With a plethora of work experience in as many as seven industries, Sudhanshu Varma, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Bennett University in Greater Noida, talks to Education Post’s Tanay Kumar about the National Education Policy (NEP) and how its Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) can prove to be a boon or a bane.
Having completed your studies in STEM subjects, you migrated to business management, marketing, and administration. Tell us about the challenges you faced when taking up these roles.
One of the key things any science or engineering student does is to look at things in a very logical and broken-down fashion, like quantification of things in life. Like, you take an issue and break down in smaller parts and try to understand how all the parts are connected to one another.
I was very passionate about theatre and extracurricular which helped me interact with people, work in teams and groups.
So, if I say, when I saw things in my life, it made me realize very early that whatever job or career I get into, it has to be something that’s about working with people. Those were the days when 75 percent of MBA graduates used to have an engineering background. As luck would have it, those people, typically, would get into an IIM, XLRI, IIFT, Narsee Monjee or any other MBA college and then after they would wait for companies to visit the campus and give them jobs.
Luck held it out for me that I got a job in sales and marketing without doing an MBA. Furthermore, Unilever itself gave me a lot of exposure because I had been in five or six different roles in different wings of the company.
Learning key lessons from one industry and taking those lessons to other industries helped me a lot. For example, I learned some things in one industry and if I had to join another, I used to assess what key messages or lessons from the first one might work in the second one.
One more thing, whether it is any industry or domain, it is always the customer who wants satisfaction. It will always be the utmost principle and I really believe in it –– keep the customer happy.
In Durban, South Africa, you helped ink deals between universities in tie-ups with government-sponsored training. How can these collaborations work in an optimum manner?
It is not always going to be a one-way street… that we will go to the other universities to get them to engage with Indian universities. For example, if we take Africa, they really respect the way we have developed our curriculum and the way we bring rigor into our higher education. So, that is a golden opportunity that we can contribute a lot into their higher education system and not only countries in Africa but also in South East Asia and Middle East as well. And that contribution could be on content or curriculum matrix on a great magnitude.
When we look at Western countries, a lot of rigor goes into research and it is not that they do it for the sake of research and creating and publishing papers. Numerous researches from Western countries get converted into real life usages. So, that is something which we need to learn. Their regulatory systems or way of looking at the credit system is very different from us.
We at Bennett University started our international relations offices just before the New Education Policy was announced and we have excellent relationships with several global universities and organizations right now. In fact, our first batch of students went for a global immersion program to the Middle East and the second batch is right now at Greenwich University, UK. Moreover, we announced some 12 to 14 summer exchange programs for our BBA students.
You have had a diverse work profile. Can you share how working at firms like Hindustan Unilever, BPL Ltd., and Religare Technova helped you run an educational institute?
The core is that there is someone who needs what you have. You need to understand the requirement of the customer and you need to ensure that the requirement gets fulfilled in the best possible ways. This is the core to any industry.
Since I have been through several different types of industries, when I look at a curriculum, any program, discussions with teachers and professors, I come up with some additional perspectives. Prior experience in those different industries, experience in recruiting people enables me to share those on-site experiences in the academic field. For example, sometimes I find that theory won’t work in some topics or maybe some particular topics are outdated.
Therefore, carrying those all achievements and lessons from one industry to another ultimately has somehow benefited the students and people in academics.
There are some vocational courses at Bennett University, for example MBA in Logistic and Supply Chain Management or MBA in Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance. How do these courses help students be job-ready?
I don’t completely accept the word, “vocational”. Rather I call them “sector-specific” courses. These courses create champions in these sectors. Someone might look at these programs as a regular MBA program but I see more rigor in these courses than any regular MBA program. For example, take MBA in Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance which is primarily a year on campus. One can encompass the whole study of four semesters in three trimesters. Then, he/she is ready to be interviewed and eventually be placed for the next one year of internship in a company. So, one is already in a salary bracket in his/her second year.
Now, in the MBA in Logistic course, which is a deeper course than a regular MBA, a student takes a one and a half-year class and then rest of the six months on the job. And the whole fees of the last semester will be his CTC. So, he/she doesn’t have to pay any fees in the last semester because it will be taken only by her/his CTC after getting placed in the sector. When I was working with the Unilever, they were known for their expertise in logistics. But there was no one trained with a proper education in logistics and supply chain management. It’s a different thing if one gets knowledge of logistics via practical experience.
