Almost 40 days after Dr Shakil A Romshoo, Kashmir’s foremost earth scientist, took over as the Vice-Chancellor of the IUST, he told Khalid Bashir Gura about his plans for an academic campus that has huge possibilities and a few problems
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): When will offline classes start?
PROF SHAKIL AHMAD ROMSHOO (SAR): The desire of students to return to campus for offline mode of education is genuine. For almost more than a year, educational institutions all around the world including Kashmir are closed. The teaching is happening online. The Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) has decided to open the university for in-person teaching from October 5. For the last three weeks, IUST is holding offline classes for terminal semesters and for practical and project work. As the first week of October the campus will witness offline classes, we have mandated following Covid-19 appropriate behaviour.
KL: From academics to administration, how do you see new roles and responsibilities?
SAR: I have been holding different administrative positions at the University of Kashmir for a long time. Before joining IUST, I was the Dean Research, University of Kashmir. With my teaching and research background and administrative experience, I am equipped to handle the current administrative responsibilities in this administrative institution. Nevertheless, governing an institution has its own challenges. It has to be advisory, visionary and making people work in a missionary role. A Vice-Chancellor has to be a leader.
KL: In such a short span of time, your predecessors have set a benchmark in academics and infrastructure. What will be your key areas of focus and priority?
SAR: The University has adequate infrastructure to make a leap in some of the academic areas. For last more than forty days as the VC, I have had series of discussions and meetings with the majority of faculty and officers to identify certain areas where we can make a mark. We need to identify certain areas where we have relevant expertise and we can move ahead of others. IUST is a young university in terms of human resources and age also. We have been brainstorming on how we can reshape those areas which are priorities at the local, national and international levels.
KL: What are those priorities?
SAR: Some of the issues faced at various levels need innovative ideas. Innovation, incubation, entrepreneurship and start-ups will be the key technologies that will help us to address and make a mark on the society in future. We have started some of these activities.
We have here Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development (CIED), which we have completely revamped. Every aspect of innovation, incubation, entrepreneurship or intellectual property rights is dealt with under it. One of the verticals under CIE is artificial intelligence, machine learning, and disruptive technologies. We are already in communication with the best institutions of the country to corroborate. We want to address certain issues of societal importance like horticulture, wastewater, and city planning and other issues which need specific technological solutions.
KL: Why is IUST investing so much into outreach?
SAR Another issue is how to reach the community. The universities need to take up research and generate knowledge of societal importance. We have decided to have a dean for outreach. He will be as important as the dean of research or academic affairs. His job will be to give outreach to university programmes and taking whatever we do to the community, industries and alumni. One of the indicators of a university these days is the placements. We have decided that in every department there will be a placement coordinator. Similarly, every department will have a community outreach coordinator. One of the outreaches we want to give to the community is a newsletter. We have decided to publish a newsletter in the local language. This newsletter will highlight the scientific inventions, innovations that have been made at national and international and how they can be used locally to overcome issues of environmental, disasters, horticulture, agriculture and governance.
KL: With most of the claims remaining confined to papers, what will the university be doing to boost a culture of innovation?
SAR: At the CIED we have decided to host annually thirty young and bright innovators. We will issue a call for proposals and then seek ideas. There will be a committee to scrutinize ideas. The ideas deemed to have the potential to incubate; we will be giving a liberal grant. We will give space, facilities and a financial grant of five lakh rupees at the start. Even if out of these thirty students annually only 10 per cent are able to incubate those ideas addressing pressing demands of the society, they will have an opportunity to go up to the start-up level. We have accomplished, recognized innovations and almost twenty-eight patents have been filed by this university. IUST will be giving a platform to the youth of Kashmir to experiment with their ideas and showcase their talent.
KL: As a newly appointed VC, what are the challenges you are facing right now? Does University have enough manpower, resources and funding?
SAR: Every university has its own challenges irrespective of age. This university has a faculty strength of 250; however, half of them are contractual. Contractualism is a challenge and our efforts are on how to minimize it. It is a catch 22. If we want to make these tentative appointees permanent, the university may need more funds. The ad-hocs are paid less than one-third of permanent. Financial limitations are a challenge as you may have good ideas but they may be limited by it.
However, internally we are able to raise Rs 25 crore and we get around Rs 30 crore from the government. These both need to be upgraded. We are working on strategies to improve internal revenue generation. It can be done by introducing new courses, which have a demand, increasing the number of intake capacity if the infrastructure allows it. I have also approached the government with proposals for funding. You will see a significant increase in the revenues.
KL: Is research underfunded?
