Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar
Pro-Chancellor, Symbiosis International
Dr. Vidya is a gynecologist, who can also give legal advice, promotes entrepreneurship and is amongst the who’s who of the education sector in India. Meet Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Principal Director of Symbiosis Society & Pro-Chancellor Symbiosis International University. She has led the Symbiosis group to newer echelons of success and is poised to reach many more milestones with an expansive and state-of-the-art multidisciplinary institute. She tells us about the global collaboration for education, amalgamation of technology and healthcare, and much more in this power-packed interview.
The globalization of education is a reality now. How it being implemented and what is are the factors that have contributed to it?
Globalization has impacted every individual, and more importantly businesses, nations, and education. The impact of globalization is the internationalization of education. If you look at the history of higher education in India, even in the 4th and 12th centuries, we had some of the best universities located here in India, like Nalanda or Takshila. They attracted a large number of international students or scholars. So, though the world was not globalized at that point in time, internationalization of higher education in the true sense was there.
Post-independence there was a focus on the massification of higher education, but if you look at the new National Education Policy 2020, you will see that there is immense focus on internationalization of higher education. There is a whole chapter on this. This is because, in a globalized world, students need to get knowledge of what is happening in different parts of the world.
Now, when I say globalized world, it means that geographical boundaries are broken down and the world is like one big family. So, the concept of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ is becoming a reality. Hence, students have to be trained not only in issues that are related to the country but also the issues that are related to the world, whether they relate to the corporate world, climate change, and environment, or health and hygiene, we need to prepare our students for these global issues. For this reason, internationalization of higher education has gained importance.
How has the pandemic changed the choices of students as far as courses and admission to international colleges are concerned?
Due to the pandemic, education has undergone a vast change. The delivery of courses through online mediums was something for which we were not prepared, and while we did use technology to augment education, it was not sufficient to enable complete online delivery or to create a pedagogy that would support online delivery. So, our teachers worked very hard, and students also put in equal efforts, as it is not easy to listen to a teacher like this on the screen, capture what he or she is saying, and then use it for your assessments. It can be difficult, to say the least.
But over the last two years, we have seen almost seamless education being delivered in the online mode all across the world, and specifically in India. We are indeed facing a lot of challenges in terms of students in the rural areas who do not have any access to the internet and other facilities. But talking about the choices that students have made, for courses in 2020 or 2021, they have not changed. The impact is not so much on the choice of programme that the students wish to opt, but the delivery of the program, the curriculum being offered in the program, because we as academia, don’t know what it is exactly that we are preparing our students for. The job roles that were in existence maybe a few years ago may not be the same post-pandemic.
Since the placements in Symbiosis happen in December, six months before the students pass out, students had the job letters in hand. But there was a huge uncertainty over whether the offers would hold good and the placement would continue or not. What we saw was that the companies continued with those job offers but transformed the nature of the work. They made it more research-based, which could be done online. So now, while we prepare students for the jobs that we think would be on offer, probably jobs would be completely different. The emphasis, therefore, would be on generic attributes like critical thinking, team-building, thinking out of the box, and collaboration. These are becoming extremely important along with the core subject knowledge that is imparted to students.
So, universities are also tweaking their pedagogy and curriculum to ensure that what they offer to students will last for long and is not limited only to the training or the skilling part, for the jobs that we think may be present. There is a change in the way we offer education, frame curriculum, and deliver education. That is something that we see different from what was prevalent two years ago.
What is the scope of industry collaboration with academia in India and how will it impact the growth of research and patents acquisition by scholars?
Industry interface is something that is much talked about these days, and no university can work successfully in isolation without collaboration with the industry. Finally, what are we preparing our students for? It is for making them ready to be employed and this is key to any program delivery. Apart from employment, we also see a lot of entrepreneurship and capacity building that happens on university campuses. But, when it comes to industry-academia partnership, we at Symbiosis have been doing it from the very early days. We have a very strong partnership with industry members, right from their participation on academic councils, board of studies, and management boards. They help us to prepare a curriculum that is in line with the industry requirements.
In many colleges, you will see industry people just coming into classrooms and giving lectures to students. But we involve them more with planning the modules and even in evaluation. So, our visiting faculty do not only visit for giving lectures, but we look at how deeply we can engage with them. They are an integral part of our higher education system through participation in the framing of curriculum and evaluation.
Speaking about the research, I think that industry research and university-led research still work in silos and we need to integrate them. We don’t see as much research collaboration happening between academia and the industry here. Even though we have some projects with the industry, related to behavioural studies or waste management, etc. But hard-core R&D projects which need in-depth research work, are rarely done. We are in talks with some well-established industry players for setting up a state-of-the-art R&D centre, with an emphasis on scientific research, where studies will be done on immunology, vaccinology, drug discovery. For this, we will create labs that have a very strong industry interface.
Look at the Symbiosis Centre for Medical Image Analysis, where we work on the analysis of brain scans. For this, we work closely with Philips, however, Philips research and innovation centre is not established on a university campus, but is in isolation in Bangalore. Likewise, we have set up many research centres, with a focus on industry interface, but I think this should grow in India.
