‘Need to change narrative and value skill-based jobs’: Dr Neharika Vohra

Last week, the Delhi Skills and Entrepreneurship University run by the Delhi government opened admissions applications for its first batch. The Indian Express spoke to Vice-Chancellor Dr Neharika Vohra about the idea behind the university, its relationship with the industry, and where skill education is headed. Before this, Dr Vohra taught at IIM Ahmedabad where she was heading it’s Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship.

What has the response been like in the first week of applications?

It’s been very good. We’ve had more than 25,000 hits on the website every day and we also have a lot of walk-ins in each of our 13 campuses, 40 -100 in each everyday… We’ve had over 7,000 registrations so far, of which more than 2,000 are completed… I hope we have a good response — not just because we have seats but also as I want students to explore newer possibilities and not do the usual courses after completion, of which there is a mad rush about what to study next, government exams, entrance exams.

You’ve said in the past that industry is embedded in the university. Could you elaborate on the relationship between the two and how it is playing out?

When we began looking at what courses to offer, we spoke to the industry and did an industry analysis. We looked at and other websites to see what kinds of jobs were most advertised and for which a premium was being paid by the industry. Once we figured some of that out, we went to some industry leaders in those fields. For example, on there would be 800-2,000 job openings for digital media on any given day. We went to digital media design houses and they spoke of how there are either short, very expensive courses or no real courses available. So there’s a gap and a need. Then we went to the industry itself to ask what we should be teaching and we went to academics in the field to ask if there are certain things a student really needs to know so they can learn what the industry needs. So the curriculum advisory groups of all our courses were formed anew and are half industry and half academic by design…

What they’re also looking at is seeing what part of this needs to be practice because skill by definition needs to be done to be learnt… Some of it must be on campus and some of it needs to be in the industry. Our courses will have different ways of interacting with the industry. In our retail management course, half the week is in class and half is in the store and each student will get a stipend of Rs 12,000-15,000 per month from day one. By the time they finish, they’ll have one-and-half years of work experience.

Many of your courses are very focussed in their approach, such as a BMS in Land Transport or a BBA in Facilities and Hygiene Management. Could limits on possibilities for students be a concern?

Not at all. Even in the management education field, the current discourse is that the general management course is too ‘nothing’… Many of these subjects have become very specialised — you can’t do it by learning two papers — and are not limited in themselves. Even abroad, they have programmes like this. If you learn, say, land transportation, and have practiced as a land transporter, done optimisation, fuel optimisation etc. nothing stops you from doing a masters in data or an MBA… All our courses meet UGC requirements, so there will be no barrier to admission in a master’s programme.

In the past, you’ve said you want to make skill education aspirational. Could you elaborate on this and where you see skill education going?
If we look at what has survived through history and civilisations, it is what people have done with their hands. Whether it’s cave paintings, the Tanjore temple or the Notre Dame… In agriculture, today there are 5 lakh varieties of rice. It doesn’t come by chance, it’s the skill of the farmer… Behind everything we consume, or has survived over time, the underlying issue is skill and it doesn’t come by learning theory…. The way our society has developed, the Brahmin or the privileged class has monopolised thought and the rest have done things by hand, and the only aspiration is to be a ‘Brahmin’, in a certain way.We want to counter that. If an airport manager goes on strike, the airport will function but it won’t if the janitorial staff go on strike. Yet we value and pay them less. The idea is can we start valuing this a little more and change the narrative?

It’s interesting that this is something you’re trying to bring about in the university but is that reflected in potential or future employers?

I think it’s two-way. If you look at employers today, they are badly off as they don’t get skilled people. So there’s a huge mismatch between the jobs they have and the number of people they can employ. Anyone who is skilled at something doesn’t have a dearth of opportunities… I think the industry is ready but what they will have to do is also put a little money where their need is. You can’t not pay enough for this.

How does the university plan to support students with placements?

Because we’re so embedded with the industry, my sense is that every student will walk out with a few jobs. Industry members are also part of the teacher selection, there will be guest lectures, collaborations on summer internships and last six-months’ internship. But I will never say it guarantees 100% placements because it really nullifies the whole education process, as students will then see the years in the university as a “pass through”.

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