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Bit by bit,it evolves

Ask anyone from Rajasthan about Pilani and she will tell you what a premier seat of learning the small town is.

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Published: November 7, 2011 5:33:12 am

Ask anyone from Rajasthan about Pilani and she will tell you what a premier seat of learning the small town is. Located in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan,Pilani is home to a number of educational institutes and centres,including the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS),Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute,Birla Senior Secondary School,Birla Balika Vidyapeeth,etc. The list is long for the town the size of Pilani. And why just size,distance too. The nearest major city is New Delhi and getting to Pilani takes over five hours from Delhi by road,as road is the only option; the small town doesn’t even have railway connectivity. So my first question to Prof G Raghurama,the director of BITS,whom I meet on the campus,is about connectivity. “Although we aren’t located in a major city,this is not an impediment to the true sense of the word. The only challenge is transportation. But that doesn’t mean limited access,because in today’s world of connectivity,physical distances don’t matter much,” he says.

But then connectivity some 15 years ago was nowhere to the levels it today is,yet BITS Pilani had its significance then also; there must be some advantages,too,I ask him. “You are right,” he says. “The sheer number of people living on the campus,from almost all parts of India,give the campus a unique character. As many as 4,000 students live on the campus and,unlike a metro city,all the students remain inside the campus,spending practically all four years within the campus,and that leads to better bonding between them.”

While walking towards his office,I notice considerable student activity on the campus and get a feeling that Pilani,indeed,is a kind of oasis in desert. Oasis,incidentally,is also the name of one of BITS’s annual cultural festivals,and it is on while I am there. That’s why so much of activity. So I take a detour and visit the Oasis stalls. A student tells me that this year over 100 colleges from different states of the country participated in Oasis,which had as many as 75 events,professional shows and games.

Later,in the office,I ask Prof Raghurama about Oasis. He says,“The fact that such festivals are managed totally by the students inculcates management skills into them. You must have noticed some 20-odd student clubs at Oasis—a drama club,a photography club,a club called Nirman,an art club,etc. All these add to learning.”

An institute of excellence,as it grows old,evolves. BITS,obviously,has evolved but then the global standards still seem far away,I wonder,while I read about Mission 2012 and Vision 2020 in the documents he hands over to me. So I ask him that although BITS has been recognised as the number one private technical university in the country,what is the next step? “Okay,we had grown,not only by developing unique curriculums but also by expanding; until the turn of the century we were at Pilani,then we went abroad,to Dubai,in 2004 we set up our Goa campus and in 2008 we went to Hyderabad. But some two or three years ago we got into the mode of looking inwards,debating and preparing a new strategic plan to grow,rather evolve. That,in the changing world scenario,BITS needed to further develop a well defined strategy to realise its dream of being one of the leading universities in the world,” he says,before I interrupt,“So that’s why Mission 2012 and Vision 2020?” “Yes,” he says. “Through an intense collaborative process,involving faculty,students and (non-teaching) staff from all four campuses,a shape was given to a set of clearly articulated goals around three key domains: faculty development,curriculum development & pedagogy,and research. And in order to achieve these,we created three more areas to focus on: infrastructure & facilities,governance & administration,and campus life. This later became BITS’s strategic plan and Mission 2012 and Vision 2020 were born.”

Although BITS has been known for its high quality teaching but then simply having good teachers isn’t enough,I ask him. “You are right,while the focus on teaching remains,we aim to become among the finest research-led universities in the coming years. So now our faculty is engaged in PhD-driven research,which is funded in large parts by government agencies whose mandate is to fund research. And our PhD programmes are significantly supported by the research centres we have established,” Prof Raghurama says. On the sabbatical policy of the institute,he says that BITS has recently announced a sabbatical policy that after six years of working at BITS one can spend an year anywhere in the world with a full salary paid leave.

Research needs funding and,unlike the western culture,we don’t have the culture where industry invests hugely into universities. “Part of the blame goes to universities also,” he says. “How?” I ask him. “Industry needs to be paid back,and I believe things will change once the faculty demonstrates its ability to pay back to industry,” he says. But industry is made up of alumni,of all the institutes of excellence we have,including BITS. “Towards that,we have to approach our alumni in a structured fashion. But then it doesn’t mean our alumni doesn’t support us! As a matter of fact,it is helping us out pro-actively; for instance,when the Internet wiring in this campus was being carried out,it was our alumni that provided us with as much as 50% of the money,” he says.

Coming back to faculty,and considering that fact that how many city-bred professors would like to stay on the campus,I ask him what kind of faculty crunch BITS is facing. “Although we aren’t facing a faculty crunch as such,still we are in a continuous hiring mode,and that doesn’t mean simply numbers,but quality,too. Getting the right faculty for any institute of excellence is always a continuous process. In fact,we have revisited our compensation structure and now an assistant professor could be getting a slightly better salary than his counterpart in,say,an IIT,Prof Raghurama adds.

It’s time for me to leave. While coming out of his office,I see the logo of CEL,the Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership,on the noticeboard. The fact that Pilani is located in a rural area means that entrepreneurial opportunities are aplenty. “You are right,although they may not be monetarily as rewarding as in a metro city,” Prof Raghurama says. “We take steps to sensitise the graduate classes that entrepreneurship is an option that they should consider at the time when they look for placement. And we support them,too. Creating a start-up in,say,Bangalore is one thing,creating it in a rural area,where it also provides for some kind of gainful employment to the villagers,is another. There is a BPO that operates out of the town of Pilani. You may say that BPOs are dime a dozen,but then how many BPOs operate out of a rural area such as Pilani!”

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