Gangan Prathap is at the helm of Cusat at a crucial point, when it is set to witness a radical transformation as an IIEST. In an interview to G. KRISHNAKUMAR, he outlines the challenges ahead on this path of change, which he believes will, in the long run, help the university earn a place among the top 10 institutions in the country.
Gangan Prathap, Vice-Chancellor of Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat), believes that the university has a special character. A renowned scientist with an excellent academic background, Dr. Prathap wants that character to be nurtured to enable the institution to develop further and earn international repute in research and development.
“Cusat’s target should be excellence,” he said in an exclusive interview to The Hindu-Educationplus.
A researcher who bagged the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize in Science and Technology in 1990, Dr. Prathap shared his views on a wide range of issues from the conversion of Cusat into an Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST) to the need to step up research on the campus.
What is the latest in the process of converting Cusat into an IIEST?
The State government has given its assent. The Central government must now take up the process of enacting an Act of Parliament to make Cusat an Institute of National Importance, under the name IIEST.
There are two candidates now, i.e. the Bengal Engineering and Science University and Cusat, which will be renamed and promoted as IIESTs.
How will Cusat’s character change, once it is converted into an IIEST? Could you explain the administrative structure of the university once it becomes an IIEST?
Its administrative structure will be like that in the IITs. The NITs, after upgrade, are also structured like the IITs now. There may be minor differences, but these are not important. It is expected that under this new arrangement, there will be more autonomy in functioning.
Will it be governed under the provisions of the National Institutes of Technology (NIT) Act? If so, what are the advantages of functioning under the ambit of the NIT Act? Are there any disadvantages?
I think we place too much importance on the name. What is material is that we should get the right quantum of funding (as of now, the IITs get much more than the NITs, and Cusat’s current budget is like that of the NITs). With that, one can build up a very congenial atmosphere for study and research, and that will attract the best faculty and students.
Do you agree with the view that the hype regarding the conversion fizzled out with the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) deciding to bring Cusat under the NIT Act? If no, what are the reasons especia lly when the annual budget of NITs is really low compared to the allocation for IITs?
The same point I made above. If Cusat/IIEST can be promised a budget of about Rs. 100 crore a year, as is now envisaged for Cusat, it would be in a position to reinvent itself.
Confusion prevails over how the affiliated engineering colleges will be de-recognised vis-À-vis the university. Parents and the student community are worried, as they are yet to get a clear picture about how this de-linking will take place? What are your comments?
The various exchanges between Cusat, the State government and the Central government (MHRD), so far, have made it clear that the colleges which are now recognised by Cusat will have to seek affiliation or recognition from the nearest university. I personally think that the best arrangement will be for the State government to quickly set up a technical university to which these colleges can then be affiliated. This will go a long way to assuage these legitimate fears and concerns of the various stakeholders.
Once Cusat becomes an IIEST, what are the immediate changes that would happen in the academic sector? How do you view the growth of the university in the next five years?
I expect that the structures for governance, management and leadership of the institute will be rationalised and simplified and will be conducive to building up a world-class institute of higher learning. I also expect that better facilities (e.g. lecture halls, residential accommodation, etc.) and resources (scholarships, fellowships, library facilities, etc.) will become available.
I do not expect Cusat to grow suddenly in response to these inputs in such a short timeframe. Note that the IITs have had this order of funding (in current rupees, about Rs. 100-150 crore a year) for 50-60 years now, and have built up their infrastructure accordingly. It is unlikely that an injection of this order of funding for 5 years can bring Cusat magically up to IIT class. However, in spite of its constraints, Cusat has done well. It is arguably the best research university in Kerala and one of the top 20 in India, with a budget that has remained about one-fifth of that of the IITs. I expect that changes will take place in the right direction, and that in about 20 years, it will try to be in the top 10.
How do you rate the research being held on the campus. What are your ideas on how to step up the quantity and quality of research work?
Very good. Especially considering the constraints. However, this class of excellence is confined to small islands within the campus and the challenge will be to get more groups into this class of work, apart from enlarging the groups that are already in this class.
We must make this conscious effort to move from relevance to excellence, at least for this institute. To this extent, again, only for a few chosen institutes, meritocracy may have to become a more important priority than egalitarian concerns. This has to be managed by the State and the political process, so that we have enough institutions which meet the need and aspirations of all citizens (efficiency, equity and social inclusion being the major objectives) and a few set aside (elite higher education institutions like the IITs, IIESTs, IISERs, etc.) which address the issue of excellence and merit at the highest level.
I recently read that India ranks third (it was second in 2003) in availability of scientists and engineers, but it ranks 20th in the quality of scientific research institutions. That, it ranks 84th in public expenditure on education (per capita in 2000); 72nd in tertiary enrolment (gross percent in 2001); and 80th in scientists and engineers in our R&D (per 1,000 inhabitants in 2000). This won’t do for a country that believes it is destined to be a super-power.
What are the immediate challenges that you face in this new assignment? How do you propose to address these? Is there a plan of action?
None that I fear cannot be addressed. The most important will be to carry all sections along. There are groups which are concerned about the egalitarian and utilitarian aspects (social inclusion, relevance to the local needs, etc.) and these must be assured that while we have enough institutions in the State and country to take care of such needs, a few elite institutions must be chosen to be torchbearers. We must be proud that Cusat has been hand-picked for this role.
Regarding the plan of action for the new structures for governance, leadership and management, my predecessors have already done an excellent job of preparing the roadmaps and vision documents for the smooth transformation of Cusat into an IIEST.
How would you respond to the criticism that the focus of institutes like Cusat had narrowed down to engineering education while ignoring the urgent need to promote education in basic sciences?
This is unfortunately a very narrow view of the situation. I have believed for a long time that one should think of basic engineering education, i.e. four years after the Plus Two stage, as the best foundation for any future career, be it engineering or medicine or even the pure sciences, including the social sciences.
A well-designed engineering course combines the hard and soft sciences and teaches one to become a problem-solver. If we can have the proper incentives to draw our best BEs and B.Tech.s into science research, that will assure the future of pure science.