Universities also have to make ecosystems to attract the industry for collaboration, and industry must also encourage the initiatives where they outsource their research to the universities. So, this area needs to get more emphasis.
You have acquired multiple degrees in domains as varied as medicine and law. How will the new education policy enable colleges to be multi-disciplinary and help students pursue different subjects?
Yes, I have done medicine, MD in obstetrics and gynaecology. Then I did pursue law and my Ph.D. is in Internationalisation of Education. I think that multidisciplinary education shapes your character. What attributes are we trying to imbue in our university students? Do you just want them to be skilled in a particular area, or do you want them to be good human beings and inculcate global citizenship qualities in them? I think this comes from a multidisciplinary education. For me, I did medicine because I was passionate about medicine and wanted to be a doctor.
But when I joined Symbiosis, an institution that my father established 50 years ago, I felt that knowledge of Law is important as I was handling administration. So, though it is the administration of education, legal knowledge opened up my mind. Earlier, I had a tunnel view, limited to treating patients and doing surgeries. But I did not have the wherewithal of what was happening around the world. So, when I did Law & Ph.D., it opened new avenues and with an open mind, I could accept so many things about which I wasn’t even in the knowhow.
Then, I did a Ph.D. in the internationalization of higher education because it was again something I was passionate about. I was a member of the University Grants Commission and worked on this very topic. There’s so much in policymaking that I was involved in, that I thought I may as well research in this field of higher education. Multidisciplinary education is, hence, very important and fortunately we are already a multidisciplinary university, having 8 different faculties. These are faculty of Law, Management, Humanities & Social Sciences, Health Sciences, Architecture& Design, Engineering, Computer Science, and Media & Communication. So, there are a variety of courses.
So, the aspect of multidisciplinary education which the NEP talks about, we have been doing for a long time, as we believe that students should not only be skilled in the discipline that they choose but also have skills of humanities, as we want them to be a well-rounded human being. At the Undergraduate level, we have a concept of ‘12 floating credits’ and students have to take these from other institutes apart from their own discipline of study. This aligns with what the NEP says that you can have core courses that define your main area of study, but take in electives from other streams so that you can become better global citizens and perform well at any job that comes your way. Multidisciplinary education helps you to fit in any role possible and do well in any role that comes to you.
What are the steps that leading Indian universities need to take to ensure world-class standards of academics and the holistic development of students?
I was a part of a committee that was constituted by the UGC which focused on the internationalization of education. We have done so many deliberations and I have had excellent members on the committee. If you refer to the report on the website of UGC, you will see that we have worked on how the internationalization of education can be integrated with the curriculum of universities and colleges. When you talk about bringing world-class standards in higher education, it does not only mean being ranked in the top 10 or top 100 universities globally. Though ranking is important, as it sets a benchmark that is used as a goal for the university to advance, it is not the only measure.
Research is given a lot of importance in rankings, so, when we are talking about research, instead of chasing publications and numbers, let us look at the research work that gets applied to the society, and how the common people benefit from such research that you are conducting in the university. Otherwise, it does not make sense. You can do any amount of laboratory-led research work, but if it has no significance to the common man, then I would say that the research is insignificant, regardless of the journals in which the papers get published. I interact with my faculty and tell them that we must observe the common problems that people in society face, and try to find innovative solutions for them. That is what research is all about. It is about finding a problem statement and finding a solution to that problem.
If you look at the international academia, they pick up simple projects, based around simple problems that occur every day to people around us. Then people from interdisciplinary programs, come together and find a solution. For instance, in Pune, the problem is waste management on the streets. So, can people from different disciplines like engineers, doctors, humanities or social science scholars, and management graduates come together, and find a solution to these problems.
That is the kind of work we are doing. We have adopted 22 villages in the neighbourhood of university, and we are doing work on sanitation and waste management, by setting up centres of excellence and seeing how the waste can be segregated. On our campus, we have set up biogas plants with every food hall, because the food waste that comes out is converted to biogas. This is something that we are trying to replicate in the villages and see how the waste that is coming out of the kitchens in the houses can be converted to biogas and be channelised to a community kitchen for the residents of the village. Similarly, we are working on solar power and fertilizers. One of our students became an entrepreneur by converting the by-products of the biogas conversion process into manure and fertilizer. We have set up that business idea as a start-up in our technology business incubator. This is how we inspire and encourage our students.
So, these are experiments by students and faculty that are relevant to society and must be encouraged by universities. There is a lot of emphasis on health science technology, and we have set up a hospital with a capacity of 900 beds, where free of cost treatment is provided. Our engineering and medical faculty and students worked together to find solutions to so many problems that these patients encounter.
Also, when you talk of world-class education, I think it must be relevant world-class education, rather defined by rankings. We have always been amongst the top 50 universities in India as per NIRF rankings,
Tell us about the various co-scholastic initiatives like the Literary fest that gives students at Symbiosis an opportunity to acquire global-cultural knowledge.
