Siksha ‘O’ Anusandhan (SOA), a private deemed university in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar city, is making waves. From adopting whole villages to running a community radio station to being recognized as an ‘Institution of Happiness’ to marching ahead with dozens of international collaborations, this multidisciplinary educational institute, set up in 1996, seems to be doing all the right things. SOA’s Founder and Chairman Prof. Manojranjan Nayak talks at length with Education Post about his vision for the university, Indian pedagogy and academics in general.
You started your career as the youngest ever Computer Science lecturer of the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT). How was your experience teaching there?
I always had the desire to impart education as my father was a teacher and I absolutely loved the subject of Computer Science. The experience was great – because I was young, I had a very friendly relationship with my students, while at the same time they looked up to me as their teacher. I had the opportunity to understand their thought process and aspirations. I learnt that students need someone who could mentor them and with whom they could feel comfortable enough to share their problems. I could play this role very effectively.
What inspired you to choose Computer Engineering for your master’s while having done graduation in Electrical Engineering?
At that time, Computer Engineering was considered the most advanced technology and was the most opted branch for students. I also had much interest in advanced technology.
Would you shed some light on your research work done during your Ph.D.?
I did my research on Expert System in Artificial Intelligence on Communication Network, which was very new thing at the time.
You’re the chief patron of Applied Mathematics in Science and Engineering. The number of students pursuing mathematics is declining. What do you have to say about this predicament?
I don’t think the numbers are declining. Applied Mathematics is already embedded in all branches of engineering. It is not declining but the number is getting split in different areas. It can never decline as Applied Mathematics is basic to all applications in engineering.
Besides computer or electrical engineering, do you find any other course or subject interesting enough to pursue now?
I am very interested in Block Chain Management as it is the preferred choice now.
Being a research scholar of the pre-digital era, how do you think research opportunities have changed for scholars in India?
The opportunities for scholars today are much better because, in the digital age, researchers have access to all types of research work being done worldwide.
Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) passed a law – Professors of Practice – that allows industry veterans with at least 15 years of experience to be directly employed as professors. What’s your take?
I personally look at it as a very good move. People with several years of industry experience will be extremely helpful for students. They can share their hands-on experiences with the students which other teachers probably wouldn’t be able to impart.
Last year, the Ambassador-in-charge of the Nepalese Embassy, Ram Prasad Subedi, praised your efforts toward your translations of Nepali books into the Odia language. Now, Madhya Pradesh has started a program for studying MBBS in Hindi as well. How do you see this new policy of studying technical subjects in regional languages?
There has been a long-standing demand for teaching medicine in local languages. But I feel that we should stick to teaching medical science in English in colleges while regional languages can be used as a supplement for improved understanding of the subject.
Tell us about the setting up of SOA. What triggered your decision and how did you build up the institute?
While working as a teacher in OUAT, I always felt that Odisha did not have a quality engineering college in the private domain though there was a huge need for the same. Students from the state were traveling to big cities outside to pursue their education. As a first step, the Siksha ‘O’ Anusandhan – which means education and research – Trust was set up. We worked towards establishment of an engineering college in Bhubaneswar and the Institute of Technical Education and Research (ITER) came up in 1996. Its objective was to offer quality engineering education to the students who would not require to leave their own state for studies. The founding of ITER was followed by the establishment of other institutions offering education in subjects including management, hospitality and tourism management, medicine, dental sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, nursing, legal studies and agricultural sciences. SOA received the UGC nod to function as a Deemed to be University on July 17, 2007.
Recently, SOA celebrated 10 years of the establishment of its community radio. What advantages can a college community radio bring forth in that institution?
We set up the community radio station in the university with the objective of aiding people within the permitted radius our sound waves could reach. It has been greatly helpful to the residents of Bhubaneswar city and its fringes with important healthcare advices. It was particularly effective when COVID-19 disrupted life. Doctors from our faculty of medicine frequently featured in the programs of Voice of SOA Community 90.4. Experts from our faculty of agricultural sciences also use the radio to provide tips to farmers. The radio station played a crucial role when cyclone Fani hit the Odisha coast on May 3, 2019. It continuously provided the people with information about the situation based on the forecast of the university’s Centre for Environment and Climate.
