Interview with the AICTE Chairman Prof. Anil D Sahasrabudhe

Arvind Passey
27 June 2019

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When Frank Gehry talked about architecture speaking of its time and place, but yearning for timelessness, he couldn’t possibly have visited the AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) building on Nelson Mandela Marg in New Delhi. Timelessness has been the essence of whatever decisions have emerged from the offices here where natural light and intuitive ventilation have ensured that creative solutions are articulated well. As I walked in the AICTE building to interview the present Chairman Prof. Anil D Sahasrabudhe, I observed that the large statue of Goddess Saraswati had offerings of fresh flowers and the ambience of the reception was one of calm involvement.

When we think of AICTE we think of the creation of centres of excellence in technical education. This organization was first set up in November 1945 as a national-level apex advisory body to conduct a survey of the facilities in technical education and promote its development in the country in a coordinated and integrated manner. However, the statutory AICTE was established on 28 March 1988 with an aim to be a true facilitator and an objective regulator besides providing affordable education to all with a focus on skill education through internship. Their mission includes inculcating entrepreneurship and making technical education in India globally competitive through transparent governance and an accountable approach.

It is only reasonable to say that AICTE has reached new heights at a blazing pace. Yes, there will always be detractors, naysayers, and dissenters but AICTE think-tank over the years has always managed to consider all opinions as constructive feedback and has invariably come up with something more dynamic and innovative as a policy that finally does good to everybody concerned.

I began by asking Prof. Sahasrabudhe as to what attributes were at the heart of AICTE transforming India into competitive technical manpower giant today? Is it all about curriculum updations, introduction of new-age course specializations that include AI, robotics, data science and more, or directing institutes and universities to teach their students the art of educating themselves forever? “Or all of them”, I added.

Prof. Sahasrabudhe began by saying that it is all of them and more as “I think all of them are equally important. We start with curriculum revision. If we are teaching students of 19th and 20th century, they certainly will be not employable in the 21st century and, therefore, the revision of curriculum is a continuous process. Earlier, the changes in technology were happening at a slower pace and if you change the curriculum in five years, what was good enough at the start may no longer remain relevant in a few years. Thus curriculum revision happens whenever new elements demand an entry. In fact, it is often expected that students remain prepared for solving problems that are not known today, using technology that is yet to be invented. How do we do this? One step is a continuous upgradation of curriculum.”

It was obvious that Prof. Sahasrabudhe was completely focused on new technologies as they were anyway entering our world at a blistering speed. He continued, “Secondly, you have correctly pointed out that our students are to be prepared for learning on their own and continuing their yearning to learn. Thus, learning to learn and lifelong learning are two important ingredients that have to be an integral part of the curriculum in a subtler subliminal way. This is why we insist that in any course taught in the class need not be taught in a routine manner. A sixty minute classroom session is not enough. Today we asked students to watch relevant videos available on YouTube along with a wide range of reference books, and must come prepared in the class with questions and doubts. Faculty must be willing and prepared to engage, solve difficulties, and then set assignments that induce more learning. This is the new pedagogy which is emerging and we have to be ready for it.”

“All this sounds wonderful, Mr. Sahasrabudhe,” I said, “what if the faculty is not comfortable with new technology. In such a scenario, how will they be able to inspire this kind of learning to learn attitude.”

Prof. Anil D. Sahasrabudhe thought for a moment before saying, “There is another aspect to this concept which is about our engagement with teachers. We have a set of eight modules that includes curriculum revision, curriculum development, how to engage in the classroom examination reforms, how the old examination method needs to be changed, the new concepts that do not encourage rote learning and more. A thorough understanding based on analysis, synthesis, and creative interpretation is meant for the faculty. The importance of engagement with the industry is also communicated to the teachers. Thus orientation for teachers is as important as any other aspect that involves student welfare, infrastructure, or even regulations.” The Chairman paused for a while, smiled and then continued, “What I have just said about orientation is for new recruits in teaching. We have an equally effective formula for old teachers as well. They too will need to go through these eight modules and there is no escape route here. In fact, even the faculty will need to spend at least three weeks as their own internship with the industry.”

