Kerala Digital University made itself self-sustaining: VC Saji Gopinath

Digital University Kerala: Integrating digital integration projects into MTech, MSc, PhD curriculum, it has raised sizeable funds.

Kerala Digital University Vice Chancellor said that the university is aiming to be self-sustainableKerala Digital University Vice Chancellor said that the university is aiming to be self-sustainable

Atul Krishna | July 26, 2022 | 03:20 PM IST

NEW DELHI: The newly-formed Digital University of Kerala has made some rapid advancements over the past year. Since admitting its first batch of students in 2021, it has set up two centres of excellence (CoE) with three more in the works. The university has also made a major leap in becoming financially self-sustaining, raising funds through digital transformation projects and consultancy.

Vice-chancellor Saji Gopinath spoke to Careers360 about the transformation of Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala (IIITM-K) into Digital University Kerala which, in just one year, did “six to seven times” the activities IIITM-K did. Edited excerpts below.

Q. What major developments did the Digital University see in the past one year?

A. The major advancement was in the area of research. We could actually set up two large centres of excellence (CoE), both national centres. One is on the internet of things (IOT) and the other, on graphene [a nanomaterial]. This year, in the graphene centre, we are providing scholarships for MTech students interested to work in a related area.

The key model we have adopted is that we bring lots of projects in both research and development from industry and provide students the opportunity to work and earn through them. They can recoup at least around 50 percent of the fees they paid and, along with their classroom training, they also get hands-on training in the campus itself.

We had good PhD admissions. The university is almost self-sustaining, from its own internal projects and other grants. We provide scholarships of Rs 20,000 per month in the first year and Rs 25,000 per month in the second year for all PhD students. We don’t charge anything from PhD students. If they are not interested, they have other projects.

For MTech, we have the earn-while-learn programme in which they can participate in the live projects of the university. Around 25 percent of MTech students have full scholarships now.

Q. You had said that the aim is to depend on student fees for just 40 to 50 percent of the university’s funds. Are you on the right path?

A. If I look at my last year’s budget, only 30 percent is coming from fees and government grants, 70 percent we generated through our other projects. Moving further, we will actually look more into that area. We want to make the courses affordable. Although they would still have to pay the fee, we are looking at making it almost free for students with subsidies from projects.

I think this is a unique model because we don’t have too many institutions in this country that are self-sustaining, they either get government grants or they charge high fees. We thought that instead of these two options, there could be a model where the faculty could get involved in live projects, of course some of them are funded projects, but we still also support student education, it is also bringing revenue to the university.

Q. You mentioned two centres. Is there any collaboration with industry?

A. Both centres have pre-partners. The implementation is done by us and a Government of India department called Centre for Materials for Electronics Technology (C-MET). The funding comes from three sources, Government of India, Government of Kerala, which primarily provides infrastructure, and industry.

In the case of the graphene centre, TATA Steel is the major industrial partner. They provided a million dollars as their contribution but there are a few smaller players also in the mix. As far as the IOT centre is considered, we have a group of smaller companies as technology partners. More than funding, they also provide other support such as technology expertise, providing people with specific industry verticals. We are looking at developing a few more centres. We are targeting at least three or four centres this year. Each of the centres will be looking at an investment of Rs 50 crore to Rs 100 crore.

Q. Any other centres or courses in the works?

A. We are in the advanced stages of creating a CoE in the area of autonomous vehicles. We are also working on a centre for private security governance and forensics and looking at another centre on digital health but it is too early to talk about that.

As for courses, based on the feedback we received, we have increased newer programmes in MSc and MTech this year. Primarily, in MSc we have started programmes in computational sciences, bio-artificial intelligence (AI), system science and engineering. Additionally, we started MSc data analytics also. We also started a course on geospatial analytics.

Q. What has been the response in admissions?

A. As far as MSc is concerned, the response is really good. The focus of the university is to ensure that people in different domains can use this to move into a digital domain, whether it is people from science, arts or humanities. If they have interest, they can opt for courses which will take them into the expertise in digital state. That is basically where we have a good response.

MTech programmes are only picking up; we have two, in computer science and electronics.

Q. Any other areas of immediate focus?

A. One area, in addition to the research centres, is on re-training. We have actually restarted our training portfolio. We have started a new training programme where we look at people with technical background within the government. For example, across the country, even for clerical posts, a lot of people with engineering and technical backgrounds join because there is still an interest in government jobs. We have started a programme where we identify such people and train them to become a digital expert within their department. These people will then drive the top-tier government projects. Usually such programmes are done by agencies as, within the government, that expertise is not there.

Q. Are you finished with any of the retraining programmes?

A. Yes, the first programme we did was for the Kerala Police Department. The police have selected a set of 30 people for their AI cadre. They will work only on AI projects for the government. These are all people with engineering backgrounds. We gave them hard-core AI training, not at the peripheral level but at the programming level, so that they can actually develop AI solutions for the police. This was a 45 days programme which started in May. We are actually trying to do it for other governments also. We are developing similar programmes for many other departments.

Q. IIITM Kerala was upgraded into Digital University of Kerala. What changed?

A. IIITM-K was focussing on very niche courses in IT and not playing a large role like the Kerala Digital University. IIITM focussed on entrepreneurship courses. We have a programme called Maker Village and around 80 companies are there. That is actually being handled by IIITM [which is now a part of Digital University of Kerala].

The university widens its role. It started looking at wider areas such as ecological informatics, which was not there earlier, and MSc in ecology started. More important than that, there is a huge increase in the research focus and developmental focus. That is a far bigger canvas. We work in various sectors including agriculture, animal husbandry – all these are digital transformation projects.

So, the university will play a direct role in the economic development to some extent. We are trying to create such an ecosystem. The idea of the graphene centre is to drive an ecosystem of material science companies in and around that; the IOT centre should also do the same. The activities, compared to when this was IIITM-K, went up by about six to seven times in the last one year.

The focus of the university is to ensure that people in different domains can use this to move into a digital domain, whether it is people from science, arts or humanities. If they have interest, they can opt for courses which will take them into the expertise in digital state

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