Always a pioneer

Interview with Dr H. Vinod Bhat, Vice Chancellor, MAHE.

Published : Jan 31, 2020 07:00 IST

Dr H. Vinod Bhat, Vice Chancellor.

Dr H. Vinod Bhat, Vice Chancellor.

YOU have spent over three decades at MAHE. What changes have you seen?

Well, some things have changed drastically. Obviously, we have grown in size, reach, offerings and in our international presence. What has not changed is the tradition of personal touch to everything that has been bequeathed to us by our founder, Dr T.M.A. Pai. His son Dr Ramdas Pai and grandson Dr Ranjan Pai have continued this tradition. The founding, promoting family has stayed here continuously. This remains the spine around which Manipal has grown. A single piece of DNA which has dictated how Manipal should conduct itself in higher education.

A single piece of DNA?

Yes, MAHE has grown around the core values that the founding family stands for. Integrity is the number 1 core value of the group. So much so that even during the most testing times we did not give up our principles. We have never compromised on the values we held sacred. During MAHE’s deepest crisis, Dr Ramdas Pai sought our opinion. And while the majority opinion was self-preservation, which when translated meant “we should compromise”, Dr Pai said: “No, even if it means closing down I will, but I won’t compromise.” That’s the level of integrity [at MAHE]. Our other core values are quality, execution with passion and transparency in all that we do. Be it admissions, examinations, recruitment of faculty or promotions, we believe in and follow meritocracy. And with a large part of the group’s work in hospitals/health care, the humane touch and empathy are our other values.

Most of the faculty are not from these parts, but we have stayed here for decades because of the enormous trust in our leaders and the free space that is given to us. There is empowerment right across the board. And there is no intervention by anybody for admissions, recruitments, promotions or examinations. MAHE celebrates an absolute matching of personal and organisational values.

Despite a proliferation of private players in medical education, MAHE’s colleges are a class apart.

Manipal has always been different and a pioneer. In 1953, when Kasturba Medical College, Manipal was set up, we were the first medical college in the private space outside of the missionary set-up. Today, there are 400 medical colleges in India, 200 in the private space. The cost of setting up a medical college has increased steeply: Rs.500-600 crore for about 150 admissions. But none of the newer generation of social or educational entrepreneurs are really doing it for the purpose for which a medical college is meant. They are, rather, looking at returns on investment. And the result is cutting corners, compromising on quality, and eventually, all kinds of questionable things happen. We have never done things that way. In the first year itself, we had international students. And our first batch was recognised by the General Medical Council of the U.K. and the Medical Council of India. There have been no instances of wrongdoing in fee collection.

MAHE welcomed the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

Yes. We were one of the few people in the private sector to welcome the initiative. NEET took a weight off our shoulders. Before NEET, we had to conduct our own entrance examination, do our own counselling and be responsible for the students we admitted. And despite our best efforts, we still found wrongdoing in examinations. So we had to do our own policing, too. So when someone is conducting a foolproof examination for us, why not accept it? And if it’s going to be nationwide and they were going to do the counselling too, still better. So we went with NEET and the DGHS [Directorate General of Health Services] to do the counselling. And there can be no finger-pointing in seat selection. We have never had a single case of a wrongful admission.

There is a misconception that MAHE charges high fees.

At one time our fees were considered high, but now, when all the fees have to be paid to the DGHS and nothing to the college, many of these so-called inexpensive colleges have become three times as expensive as Manipal. We have not changed our fee structure. But yes, the cost of education concerns all of us: the faculty has to be paid higher salaries, overheads are increasing, new programmes have to be started…. the increase hurts, but what choice do we have? If we don’t, it will pull down the quality of our intake. Therefore, we are now building strong foundations for scholarships. We want to freeze the fees at some level and support students with scholarships. No student will be turned back from any programme at Manipal if she or he has the merit but no means to pay. For us that will be the ultimate challenge. We know how much it costs to get there and have started working on increasing our corpus.

Where will this corpus come from?

The private sector, alumni, our surpluses from the university, besides corporate support. Alumni giving has not been channelised in Manipal. We have now set up a separate office of Alumni Relations to tap this source.

MAHE is one of just three universities in the private sector that the Union Human Resource Development Ministry “crowned” an “Institute of Eminence”. How important has this been to MAHE?

The label of Institute of Eminence has helped MAHE [get recognition] for what it is. This conferment is not just for what we have achieved so far but is also for the potential we hold. It was a big moment for all of us. We believe that the autonomy that has been promised to Institutions of Eminence will help us move our trajectory to aspire to even higher goals. International universities have taken a serious note of this. While earlier we were looked at as a university that could supply students, foreign universities are now asking us what we can do together. That to me is a big change in peer perception. I sincerely hope that we will be given the promised freedom to help us achieve our goals.

The Institute of Eminence tag is in part meant to spur Indian universities into the top 500 universities of the world.

Today, as per the QS World [University] Rankings, MAHE is in the 700-750 bracket. We can go up another 200-250 places in the next three to four years. My own reading is that going up to the 400-500 bracket is possible; after that, the climb will be steep and slow.

Strategic partnerships are the new norm.

Yes. We have 217 international partnerships as of today; 73 of these partners are in the top 500 of the world rankings and 8 are in top 50. So when Manipal chooses to have strategic partnerships, we choose the best. Last year, we had discussions with the University of Manchester [U.K.], which is 27th in the world, and recently we signed a landmark partnership with the University of New South Wales [Sydney, Australia], 69th in the world. The University of Sydney has come forward to sign a priority partnership.

One of your innovations has been the setting up of 100 specialised centres.

It was an idea born out of an observation. Academic hierarchy is so pyramidal and regimented that it can be equated to the military. The climb from one post to another is very difficult. And if a professor wants to become head of department [HoD], he has to wait for the other person’s tenure to come to an end. So it’s not in your control however well you do. There are so many people with immense potential, and I thought it was time we identified such people and incentivised them to create centres and come up with proposals. These people have been given independence. They may not report to the HoD but to the head of the institution. Some of the HoDs who have finished their tenure are given a centre so that there is something [for them] to look forward to. These are interdisciplinary centres where people can work in collaboration with another department/s or institute/s. All of them have independent grants, are doing excellent research and are collaborating with international partners.

You have medical schools in Malaysia and Dubai. Where next?

We have been invited to set up a medical school in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. We are in talks with Sri Lanka, where we have been allocated land in Kalutara, and are knocking on the door in South Africa. This year, we are setting up the Manipal-Tata Medical College in Jamshedpur with permission to use the Tata Main Hospital for clinical training. MAHE was the first Indian higher education institution to set up a campus overseas.

What does the future hold for MAHE?

The focus clearly has to be on top-quality research, not “me too” research but research that is backed by top-quality faculty, working with the best of equipment and facilities, collaborating with the best of global universities. To do this, we have to create and enable a suitable environment. We want to push our doctoral programmes and ensure that enrolment crosses 1,000 per year by 2022. The number is 400 at present. Eighty per cent of these programmes will be funded by scholarships. We also want to expand our postgraduate programmes and research facilities and launch companies. We want to set up a tech park in Manipal which will focus on biotech and pharmaceutical products. We are looking at a healthy and sustainable coexistence of industry and academia.

And in Bengaluru?

We are expanding our campus in Bengaluru and moving from Manipal Hospital to an 80-acre plot close to the international airport. The focus here will be on research and various schools for design, law, business and entrepreneurship, engineering programmes, humanities and systems biology.

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