This came as a big relief to me as I have had teachers who were generally completely foxed by the new developments in the subjects that they were teaching. This used to be rather disorienting as what the new-age books then told me was never in complete consonance with what was being told in the class. The Chairman then chuckled and said, “I hope all the teachers and faculty in colleges and institutes will go through this interview. They will then know that if the nation has to win a global race in competence, they will also need to run faster.” 

We then talked about exam reforms and the need for a deeper impregnation of the concepts of skill-building. Prof. Sahasrabudhe pointed out that it is both the faculty as well as students who need to be in a position to apply every theoretical bit into real situations where a practical application makes all the difference. “Faculty today must be prepared to bring in creative thinking and thus their critical analysis of the entire system will become note-worthy in multiple ways,” he added. He also said that the time had come when “we cannot isolate technical education from an insight into awareness of associated and non-associated forms of learning as both are equally important and so, for instance, engineers without any practical skill sets that have an inter-disciplinary regimen may not be able to lead in a world that knows more about more and more.”

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This is precisely what is already happening in universities abroad. They give the students an option to enter by opting for one stream of study and emerge as a specialist in an entirely different stream. For instance, engineering and humanities have a kind of seamless merger where a student enters wanting to study, say, aeronautical engineering and actually emerges being an anthropologist. Are we anywhere near to such an innovation in our teaching?

The Chairman admitted that our education system was moving in that direction, albeit a bit slower but “there is a committee already set up in order to create what is known as a credit bank for students. So, it is not only about an engineer taking up anthropology or becoming a biologist or a physicist but more importantly for us, even if we have a student who goes to x university or y college then goes to Z university will be able to get his credits transferred and be able to complete his own degree.”

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“What sort of obstacles do you foresee in this kind of flexibility?’ I asked.

Prof. Sahasrabudhe replied, “In this scheme of flexibility, the number of credits for awarding a particular type of degree is one thing but the definition of credit has to be universal. Our biggest challenge is that there is a uniform formatting of the credit system and we are working on a system where credit banks are created, a mutual recognition of credits is in place, and with all regulations in place we can confidently say that our system may be more flexible than anywhere else in the world.” He later added that AICTE has “already made provision for 20% of the courses to be taken through MOOCs. This helps student in remote locations where the right faculty may not be there and students should not be deprived of not being able to learn those courses. They can learn from some of the best institutions in the country through the MOOCs platform and get it credited into their account and into their academic performance record.”

As the term ‘regulations’ was popping up often I decided to ask how easy it is to get them implemented. His answer revolved around two methods adopted by AICTE. “One is the formal layout and formulations that are deliberated by different faculty from premier institutes like the IITs. Secondly, AICTE officials also visit these institutions to understand the features to be inducted. A consensus is then possible.” This obviously means that AICTE does not believe in accepting suggestions and feedback with their eyes closed and “that’s why we visit institutes, observe programs and functions, congregations, graduation ceremonies, and attend international conferences. Our visits include interactions with the faculty as well the students there and our learning is constantly updated”. Prof. Sahasrabudhe insisted that AICTE never takes their own conclusions as the final word but consider innovative feedback from external sources as well. He said, “AICTE listens to voices that make sense.”

If we look at statistics we find that in 2017-18 though the approved intake was 35.5 lakhs, the number admitted was 18.9 lakhs out of which 13.4 lakhs graduated and 6.5 lakhs were placed. At first glance a lot of people may have a few doubts about the gap between the approved intake and admitted numbers but it is the stringent regulations ideated and implemented that ensure quality at every level in the education system. Prof. Sahasrabudhe mentioned that a part of this anomaly could be because a decade ago there was huge demand in engineering and the number of seats allotted to some colleges may be beyond the present requirement. On being asked if such things happened because of political pressures, he simply said that it “could be the anticipated potential… and anyway, there were a large number of private entities who wanted to start the colleges. Such mismatches will be reduced. There is also the case of a number of colleges being denied the right to admit until they meet the requirements of infrastructure and faculty development.”

