Academic and infrastructure expansion are high-priority areas along with alumni participation
On the occasion of the second convocation of St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, vice-chancellor Fr. Felix Raj spoke to ABP Education and shared his vision for the institution which he, along with Jesuit brothers and a strong alumni network, founded in July 2017. A Jesuit of the Calcutta Province of the Society of Jesus, Felix Raj was earlier the vice-principal, principal and rector of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. A teacher of economics, he is also the director of The Goethals Indian Library and Research Society and a member of the West Bengal State Education Commission.
Excerpts from the interview.
Though a private university, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, is run on a philosophy that’s different from its counterparts. Can you elaborate on it?
St. University, Kolkata, is run by The Society of Jesus. It’s a 500-year-old philosophy based on Jesuit charism, with the aim to form men and women for others, to form leaders of commitment, leaders of conscience and leaders of values. For us, it is of utmost importance to ensure personal attention to each and every student and work on their holistic development. This is the basis of our educational mission.
Also, ours is the largest education network in the world in the private sector. The Jesuits run about 3,600 schools, and 160 colleges and universities globally. In India, we have about 220 schools, 71 colleges and universities and 21 management institutes. This is how we are different from the others.
How many courses is the university offering?
We are offering 15 courses currently at the graduate and postgraduate level. We are also offering PhD degrees.
What are the major milestones the university has achieved since its inception in 2017?
The first and most important was recruiting quality faculty members. And though we have gone very slow, we have 2,500 students on the rolls. We have opened a management school and a law school. This is a continuous process of evolution and how best we can respond to the needs of society.
Another milestone has been to reach out to the rural poor through our outreach programmes. There must be a connection between this institution and rural people. We are planning to start some diploma courses for the village youth so that they get employment.
This is the second Jesuit university in India and is functioning very well. As a result, it has become an example to the Jesuits in the country to start a university.
Also, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, is a case study in alumni participation. In our country, alumni participation is very poor, apart from the IITs and IIMs, but here our alumni are among the stakeholders of the university. They took interest in everything, from the planning to the execution. The entire university infrastructure was built with alumni donations. The impact this institution has on its students is very deep, very strong and we are proud of that. Currently, we have 15 international and 6 national alumni chapters.
How else are the alumni contributing to the university’s stature?
Now the university, too, has a small army of alumni. Our first batch had 136 students and our second convocation held on February 6 saw 451 students passing out. This university already has 600 alumni and with 2,500 students currently on campus, they would soon add to the number in the coming years. We have started an alumni association for them and they are all active. I believe in the spirit of the alumni and all we need to do is give them the space to participate.
What are some of the university’s academic and infrastructure expansion plans?
The academic expansion and infrastructure expansion are both high-priority areas. We are planning to launch several new courses in the near future. Currently, we have a 300-bed girls’ hostel and a 300-bed boys’ hostel. We are building another 600-bed girls’ hostel. We are also coming up with a Management Development Programme (MDP) building, which would be offering short-term and long-term MDP courses to working professionals in offline, online and blended modes. We are also planning to start distance education championed by NEP 2020.
When it comes to fees, where does St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, stand vis-à-vis other private players?
We get students from rural, urban, poor and rich backgrounds, hence our focus is on reasonable fees for all students. What every institution run by the Jesuits does as a mission and takes pride in doing is ensuring that no deserving student should turn back on education because he or she does not have the monetary resources. We have scholarships and assistance for poor students and we call this ‘Jesuit preferential option for the poor’.
What has been the university’s learning during the pandemic?
The pandemic was unexpected but the Xaverian community — both faculty and staff members — took it as a challenge. I kept sending them guidelines and advisories, stressing the fact that our approach must be positive and we must face the challenge.
We had regular faculty meetings to plan our responses. Our initial response was to have blended classes. But during the lockdown, we went completely virtual. We prepared our faculty and students on how to go about it as it was new for all. From March 2020 till today, we have conducted online classes very successfully and smoothly. We did it in two ways — the students who had internet facility at home were asked to stay at home and those who didn’t were allowed to stay in the university hostel following all COVID-safety protocol and attend online classes. We had 15 students on campus.
Attendance is compulsory for all and we monitor every class. It has gone off very well so far with the cooperation of everyone involved. But even during the pandemic, we did keep our university open and allowed students access to the library and laboratory following COVID-safety protocol.
You ran St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, before taking charge of the university. How have the two experiences been different?
The experience gathered at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, has been the foundation for me to start the university. It is this 160-year-old college that gave birth to the university. My experience at the college gave me the determination and strength. And my experience of running the college has been a great asset to run this institution.
Where do you see St. Xavier’s University in 2030?
We have started working on Vision 2025 and we want to complete it in terms of infrastructure and academic expansion. Five years down the line, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and St. Xavier’s College, Burdwan, will become a part of St. Xavier’s University and function as its affiliated colleges.
We are also planning for 2030 and 2050 and I am looking at it in terms of academic and infrastructure expansion, brand value, and the number of domestic and foreign students coming here. We want to undertake larger expansions to accommodate students from different parts of the world. We would not settle for anything but becoming one of the best institutions globally.