Interview by Yash Panchal
Currently serving as the Director (International Relations) at SRM University, Mr. Kartar Singh Holds professional graduate and post- graduate qualifications in industrial microbiology from the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. He has served British Council for more than 3 decades. He taught Food Science for 2 years at the Institute of Food Science and Technology, Mumbai and then worked as a food microbiologist in a central government-sponsored project on post-harvest fisheries.
Mr. Singh was South India's first Deputy Director based in Chennai, responsible for programs and projects in various fields. He holds great experience and expertise in project cycle management, including project identification, design, formulation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. He has been an adviser and consultant to several Indian and UK organizations engaged in teacher training, school education and environmental conservation.
In many of his achievements, he helped design the flagship UK-India Education and Research Initiative that has defined the bilateral relationship between UK and India in Science, Technology, and Education. He also handled large teams and led on design and management of over 100 projects valued at over 5 million pounds. He has also developed many schemes and programs for bilateral collaboration in areas like poverty alleviation, gender development, advocacy and health management.
Mr. Singh’s experience and interest in the education industry
My first job was a research-oriented job when I worked for a Govt. of India project in industrial microbiology. Although, there was not much application in terms of education involved in that, the research work had quite a bit of significance as far as looking at developing ideas or programs that we needed for that particular center in industrial microbiology. There was a firm link between research and education because research gets translated into education, theory, and practices. That was for a fairly short duration for about 2 years and after that, I joined British Council in Chennai. One of the main plans of British Council was to see how we could build the bilateral partnership between India & UK. There are a number of areas like art, culture and also science & education formed an important component. So, I was doing a lot of proactive work in trying to build the partnership between an institution in India and the UK.
That was one area where I really spent a significant part of my career.
There was a kind of project cycle in this whole process as we had to identify where the opportunities were for these educational project. After identifying the opportunities, we had to develop the project idea and then we had to formulate the proposal and then get some funding for it. After that, we had to implement the education project, monitor and evaluate it. I think the center of all this was what benefit was it bringing to the student or researcher. Students in this could be undergrads, postgrads or researchers. It gives a deep sense of satisfaction to see how the Indo-UK dimension was impacting on education and how it worked out. Sharing of ideas across cultures, across boundaries and young people interacting with each other. Education and research have no boundaries and if you remove the boundaries, there is a greater scope of collaboration and working together on important areas.
Mr. Singh’s philosophy of leadership and how he describes it
In terms of leadership, I would think that a kind of collaborative leadership is very important. We are not really looking at leadership in a narrow definition where one just leads but one has to collaborate wisely across disciplines, departments, a whole range of different personalities and across boundaries also. It’s not just within SRM but because international relations is so very important, we have to work very closely with institutions across the world and understand different cultures, different regions of the world and sometimes trying to overcome the language barrier.
I think what we really need here is the very collaborative style of leadership where you have to carry everyone along. For example, if you are trying to set in place a formal contract or a memorandum of understanding, the kind of leadership which doesn’t involve collaboration would not work. You could still sign the contract but it’s not going to bring the key stakeholders, the faculty, the staff and the students who need to be a part of that. We have to create the kind of culture of carrying people along and ensuring that we also become a part of what we are trying to achieve.
Significant challenges that Mr. Singh faced as the Director (International Relations) of SRM University
In terms of challenges, one is that there is so much to be done and you think you have made progress in some area but actually you have achieved that immediate goal or immediate project idea, you suddenly realize that there’s so much more to be done. Internationalism is very close to the heart of SRM, in fact, one of our mission objectives is entirely devoted to internationalism. We are very keen to ensure that internationalism gets embedded into every aspect of our university whether it’s teaching or learning, giving students an opportunity to experience an international environment, introducing them to new ideas and thoughts. We also want our faculty to gain international experience in different countries, learn about teaching and techniques or to just conduct research to set up collaborative research and academic program. The spectrum is very vast, I think the bigger challenge is how to actually set the agenda and go about trying to achieve it within a span of time with the available resources.
Mr. Singh on time management and how it plays an important role in a student’s life
Time management is really critical and important. There is the limited time that one has in a day, so it’s extremely important that we try to manage the time effectively. But that is easier said than done because sometimes there are things that are beyond your control. It could be an emergency situation, it could be some crisis management and there could be many other issues which keep coming up that require my immediate attention. You might start the day thinking that you will achieve a number of outputs in terms of the work within the time that is available. But at the end of the day, you realize you have not been able to achieve what you set out to achieve.
It then leads to work beyond working hours or taking some work home. That is not a really desirable thing because one needs to probably prioritize and get things done. I think it’s okay if one does not try to finish everything during the working hours. For example, when I travel then I’m always kind of linked to work as I check my e-mails and I’m still kind of playing that managerial role. Now with the internet, one could be anywhere and still perform the required duties.