So far as faculty development is concerned, the Chairman did mention that “apart from eight module orientation for faculty there are nine areas which we identified. They include artificial intelligence, machine learning, IoT, deep learning, robotics, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality and so on. These modules are also for existing faculty who may not have kept abreast of the new developments for decades now. We plan to pick those who know enough to be trainers for out ‘train the trainers’ program. Thus the time to reach out and update the knowledge base of our teachers will be considerably reduced… and today with the use of technology, they don’t have to physically come and learn so many things.” He also added that AICTE was aware that quite a few serving faculty may be reluctant to learn and unlearn so readily. “The solution to this is that it is the leader in an institution who needs to lead well,” he said, “the principal, for instance, has to inspire and motivate. Sometimes a mere pep talk helps. AICTE believes that training for leaders also is equally important. Under the MHRD Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya mission for teacher training, IITs and other institutions have been given a mandate to train the teachers in a three week program. It could be one or two weeks in India, and a week in a foreign University. This exposure to new methodologies to counter bad attitude and resistance to change is definitely going to help.” Every teacher equipped with this new learning will set the tone to the very act of being open to change and is truly inspirational which any day is better than force-feeding.

There was also a short discussion on accreditation of institutes and the Chairman mentioned that AICTE has 12 parameters equally valid for both degree and diploma courses in private and government colleges. “We have a scheme called Marg Darshak and all faculty members and institutions performing well will have faculty, even retired ones, to help us upgrade the level in other institutes that need guidance and the entire expenditure is being born by AICTE. We can loosely translate this into a sort of mentorship. These people will engage and help lagging institutions remove existing deficiencies leading to accreditation.” Thus if there is a retired faculty settled in Kolkata, AICTE will ask him to take charge of mentoring 10 to 15 institutions in the area. Accountability is the keyword here and the system replaces the mundane chore of a routine inspection with an innovative edge. Prof. Sahasrabudhe added that every institution needs to introduce good teaching and a wholesome research orientation. “All my students will be capable of becoming entrepreneurs, all my students will be employed by the best of the companies, all my students will become able officers of the government, all my students will get into various types of social activities,” said Prof. Sahasrabudhe, “The involvement of faculty is deep-rooted. We know that some can be good administrators and some can deliver engaging lectures. We want people to recognize their inner strengths and be self-actualized.”

As a final gesture Prof. Sahasrabudhe said that his message for students is whatever course they choose they need to put in their “best efforts, hard work, passion, and consistency. If you do that, success will follow you and you don’t have to follow success.” He added that “so as far as faculty are concerned, they have to change their attitude. Whatever the way they were taught 25 years ago or 30 years ago may no longer be valid. New-age changes in pedagogy have happened and they must adapt to that. Otherwise, they will not be able to survive in the market. And therefore, faculty members have to constantly start learning… learning new things. The only thing that matters is constant lifelong learning and if we start practicing what is relevant, our students will also start practicing the same.”

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He also added that teachers need to become good role models “and that is why I request all my faculty colleagues to not always complain about workload. I think I’m against the word workload, because whenever you say you have a 20 hour workload it looks like a load on your head. Better to call it a work opportunity that is given and start asking for more opportunities. Both faculty and students have to engage in dialogue and discuss fearlessly. And once this happens, students will not be inhibited from asking some difficult question. No question is a silly question. This is the change that we are trying to bring in and for this change to actualize, we need support from both students and faculty.”

This interview did leave me a much more informed person who can say he has finally understood that “the main aim of education is to liberate us from all kinds of difficulties, diseases, darkness, and disorder” as Dr. SatyaPal Singh once said. Even Prakash Javadekar’s words echo the primary aim of AICTE: “Access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability are our mantra.” AICTE has definitely laid the foundation for a comprehensive revolution in technology education with its wide range of quality initiatives.

Note: This article is the edited and condensed version of the actual interview.

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