Sunday, December 01, 2013

Beyond MBAs: Niche and interdisciplinary master’s courses finding more takers

Amith Kaushik Tanneru was not really surprised with his friends' and family's reaction when he told them he wanted to quit his job as a software engineer at Infosys, and study public policy. "You know how people look at social sciences in India. They said my future was uncertain," says the 25-year-old who enrolled at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, near New Delhi, last year.

Tanneru is among a new breed of students who are doing their postgraduate studies in areas which a decade ago would have invited puzzled looks from most people in India. Public policy, for instance, as a stream has been a fixture in Western universities for over 50 years, with Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs among the top schools worldwide.

In India, however, it is finding takers only now. Sudarshan Ramaswamy, Dean of the Jindal School, says the reason for that is equating governance with the government. "Public policy is no longer related to just what the government does," he notes.

When Government is Not All
Talking of the multi-disciplinary nature of public policy, Ramaswamy adds: "It's good to have journalists who understand, for instance, the Land Acquisition Bill and its implications, and a public policy programme helps in that." Ishita Trivedi, a first-year student at the school, says the course structure is moulded according to the composition of the batch and what is pertinent then.

"Your idea of what you want to specialize in keeps evolving because you are constantly exposed to different things. I joined the programme wanting to work in the area of food security or maternal health," says the economics graduate from Delhi's Miranda House College. The Jindal School, part of OP Jindal Global University, set up by Navin Jindal, has 25 students in its first batch, and 18 in its second. Ramaswamy says the employment options for his students include, besides the government and think tanks, the CSR arms of companies engaged in development-related initiatives.

Tanneru wants to work in e-governance, particularly cash transfers through mobile banking. Besides the Jindal School, Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore offer public policy programmes. The Indian School of Business (ISB) is also thinking of introducing a postgraduate programme in public policy at its Bharti Institute of Public Policy, according to the latter's Executive Director Rajesh Chakrabarti.

The Bharti Institute is located on the B-school's Mohali campus and teaches public policy to its management students. Similar to the misconception that public policy is only for government servants is the view that public health is only for doctors. "Doctors take care of sick people while public health professionals ensure people don't fall sick," says Dileep Mavalankar, director, Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Gandhinagar. There are three other IIPH campuses in Delhi, Hyderabad and Bhubhaneshwar.

Global Appeal
Ziaul Haque, a student of the one-year PG diploma in public health management at IIPH, Delhi, says although he did apply to colleges overseas he is happy that IIPH's syllabus is not very different from the foreign institutes he was considering. "Moroever, I'm paying just Rs. 250,000 a year, including hostel fees, which is much lower than for colleges abroad," says Haq, who wants to work on HIV and mother and child health, and who is one of the few non-doctors in his class.

While the institute started with more government officers in its postgraduate diploma in public health management, Mavalankar says now it is equally divided between them and private candidates. "In the government, our students could end up working for the National Rural Health Mission or district public health programmes. In the private sector, companies could hire them for health initiatives as part of their CSR," he adds.

Other employers include international agencies like the UNDP, WHO and Unicef. The starting salary for a public health professional could be between Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 50,000. Besides postgraduate diplomas, IIPH has just started offering a master's in public health through Hyderabad University.

It is awaiting the passage of the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, in parliament, before it can offer master's degrees on its own. One of the objectives of the Bill is "each university would focus on one area or problem of significance to India and build an ecosystem of research and teaching around different related disciplines and fields of study." Other universities offering a master's in public health include Manipal University and Lucknow University.

If civil services, medicine or engineering was what every other parent wanted their kid to study till the 1990s, the degree of honour has since been a Master of Business Administration, helped in no small measure by the storied success of IIM alumni. But the MBA is fast losing its lustre, with 160 of 4,500 management schools expected to shut down this year and 10-12% of graduates considered employable, according to a January report by Assocham.

These graduates spend Rs. 300,000-500,000 on their MBAs and earn only Rs. 10,000-15,000 a month, the report adds. While the likes of IIMs, ISB and XLRI, Jamshedpur, have retained their cachet, interest in low-ranked B-schools is clearly waning.

Urban Planning 2.0
Educationists have been calling for courses to be made interdisciplinary so students have a better understanding of their specialization and are better equipped for the job market. Urban planning is one such course. Though the School of Planning and Architecture in the capital and Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad have had urban planning for a while, it is only recently that academics seem to be waking up to the need to have students from multiple disciplines in urban planning.

The Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bangalore, which also comes under the Innovation Bill, hopes to have students from different streams in its master's course. It has had IT professionals and social workers take part in its certificate course on urban planning. "We train 400 planners every year now and most of them go on to work in the real estate sector," says Aromar Revi, Director, IIHS.

Ajit Kumar, director of infrastructure consultancy Frischmann Prabhu, says till a decade ago urban planners were synonymous with architects. "But now, only 50% of planners are architects. While architects visualize the structure of a building, planners visualize how a city will look and grow and what its needs will be in the future." He adds that given projects like the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, which has multiple townships, there will be a huge demand for planners. They command a 25% premium over architects and could start with Rs. 35,000-80,000," says Kumar.

Adapting to Changing Climate
Interdisciplinary approach has also been key to courses offered by TISS, which has in recent years started offering master's degrees in areas like climate change and disaster management. "Problem solution here involves inputs from different fields," says T Jayaraman, who heads the School of Habitat Studies at TISS. The institute received 900 applications for an intake of 35 in disaster management and about 300 applications for an intake of 15 in climate change this year, according to Jayaraman.

While such new offerings are certainly a welcome move, the biggest hurdle to the growth of these courses is limited opportunities for some of their practitioners. "The market for public policy graduates is not so clearly defined as for MBAs. A government job is not very lucrative," says ISB's Chakrabarti. For public health graduates, the absence of an equivalent to the US Public Health Service means their options to work for the government are limited, according to Mavalankar of IIPH.

Jayaraman says money is not necessarily an overriding concern for those who study climate change and disaster management at Mumbai's TISS. Money apart, there are some strong indicators that multidisciplinary courses will soon move away from the fringes of college education if not become the order of the day.

Source: The Economic Times, December 1, 2013

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