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‘We need more private varsities’

Hot seat

Surabhi Banerjee, vice-chancellor of
Central University of Odisha, Koraput

You have headed state universities earlier. How challenging is it to head a central university (CU)?

It has been a learning experience. What my counterparts can do in Gandhinagar or Jaipur, I cannot here because Koraput has different needs and issues. It is dominated by tribal population. We are focussing on several local issues like tribal empowerment and health care, but besides catering to the needs of the region, we are trying to develop the university into a modern institution.

Have you got adequate support from the state government?

Yes. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik has supported the university from Day One and has visited the campus several times. Outside infrastructure like approach roads is the state’s responsibility and I had approached Mr Patnaik in this regard. They are going to start the work very soon.

Koraput is a hotbed of Maoist activity. Have you faced any threat or trouble?

Uncertainty and tension are sometimes in the air. But we have not faced any problem in developing the university.

Do you feel that the CU of Odisha has not been able to get the attention it deserves?

The pastoral environs are ideal location. But at the same time, there should be adequate infrastructure. Here, accessibility and connectivity remain a problem. But we are the only one among 12 newly established CUs to have seen two batches of students pass out. We are introducing many new subjects and are continuously recruiting faculty members for senior positions. Infrastructure wise, we are becoming stronger.

Do you think the university has failed to attract the crème of students due to its locational disadvantage?

Some people feel scared that it is in a far-off place and there are connectivity problems. But we have quite bright students here though I feel that they are starved of facilities. Some of them are from Andhra Pradesh and other parts of Odisha, including many local students. This year, we received applications from Mumbai too. Next time, there will be a common entrance test for admission into the CUs so that we get a good mix of students.

Is it true that the varsity is facing a faculty crisis?

Sometimes we don’t find professors. Not everybody would be interested to relocate to Koraput. Maybe when they come and work in a CU located far away, they begin to feel lonely and then leave. But we have a good number of associate professors and assistant professors.

So would it have been better to have the CU in Bhubaneswar or Cuttack?

It would have been convenient for the V-C and people developing the university and township for the first 10 years. But that would have been injustice to people of the region. The university township will ultimately contribute to economic growth of that area. It is already generating a lot of employment among local people. Personally, I feel it is better to have a university in a far off place despite all hurdles than to have it in the concrete jungle.

How is the placement scenario?

We have to formalise it. Local colleges are absorbing our graduates as guest faculty to deal with large-scale teacher vacancy. Some are teaching as guest lecturers in our university too. I am thinking of holding placement tests for our students in Bhubaneswar. Many headhunters might not come to Koraput. If this doesn’t work out, we will have video conferencing sessions for interviews.

You have been accused of spending more time in Bhubaneswar than Koraput.

I have been staying away from my family for four years. So, whether it is Koraput or Dhenkanal or Bhubaneswar, it is the same to me. All V-Cs of the 12 new CUs were asked to operate from the state capitals. If we don’t have a camp office in Bhubaneswar, how do we liaison with the state and other agencies for the university’s development?

Odisha has 13 universities, both in private and public sector. Do we need any more varsities?

As per the mandate in the 12th Five Year Plan, we have to widen access, promote equity and attain excellence. So, the more universities, the better but with adequate infrastructure and qualified teachers.

Should they be state-sponsored or private like Vedanta?

I don’t want to comment on Vedanta but I think anybody with good intentions is welcome to invest in the education sector. We don’t necessarily have to stick to the public sector alone. We need more private universities, maybe some on public-private-partnership mode.

The CU of Odisha is coming up on 450 acres. What is the ideal land requirement for a varsity?

Around 500 to 600 acres is considered ideal to facilitate construction of wide roads, landscaping and so on. Pune University has 800 acres and Mizoram University has 1,500 acres. You can develop a university even on 100 acres. It all depends on your plan.

Proactive & progressive

Surabhi Banerjee has an experience of 36 years in the field of education and is among few women academics to have headed three universities. She was also the pro-chancellor of the University of Calcutta

She graduated with English honours from the Presidency College, Calcutta. She holds a double master’s degree — one from the University of Leeds, UK, and the other from University of Calcutta. She did her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge and then undertook research work as a fellow at the University of East Anglia, Norwich

Banerjee has authored 22 books besides research papers. Her books on literary personalities are popular among students of English and European Literature. She has taught as professor of English at Presidency College and University of East Anglia

She was the VC of two varsities in Bengal — Netaji Subhas State (Open) University and the University of Gour Banga. She has also received several awards including the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award in 2007

What would you have been had you not been an academic?

I would have probably become a social activist. We have a pluralistic society and there are a lot of things a sensitive, sensible citizen can do for the eradication of social ills. From my childhood days, I wanted to become a teacher in a college or university. I wanted to go abroad and study. That was my passion and ambition. But at this point, I can say that if not a teacher or academic administrator, I would have chosen the social service field. That area has a lot of potential which fascinates me truly.