Symbiosis is a student-led university. So, if you look at our institutions, be it the institute of management, or liberal arts, or economics, the students play a major role in the administration. Almost 40% of the budgets are handled by students. The kind of festivals that they organize is exemplary. We have four BBA campuses across the country, and they organize the ‘Sympulse’. Students festival It is a combination of academic and extra-curricular activities and has a budget of about Rs.75 lakhs. Everything is managed by the students, from sponsorships, budgeting to logistics. We feel that this is experiential learning, where they are creating an event like Sympulse and managing the fest with participants from not only India but foreign universities as well.
Similarly, we have other student-led festivals. When the pandemic hit us, we were preparing for our golden jubilee celebrations. We used it as an opportunity and organised the Symbiosis golden Jubilee lecture series. We invited people from across India and outside India. Eminent people like Dr. Devi Shetty, Shri Javed Akhtar, Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw, Dr. Sudha Murthy, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, Saurav Ganguly and many others spoke to our students virtually. I believe that students learn a lot from such interactions than just classroom teaching.
We also have distinguished professors like Dr. Vijay Gokhale, Amb. Pavan Verma, Amb. Gautam Bambawale, Chef. Sanjeev Kapoor, Amb. Talmiz Ahmed and others, who have worldly-wise knowledge and deliver lectures that are interdisciplinary and students from multiple programs join these lectures. There is the Literary Festival where we promote the belief that literature is something that we need to integrate with all the subjects. During the Covid pandemic, we have organised many health-related talks by eminent persons, on health-related issues.
You have successfully led Symbiosis to become an international institute of eminence. What is your vision for further growth and in what domains?
We started the Symbiosis Medical College for Women two years back, which is like a feather in the cap for the university. We have been known for Law, management, etc. In the last few years, we have seen advancements in medical technology, and with the medical college, life has come a full circle for me, being a medical professional.
The University has many ongoing Research Projects, received grants from national agencies and recently the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has given a grant to set up a Technology Business Incubator. Symbiosis Centre for Research and Innovation (SCRI), a dedicated department of SIU for promoting and facilitating research among students and faculty focuses on developing institutional research agenda and to formulate policies to nurture quality research culture within the University and is engaged in translating SIU’s vision of creation of knowledge for the benefit of the Society into reality.
SIU has collaborations with more than 70 universities across the globe for student and Faculty exchange, and I am glad to share that SIU Institutes have consortiums with European Universities under the Erasmus+ in which we have 6 ongoing Research Projects over varied areas ranging from RevitalizingEuropean Studies across Asian Universities, Quality Assurance Management &Benchmarking, Risk Management & Antibiotics Resistance among others.
The Faculty of Health Sciences (FoHS) has been established to address the growing concerns regarding healthcare delivery and education including training of healthcare professionals across all cadres and also offers full-time as well as distance education programs meant to professionally upgrade the healthcare professional. The faculty has eight Institutes under its ambit namely Symbiosis Institute of Health Sciences (SIHS), Symbiosis College of Nursing (SCON), Symbiosis School of Biological Sciences (SSBS), Symbiosis School of Culinary Arts (SSCA), Symbiosis School of Sports Sciences (SSSS), Symbiosis Centre for Health Skills (SCHS), Symbiosis University Hospital & Research Centre (SUHRC), Symbiosis Medical College for Women (SMCW). The Symbiosis Medical College for Women (SMCW) is located in the scenic campus of the Symbiosis International University at Lavale. The annual intake will be 150 students. The medical college and its attached Symbiosis University Hospital and Research Centre will have state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities. The presence of sister institutes within the campus like the Symbiosis Institute of Technology, Symbiosis School of Biological Sciences, Symbiosis Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and the Research Centres such as Symbiosis Centre for Stem Cell Research (SCSCR), Symbiosis Centre for Medical Imaging and Analysis (SCMIA), Symbiosis Centre For Emotional Wellbeing (SCEW), Symbiosis Centre for Applied Artificial Intelligence (SCAAI), Symbiosis Centre for Behavioural Studies (SCBS), Symbiosis Centre for Nano-Science and Nanotechnology (SCNN) & Symbiosis Centre for Waste Resource Management (SCWRM) will assist in the strong focus on academics and research. Symbiosis Centre for Advanced Legal Studies and Research (SCALSAR) has been established to consolidate the research activities (under the Faculty of Law) in Science, Technology and Innovation specialization, with a focus on healthcare and medicine, Biodiversity Laws, cyber law, Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and IP Case studies.
The Health Science and Technology Park creates a unique ecosystem for collaboration between the recently set up University Hospital and Research Centre and Symbiosis Institute of Technology and the incubation Centre which are located around the Hospital. The HSTP will also make provision for other Med-tech companies to be set up in the vicinity, to give students an opportunity to work on live projects and internships and the hospital will also provide the synergy for the existing Research centres as well.