy doing it?
Again it boils down to the fact that my pedagogy has to be hands on. We have lots of welfare activities.
Goals for the college for the next few years
Our vision for the university is that we achieve excellence and sustainability in education through Globalization which means that each student should have global exposure. This could be done in many ways. One is that they can make a visit to our foreign partner universities. To give you an example we have partnered with the University of Warwick. The only one partner in India they have is us. It is the top university not only in England but in the world.
We are working with a university in west England. This was rated as the top university in robotics. We have 8-10% of faculty members who are from abroad. We are a university which wants to focus on premium programs in terms of unique programs. Recently in the school of health sciences, we have set up 2 centres of excellence. One is in collaboration with Oxsight- a company promoted by Oxford University. They have developed smart glass for nearly blind people. The second centre we have established is in collaboration with Menicon UK. The centre is specialized in corrective contact lenses for sight enhancement.
Important skills that the students must possess in today’s environment
Students really need to learn and work hard. They should learn how to earn a degree and not to expect an easy way. They need to learn discipline. They have to be genuine in everything. My message to them is that if you spend your time at university you will find the solutions to all your problems.