Growth of students through placement opportunities at SRM University
We were approached by an Indian company that was doing a lot of infrastructural projects in Africa. The company wanted to meet the international students because we attract a large number of international students from across the world and especially from Africa. The idea was to look at it as a pilot and to see if these students who are from Africa and are studying here, can get trained and work in their home country. This is an interesting dimension to see if they could take some of our students either for an internship or for other critical jobs in the company. They would be given some initial training here and then they would be placed in their company in Africa. We thought this was a very good idea and we are trying to see how it would work. But otherwise, our curriculum is robust and we ensure our students benefit fully from the career development training that is embedded in the curriculum.
All our students, whether domestic or international, we are giving special training in certain aspects that are very important like soft skills. If we focus only on the academic side, technical side, we forget the critically important soft skills that are needed like communication skills and teamworking. Students who are aiming for higher studies abroad, they are not able to give good examples of how you work in a team in the interview or Statement of Purpose. They must know how to work in a team, support each other. It’s very important that students are exposed to these aspects so that by the time they come to the final year when having the placements, they are much better placed to face the companies. We take a lot of care of our students in this area.
Mr. Singh on his ideal school environment
We really believe that it’s very important for the students to enjoy their time here, it’s not just about studies or exams. We work very hard to create a vibrant kind of environment for our students so that devote their time to co-curricular activities. We have a large number of student-led clubs and these clubs are quite active in helping the students to give expression to their inner talent. We also organize a very large number of student-led events or festivals. For example, we just concluded one very major festival called Milan run by the students and they also organized a number of events. We also invite theater personalities to come and interact with the students and it’s a fun time for them because students need to get away from the classroom and indulge in this kind of activity.
As the students organize it, the important learning takeaways are event management, business development, how to raise funds and project management. It leaves a tremendous impact on the students. We want that when our students leave us, they should have a fond recollection of SRM University. One big getaway is that they got a very good education here and secondly, while they got this education, they enjoyed their time. They are going out with a kind of grounded personality with the kind of career development programs that we give to our students. We have a very active semester abroad program and mobility program. I think it’s a very enriching experience where all these facets are balanced.
Goals for SRM University
As far as the international dimension goes, we have a very large number of students on campus. There are almost about 40,000 students in the 4 campuses. Our priority is to what extent we can give our students the exposure to the international world. There is globalization happening, the world is changing really fast, so it’s important for us to get an exposure to the world across boundaries. It’s important for us to maximize the opportunities that our students get for going abroad. We need to think very carefully about the kind of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that we sign with universities. That is one of the big priorities. The second would be that we also want to encourage our students as you know that there is a big shakeup happening in the IT industry, the entry-level jobs will not be there because of the disruptions caused by Artificial Intelligence (AI), for instance.
We want to push entrepreneurship and innovation as the next big thing in terms of education. We are doing this through some very big-ticket collaborations, we recently signed a MoU with the University of California, Berkeley which is one of the top universities for IT & Entrepreneurship. 20 of our students are currently doing a semester abroad in Entrepreneurship. We are trying to create an ecosystem here in our campus for Entrepreneurship and Design Innovation. We are always striving to create more entrepreneurs and are asking the same question to ourselves. The whole mindset would be like if I start a company then I can give jobs to others rather than being a job seeker. That is going to be very important in terms of our international outreach. Our faculty is very important, they can get international exposure if we send more staff overseas to spend time there, bring new ideas, thoughts, teaching methodologies and bring it back to our institution. I think these are some important things that we are looking at as some of the priorities.
Mr. Singh’s suggestions to youth and aspiring students
I think they need to be confident about the future. The world is changing so rapidly in terms of the current trends. Some students, when they started their engineering course, they would have thought that something like Artificial Intelligence is not important as it had not emerged. When they come out of their course, some of their areas of interest would have also changed. A lot of students also worry about their future and the changing world. They get confused, perturbed, anxious about their future prospects.
“What after college” in an important question for them and I think what we need to tell our students is that be passionate about what you want to do, be passionate about your interests in that particular field. While you are studying, don’t think too much about the career path. There will definitely be some career path for you, some kind of goal that you will attain. But while you are at college, focus on the subject area, try to get good grades, marks, try to equip yourself with things like a semester abroad, take some online courses, take part in student-led project work. The message that I would give at this time of difficult changing pattern of an industry that remain positive, focused and be assured to succeed. Remain confident in difficult times, you need to think much more clearly in such times. Believe in yourself, don’t let your self-confidence go down, and you are surely going to succeed.