In the QS-I Gauge index 2022, SOA was recognized as an “Institution of Happiness” and was awarded a “Diamond” in the social responsibility category. Please shed some on the activities the university adopted to achieve the honor?
Yes, SOA was recognized as an “Institution of Happiness” on the basis of its initiatives which included zero tolerance for ragging, and campus safety, introduction of up-to-date teaching-learning pedagogy and project-based learning. The university provided students with state-of-the-art infrastructure and lab support, experienced and learned faculty, mentoring support, career counselling and placement training while it put in place an effective grievance redressal mechanism. Personality development programs and psychological counselling by professional doctors for stress management is also made available to the students.
The “Diamond” rating in social responsibility was awarded to SOA because it has adopted 25 villages and is working for their development in terms of education, health, hygiene, electrification and communication. It also conducts regular free health and dental camps in the neighborhood of Bhubaneswar city. It provides free OPD consultation and subsidized treatment through its 1600-bed state-of-the-art teaching hospital. SOA also extends scholarships to underprivileged children in the adopted villages and looks after the education of slum children in the vicinity of the university. SOA also set up five stand-alone covid hospitals in different parts of Odisha to treat patients for more than two years with its own doctors, nurses and paramedics.
Do you think rankings help universities? Do you feel that universities should also consider non-governmental ranking agencies jointly developed by Industry-academia professionals?
It does help in many ways. It creates the scope for self-introspection and analysis of own performance, helps identify areas of concern in teaching, research and extension activities, provides opportunity to benchmark own standing vis-a-vis other educational institutions and helps prepare prospective planning for future ventures. It also creates room for updating and enriching curricular, strengthening of research profile and enhancing enrolment and placement.
With regards the second part of your question, I feel universities should accept non-government ranking systems jointly developed by industry-academia professionals which could cover all aspects of teaching and learning. Both academia and industry are vital stakeholders in the system as one shapes the product and the other absorbs it.
Most of the popular world ranking agencies like THE and QS are private agencies. Do you think these agencies are fair to Indian universities?
Yes, these agencies are fair to Indian universities as their ranking methodologies are rational, contemporary and robust. However, the weightage for the perceptions may be further rationalized for each metric and the process could be made more transparent.
Skill-based education is one of the thrust areas of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. Odisha also has started to set up an eponymous institution – Skill University. What steps has SOA taken in order to skill, upskill and reskill its students?
SOA follows an industry driven curriculum and outcome-based education which focuses on more lab components and provides a dynamic equilibrium between theory and practical. Hands on training is provided to efficiently skill the student on contemporary industry requirement. SOA provides mentoring support by industry experts while skill-based training programs are organized along with professional seminars, conferences, workshops, tech-fests on regular basis. Pre-placement training programs to make students industry ready are organized by the university, which also extends start-up and incubation support through SOA-CII, its incubation centre.
What challenges or lacunas should have been addressed extensively in the NEP?
In the Indian context, topics are learnt, revised and written in the exams. Very few questions are asked in the papers which involves practical application of the course material. Even if these questions are application-based, they involve applying the course concepts and do not include a mixture of course concept and real-life problems. Interest areas of students often remain unexplored.
SOA has got over 40 patents under its several research programs. Please tell us about a few patents and their core areas.
SOA focuses on research and innovation while the research ecosystem prevalent in the university helps researchers to translate their innovations to get patents. The core areas are nano-science and nano-technology, material science, chemical science, advanced physics, theoretical mathematics, core engineering, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, microbiology, artificial intelligence, smart medical waste management, smart agriculture techniques, clinical areas of oncology, neurology, gastroenterology, cardio-vascular, endocrinology, paediatrics, immunology, dentistry etc.