SAR: Every university, even Kashmir University has limitations when it comes to funding the research. I think none of the universities in the country is able to fund the research from their own resources. Fortunately, we have big funding agencies in the country to support the research in areas of national importance. I have been emphasizing to each and every faculty member to approach these funding agencies to support our big ideas. This university has a provision of internally funding the research. I told the faculty that we will be continuing with that. If you need a grant of up to Rs 5 lakhs for developing a proposal, doing some initial experimentation or some fieldwork I will be happy to give it. But that project should lead to a bigger project of Rs 30 crore. I am confident within a year there will be a jump in research funding to this university. We have young and bright faculty who are working on it.
KL: How will you contribute to the varsity from your subject expertise?
SAR: If you look at my subject expertise, fortunately, it has attracted a lot of funding even at Kashmir University. If you look at the subject like climate change, water resources, and geo-information technologies these are the priority areas of funding at national and international level. If you look at the National Education Policy 2020, these including artificial intelligence, disruptive technologies are identified as priorities. The government of India has earmarked around Rs 20,000 crore for these areas.
KL: Does IUST have Earth Science Department?
SAR: We do not want to open many departments for human resource development as many universities are already in place. We don’t have Earth Science or geo-informatics department at IUST. What I will be focusing on is knowledge generation. We will put in place research centres and this university needs to focus on knowledge generation. When we think of expanding the departments, we need to brainstorm whether we need human resources or use those resources for knowledge generation. My priority will be here putting up a centre like sustainability and climate change, a centre for water resources, or a centre for geo-informatics where people can do research and generate knowledge that can inform policymakers on issues on local, national and international importance.
KL: Can subject experts be campus experts?
SAR: Academicians are the most appropriate people to administer or govern an education institution. My past experience as a teacher, researcher, and administrator is helping me today. I wonder if I had no academic background whether I would really have been able to provide leadership. But if it would have been a hard-core administrator, there may have been gaps in understanding. Universities need to be governed by academicians.
KL: Many students complained of shortage of infrastructure, lack of space for scholars, underfunding research, books and libraries?
SAR: Some of the issues raised by you were also raised with me also like space, infrastructure, libraries, etc. The previous VC’s had in mind that we need to have only a central library. In Kashmir or Jammu universities, there are departmental libraries. The central library caters to all. I am of the firm belief that each department should have its own library as departments are specific to subjects. I have asked the departments to initiate its facilities. In Kashmir and other universities, there are many research scholars. Because of funding limitations, they are able to give six scholarships in every department. There are not many scholars in this university. So we give scholarships to every scholar and from our own resources at Rs 7000 per month. In Kashmir University it was Rs 6000 and now they have upgraded to Rs 10,000. I have no problem upgrading it.
There are no space limitations in this university but I think they have not been allocated rationally. I suggested we should have a space audit to rationally distribute and utilize them. There is a space audit committee that will look into it. The government has lately given us two more buildings for administrative and science blocks. It is a growing university. The infrastructure is also developing and the university in a short period of time has significantly developed.
KL: Does IUST allow students Union?
SAR: Student union is not here but we have a statutory body of student council. It has members of class representatives who come up with student issues and it acts as a liaison to address issues.
KL: Is recruitment of faculty and staff as per UGC guidelines given past allegations of favouritism?
SAR: One priority for me is recruitment and reducing adhocism. We are guided by the UGC and recruitments have to be according to it. We do not have a reservation policy here. I am not aware of favouritism allegations.
KL: What is the plan of the University regarding the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme (TEQIP) faculty?
SAR: The project came to an end on September 30. I have taken up the issue with the government especially with LG. It is a decision which will be taken at the government of India level. Even the university is considering supporting the salaries up till the end of this academic session. They have been doing good work and the university needs them.
KL: How much is university serious about extracurricular activities?
SAR: All of us need counselling especially students who have pressures of examinations, and placements. There is a need for counselling and extracurricular activities. Last week, I said, let’s start with the cricket tournament between faculty and staff. A healthy body has a healthy mind. We have prepared a detailed calendar for the extracurricular field. This university has world-class athletic tracks. We should have football, hockey and rugby fields. As students will come to campus we will have indoor and outdoor extracurricular activities.
KL: The campus is in contrast with some greener campuses. It is cemented mostly. Any plans to make it greener?
SAR: Kashmir University has a very picturesque campus. This campus is on the foothills of a mountain. However, there is not much greenery. We have constituted a landscape development master plan board. We are brainstorming on how to make it more students friendly. The government has lately given us 1000 kanals of land. We have decided to have a bio-diversity park, solar park, national environmental park. Also, we will promote research in aromatic and medicinal plants. We will have to green index of the university.