There is a need in the logistics industry for people with proper education in logistics and supply chain management. Moreover, the industry doesn’t have time for those who can learn while being on the job. And, the logistics industry has a potential to create almost 40 lakh jobs in the coming four to five years. When I was in South Africa, we ran a program for a logistic company which had a turnover of around a billion dollars and it was the biggest logistics company in Africa.
What are some aspects of the NEP that you consider to be the most viable and beneficial?
Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) is one very fine provision in the new policy. Till now, what was happening is that if someone wants to pursue any course, he/she had to pass some subjects or complete a whole set of education. Another thing which was happening so far was odd and even semester thing.
In the US, if you change college or university in the midst of your study, you don’t have to start the whole course afresh. Your academic credits with the previous institution are taken into consideration and that would be transferred to your current university. So, this is a brilliant provision that India is going to take on.
The only concern with this provision is about the academic credit transfers with the IITs. It is my question that would IITs consider the academic credits from other universities or colleges? For example, if you take Physics or Math, IITs might think that they teach these subjects in a completely different manner than other universities such as Bennett or any other. So, will they agree to take that student who has studied the same subject from non-IIT colleges? This looks as a challenge for me in this ABC credit system. So, we’ll have to find a mechanism that could equalize these concerns.
We at Bennett University are absolutely flexible to take a student who has earned those academic credits. When it comes to higher education, aim of a student is to get a degree and attain knowledge. So, my core duty as part of the higher education system should be to enable the student to get that facility. So, I don’t have to look at it as an internal issue rather as a facility, as an external issue. If we can open our minds to that, I do not see any issue in this regard and that’s the philosophy we follow.
During your stint at Manipal University Learning, you were a key person in distance learning programs. Would you shed some light on the working process of learning centers?
The core idea behind learning centers is that the increase your reach and availability. It has nothing to do with franchising. In distance education, these centers provide another physical space for sessions on clearing doubts, meeting with professors, understanding the subject. Additionally, these centers also provide another perspective that a student can approach regarding whether they want to pursue distance education or not.
Learning centres have huge value of their own because in the end, distance education is all about people being educated no matter where they are. And the governments keep emphasizing on the gross enrolment ratio. Then, in order to fulfil that ratio, the whole nation will need more than Rs. 200,000 lakh crores with fully installed infrastructure of physical universities and all the facilities. Therefore, in the end, distance education is the only current solution for the country to advance in gross enrolment ratio in education.
Due to the pandemic, online and distance learning have got a big thrust. Share your views on online and hybrid learning, and its continuation in the future.
Online education is the only way to break the geographical and time barriers. It’s like learning anytime, anywhere. Hybrid learning also has its own importance because you can’t expect that the students can learn everything on their own. Therefore, the role of faculties becomes important. And, I think hybrid learning will become the norm over time because the young generation is more visual in their learning ability than the previous generation.
We used to sit with several books to find the answer or write the answer but it is not the same now. Now, what we really need is to enable our teachers and faculties and to facilitate them with all the technologies so that they could also make online learning exciting. It is just not distributing power-point presentations or pdfs in teaching. It is much more interactive.
With your diverse profile and ample experience in both the industry and academics, what message would you like to send to students and academicians?
I’ll start with the academicians. As I mentioned, the aim of any student is to get a higher education degree and attain knowledge. So, everything we do has to be centred around this utmost motive. I can’t say that I have to conduct the exam in this way or I just have to finish the syllabus. It is not only about the knowledge associated with that degree but also an attempt to build a future upon that education. So, it clearly means that teachers should extend their time to teach the student and that’s how we can build the future of our country.
For the students, I have a very simple message. You have a choice. Either you can party all the time during your education and cry the next forty years or you develop the art of time management and live your life. Split your 24 hours in segments and do only important things in those hours of the day. If your college is six hours daily, then there should not be anything else in your mind for those six hours. After that, you only need an hour to brush up what you learned in class. You won’t need to touch your books during exams if you keep revising just every day for just one hour a day.
Another thing, follow what you are passionate about. Don’t fall to prey to peer pressure. No matter what, your peers are not going to feed you or your family for life.