SOA has several memoranda of understanding with international universities and organizations. Please enlighten us about some achievements in international tie-ups of SOA.
SOA has signed around 35 MoUs with international universities and organizations. Some of the important collaborations are with University of California, Davis, USA; University of California, Riverside, USA; New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA; Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, USA; Florida International University, Miami, Florida, USA; University of Texas, Arlington, USA; Cambodian University for Specialities, Cambodia; Daffodil International University, Bangladesh; Salahuddin University, Erbil, Iraq; MICAS Simulation Ltd, UK; Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia; Aarhus University, Denmark; Earth Networks International, USA and Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. Some of the significant outcomes include joint research publications, joint research guidance to doctoral and post-doctoral fellows, student and faculty exchange, guest lecture series, joint organization of international conferences etc.
The challenge of inadequate exposure always persists in cities like Bhubaneswar compared to the more popular educational destinations. How do you address this challenge at SOA?
The locational disadvantage for SOA, for being located in Bhubaneswar, is getting diminished gradually as the city has become cosmopolitan in character and is considered as a neo-educational and industrial hub. Some of the prominent institutions like IIT, AIIMS, NISER etc. have started functioning in the city, which has also become a software hub with the presence of major software companies including TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Tech-Mahindra. The emergence of couple of nationally acclaimed private medical institutions in Bhubaneswar have also grabbed attention. SOA’s recent performance in terms of national and international rankings, accreditations and other recognitions prove that Bhubaneswar has already got adequate exposure.
“Employability-driven study” has always been important in any part of the world. What methods does SOA adopt in this aspect?
Employability-driven study is a very important component in the system of education across the globe. The syllabi in all continuing course programs of our university are updated and designed considering the industrial requirements, updation in technology and the software industry trend. The Dean-level committee of the university makes periodic assessment of the employability data and our Placement Cell is as such very active in placement drives.
Despite some major progress in higher education in India, several students are still opting to go to destinations like Australia, Canada, Singapore etc for undergraduate programs. What impact does this have on the overall capacity of India?
Practically speaking, the percentage of students going to foreign countries for their higher studies is less than five percent of the students who study in India. In that sense, the impact on the overall capacity is negligible. But students opting to study outside might have an upper edge in some cases with regard to quality of teaching, placement facility, good research environment etc.
What can be a positive factor in attracting students from other countries to India? Do you think our institutions are competitive enough?
Opportunities in India for research, internships and careers with multinational companies make a conducive environment for foreign students to study here. Good exposure and experience with Indian students would teach them many useful life skills that could help shape the professional and personal life.
Artificial Intelligence has made an impact on almost all sectors. Being a scholar in Computer Science, do you believe that every student should study this subject to be industry ready?
It is not essential for every student to study Artificial Intelligence. In case of actual requirement in any specific area, a person may get enrolled in the course while continuing in his industry job. AI is basically one of the crucial emergent technologies disrupting business and industry today. There is no way to know what path the development of AI will take in future.
Start-ups are the talk of the town for the past couple of years and one start-up of SOA has also won the Supernova Start-up Challenge in Dubai. What are some top prerequisites for a successful entrepreneurial venture?
In the last few years, the performance of our start-up teams has been very much appreciated and acknowledged at the national as well as international level. The prerequisites for a successful entrepreneurial venture are: effective communication skill, business strategy with focus and ability and zeal to learn. However, capital is the foremost requirement for any entrepreneurial venture. Most entrepreneurs fail to secure sufficient capital from outside sources unless they have somehow proven themselves or have a marketable prototype.
How does the National Service Scheme (NSS) play a role in educational institutes?
NSS units running under the aegis of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports are an extension of activities of the higher education system to encourage young students to take up community service while they study in academic institutions. The sole aim of the NSS is to provide hands-on experience to young students to serve the community. Being an active member of NSS, the student volunteers get the exposure and experience to become accomplished community leaders. It helps in grooming ideal human beings who understand human nature and values.
