It’s difficult to avoid a sense of déjà vu each time one witnesses a debate on higher education on television. Highly articulate vice chancellors and NRI professors pontificate about access and excellence, about research and relevance. But the ground reality is so stark that the discussants and our actual students could be on different planets. This feeling peaked recently when, the morning after watching such a debate, I made a field trip just 120 km outside Indore.
Sandalpur is a village in Khategaon Taluk of Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh (MP). Khategaon itself is a bustling town, the local agricultural produce trading centre. Khategaon has dozens of schools and more than 8,000 students complete Class 12 in this region every year. But, college enrolment rates have historically been low. Only the best students, and that too boys, are sent to attend college in nearby educational hubs in Indore or Bhopal. Farmers and traders question the value of college education, and local social and cultural mores are a barrier against sending girls in their late teens far away from home. The local colleges that exist have been more like degree shops than real centres of education.
Pranjal Dubey belongs to a family that has traditionally provided the head priest for the Sant Singaji Temple at Sandalpur. In 1996, he was thrust into that role thanks to the premature death of his father. But, with the blessings of village elders he continued his career as a software engineer in Bengaluru, returning every year only for the annual temple festival. On each visit, he found growing frustration among the village youth as they struggled to find employment. Parents often asked Dubey how their kids could become like him, and he emphasized the importance of education and getting a degree.
On one such visit, a parent produced his son before Dubey and told him, “Here is my son with his degree, now get him a job like yours.” On closer examination, Dubey found the degree to have been bought from a local education “shop”. Needless to say, getting a job for such a student was out of the question. But, this set Dubey thinking about the local students, their awareness levels, and the quality of education offered in the region.
The happy manifestation of that trigger is the Sant Singaji Institute of Science and Management (SSISM). Located in a small but neat campus along National Highway 59A at Sandalpur, SSISM is a co-educational college with more than a thousand students on its rolls. In a short span of six years, it has achieved stellar results—14 students (incidentally, all girls) have obtained university ranks, thus putting Sandalpur on the education map of Madhya Pradesh; some of its graduates are working in the software hubs of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune in companies like Cognizant, Infosys and SAP; and more than a hundred graduates are now teachers.
SSISM has numerous innovations to its credit to sustain motivation and momentum. Singaji Software Solutions is a small IT unit co-located that provides opportunities to do software development for foreign clients. Singaji Business Solutions encourages students to become entrepreneurs by providing encouragement for their business ideas. One student who comes from a family that trades in spices is today creating a business built around packaged spices. The Singaji Premier League is a college-wide contest that pits four teams against each other in an array of activities, supported by internal marketing and publicity. One girl who had never thrown a shot put before discovered that she had the natural talent to be the college champion which did wonders for her self-confidence and motivation. An annual college trip to big cities provides exposure to the wider world.
How did all of this happen? Dubey returned to Sandalpur, at first on a sabbatical, to set up SSISM. He was encouraged by Professor DVR Seshadri of Indian Institute of Management - Bangalore with whom he had done an executive development course. He now has a team of dedicated faculty who work closely with him. Considerable emphasis is put on building confidence and communication skills in the students. SSISM has just started working with Head Held High, a Bengaluru-based social enterprise which has developed a specialized methodology to help uneducated rural youth rapidly gain English communication skills.
During our visit to SSISM, we were shown around by the students themselves. It was good to see the pride they have in their institution. They are certainly confident even if they lack the fluent English skills of the city-bred. Ankita, an SSISM alumna with a passion for education who is now doing a Masters degree at Azim Premji University at Bengaluru, gave an excellent presentation on SSISM’s accomplishments.
But, according to Dubey and his team, the greatest barriers to the positive impact of SSISM are social. Dubey told us the story of an outstanding BBA student who appeared to have all it takes to get into an Indian Institute of Management for her MBA. She had started preparation for the Common Admission Test with support from SSISM when, all of a sudden, her family decided it was time to get her married. While her parents seemed amenable to persuasion that she had a bright future as an MBA, elders in her extended family insisted on her marriage. This is a frequent challenge for SSISM and an issue that their faculty feels helpless about even though they have been successful in persuading several families to let their daughters study further.
SSISM has to offer a seamless end-to-end service to ensure that girls study there. It has a fleet of more than 20 buses that pick up and drop back students across the region, some students travelling more than an hour-and-a-half each way. Dubey’s brother oversees this entire logistics effort. His mother, a dignified elderly lady, is specially charged with the welfare of the girl students and reassuring their families that it’s safe to send them to college.
SSISM’s other challenge is financial. The fee-paying capability of the local environment is low. Being part of the rural economy, incomes are a function of the quality of the harvest—the last two years have not been good for agriculture in this region and hence the ability to pay is constrained. Attracting CSR funds is difficult as higher education is not on the radar of most companies, and this region has little by way of large industries. SSISM’s building remains incomplete as the college faces a funds crunch.
SSISM’s vision is to be the best rural education society in MP by 2025, imparting holistic education to 15,000 students at a time. Whether that vision is achieved or not, it has already demonstrated the importance of idealism, commitment and innovation if India is to make a mark in higher education. The success of higher education in India depends more on such efforts on the ground than on learned discussions in television studios.