A large percentage of the Indian population works in the agriculture sector. Since SOA has also set up an agricultural institute, will you elaborate on the future of agronomy and the steps SOA has taken in this direction?
Increase in population, rise in average income and effects of globalization will lead to an increase in demand for quantity and quality of nutritious food as also variety of food. Therefore, pressure on decreasing available cultivable land to produce more quantity, variety and quality of food will keep on increasing. For this, the subject of agronomy will be always in high demand. In future, there will be more of vertical and urban farming and there will also be long-term efforts to find new areas for production, including barren deserts and sea water. India is poised to become the world’s most populous country within a decade and providing food for them will be of prime importance.
Our university will try to address the key challenges of agriculture including more R&D approach for increase in productivity, developing economical harvesting equipment, primary and secondary food processing units, supply chain, infrastructure supporting the efficient use of resources and marketing etc. There is also a need for work on cost-effective technologies with environmental protection and on conserving our natural resources.
The ratio of students opting for STEM studies is skewed toward the urban population. What steps can be taken to encourage more students to study these subjects?
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and refers to any subject that falls under these four disciplines. In addition to subject-specific learning, STEM also aims to foster inquiring mind, logical reasoning and collaboration skills. The concept of STEM originates from the situation arising out of dearth of qualified graduates to work in high-tech jobs. Now the government is planning to attract students to STEM courses in order to address this shortfall. In terms of career paths, some of these subjects will offer a quite straightforward progression to a particular career. In the context of India, percentage of students from both rural and urban areas opting for STEM courses is observed to be much more than actual requirement.
As the founder of a university, which imparts multidisciplinary education, how do you think the multidisciplinary approach of the NEP will help make students industry-ready?
Multidisciplinary courses are a great option for those seeking flexibility and opportunities in multiple fields, even giving them a competitive edge. Having multidisciplinary courses under one umbrella has the advantage for the student mass to opt for courses as per their own choice which is the primary motto of the NEP. The obvious benefits of multidisciplinary studies are: opportunity for collaboration and shared expertise, improvement in multiple perspectives like, problem-solving attitude, critical thinking, scope for best time-management and communication skill development. All these attributes can help prepare students for industry readiness with a broader set of skills.
Under your leadership, SOA has attained an A++ rating by National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), and recently the university signed a pact with ICAR-Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture. What are the prime ambitions of the university going forward?
The primary ambition of the university is to impart quality education for students from various corners of the country and abroad. NAAC rating and collaborations with leading organizations of the country will lead to create the opportunity for research and extension education for our university as well as focus on more and more R&D activities. Finally, the target is to reach the R&D outcome at the doorsteps of the common mass.
What motivated you to set up the media house Summa Real?
We have set up the Summa Real Media Private Ltd, which publishes the Odia daily ‘Prameya’ and runs a Odia TV news channel ‘News7’. The idea behind the establishment of the media house was to provide the people with unbiased news. ‘Prameya’ has since become the largest circulated Odia daily in the state.
Congratulations for the Ruchi Desh Gourav Samman, another feather in your hat. So many accolades coming your way. What motivates you to excel?
The combination of sincerity and hard work is the key to success. Sitting in my own chamber throughout the day, I monitor and look into the activities of several thousand of my colleagues and assess their performance on monthly basis. That way, the system runs automatically and every individual makes a great contribution to the annual outcome. As such, mutual trust, transparency, team work and time management are our major strength and resource.
What message and recommendations will you give to academicians and students?
The whole world has become competitive now and an institution has to struggle and compete with hundreds of other institutions to maintain its quality of education and attract bright students. If a teacher feels satisfaction in his/her own teaching with full course coverage within the academic calendar then students will be automatically induced to attend the classes with sincerity. The teaching learning process is like two sides of the same coin. One imparts knowledge and the other is at the receiving end. Unless the students are disciplined, punctual and attentive in their studies, teaching is meaningless and education will not be able to meet its objective.