Taking The Vision Of The Founders Far And Wide

In a conversation with Harish Chandra, Director-Vice-Chancellor, TISS, PROF S Parasuraman outlines the road map for TISS as it moves towards completing century

 

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) was established in 1936 as Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work. What were the circumstances and vision, which led Sir Dorabji to make this noble move?

When liberalism as an economic ideology failed and the world was pushed to “Great Depression”, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) began as Sir Dorabji Tata School of Social Work in 1936. Mumbai was an industrial city by 1930; and the Great Depression of 1930s had serious implications for industrial workers – lock outs of factories, layoffs of workers and the poor business affecting traders and shop owners. The result was a serious unemployment, poverty and dispossession of people in an already crowded city. Thus, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust invited a Chicago University Social work scholar Professor Clifford Manshardt to examine what can be done. Professor Manshardt after a few years of study suggested establishment of a School of Social Work to create Human Service Professionals to work with the poor and displaced to gain new skills and find work. Thus, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust created Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work in 1936 with Prof. Clifford Manshardt as its first director.

It was renamed as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1944. In 1964, the Institute was declared to be Deemed to be a University under Section 3 of the University Grants Commission Act (UGC), 1956; and has been funded by the University Grants Commission (UGC) since then. Till 1966, TISS was based in a working class neighbourhood, after which it moved to its present location in Chembur, in those days a leafy suburb with farmhouses and large industries.

More than eight decades after its creation, has TISS managed to keep in line with Sir Dorabji’s vision. Could you recall some of the milestone achievements?

The Vision of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences is to be an institution of excellence in higher education that continually responds to changing social realities through the development and application of knowledge, towards creating a people-centered, ecologically sustainable and just society that promotes and protects dignity, equality, social justice and human rights for all.

TISS since its inception has been considered to be a prestigious place for education and research on interdisciplinary areas of Social Sciences in the country and the Asia region. From an Institute that had around 300 students in 2004, TISS now has around 5000 students; spread across 4 campuses, in Mumbai, Tuljapur, Hyderabad and Guwahati, offering over 50 post-graduate programs, from its 20 schools and 45 centres. It has retained its quality of excellence as an institution of higher education in Social Sciences; and is placed at the top of all universities accredited by the NAAC (3.89 out of 4.00) in the country right now. TISS’s earliest courses related to Social Work as well as Human Resources and Labour Studies remain the best in the country and Asia, and have diversified. Many of TISS Courses that have pioneered new areas of Social Sciences education have been replicated across the country.

In 2004, when the TISS reviewed its own identity and relevance, it came to its attention that there is a dire and unrecognised need for expansion in critical Social Science education in the country. Since then, it has made a quantum leap to be relevant in the current globalised world, introducing steadily new generation courses such as disaster management and as well as courses in critical areas such as gender. TISS has also leap frogged into the knowledge era, based on its firm grounding in its vision of fostering critical thinking, contributing to society, and its participatory culture of functioning that is encoded in its DNA. It is now integrating cutting edge pedagogy including open source software and concerted digital libraries of excellence into all its curricula and courses.

TISS’s expertise and work in Social Sciences has been recognized by various government and non-government agencies; resulting in them seeking partnerships on a variety of fronts; and to establish innovative pilots to demonstrate effective and value based programs of regional relevance. This led to the consolidation of the TISS Rural Development Campus in Tuljapur, followed by the establishments of campuses in Hyderabad and Guwahati. TISS in this period also worked with several remote locations: Ladakh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other parts of the country – Chennai, Patna, Ranchi, Delhi, Nagaland, Kerala. In this period, along with the expansion to new regions,.

TISS field action projects reach out the most vulnerable and marginalised populations of the nation, the invisibilised and the silenced; and pioneer new generation policies, mechanisms and services. TISS incubated new programs before the Governments can take notice and create nationwide program – open jail, Muskaan, CHILDLINE, Special Cells for Women in Distress, Koshish, cutting edge Fellowship Programmes and over 30 other field action projects started as student field work initiative later nurtured as demonstration project eventually adopted by the State and Central Governments.

 

In the current education scenario, when a placement in IT sector dominates the job market, what’s it that invites young minds to social sector institutions like TISS?

TISS attracts some of the finest graduates from Engineering, Medicine, Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities from all states and UTs in India; with about 50% of students admitted to TISS’s Post Graduate programs being fine engineers leaving jobs at IT and other sectors and managing to get admission here. This is because TISS has played a critical role in fostering idealism and principles in young minds down the generations: that it is possible to transform societies so that well-universal well-being, sustainable development and social justice is established. By anchoring this high idealistic spirit in ground realities that work creatively, TISS captures the imagination and energy of young people. As a result, some of the finest and most compassionate minds are attracted to the Institute.

The Institute’s pedagogy is uniquely grounded in fieldwork practice that is integral to student curriculum; where TISS students engage with, learn from and reflect on the reality of people’s. They learn to respect the wisdom and power of the communities, sharpen their own professional skills, and learn to contribute meaningfully and effectively. Students are transformed by the fieldwork experience. A young women graduate remarked how by working with women in urban poor communities in Mumbai, she has gained enough confidence to voice her opinions in the rural community where she comes from.

Finally, all TISS students who seek placement find jobs, and the Institute’s alumni contribute successfully to all sectors of the society at all levels: grassroots, government, corporates and civil society organizations. In the current context of the burgeoning service and development sector that requires ethical, thinking and competent workers, even the growing number of students graduating out of the TISS is still far short of the country’s demand.

 

Among the large number of students enrolled at TISS today, there is an enormous segment (1/5th to be exact) of doctoral scholars. What are the areas which have come to gain focus under TISS’s research programmes.

The world is turning more and more towards Social Sciences to resolve some of its most critical problems today, recognising that increasing individual alienation and isolation, looming climate change, persistent hunger and poverty and pervasive conflict have been created by human systems and societies and can be addressed by the collective and united will of individuals, communities and nations.

Social Sciences have become increasingly critical with realisation that psychological and social worlds that we inhabit is far more complex and inter-connected, with a vaster conception of human nature, systems and societies; that cannot be determined by mechanistic viewpoints of physical science alone. There is a greater merging of global scapes, bringing together diverse cultures and world views creating possibility of new, unified societies with diversity, transcending racial and continental divides.

TISS’s increase in PhD students is in response to the need for the development of Social Science theory and trans-disciplinary knowledge on the whole to address the inter-related local, national and global problems.

TISS doctoral scholars work along with faculty in keeping with the vision of the Institute in the key areas: sustainable development and social justice.

 

Starting eight decades ago from India’s first cosmopolitan city — Mumbai, TISS has now travelled East with also a campus at Guwahati in addition to one in Hyderabad and another at Tuljapur in Maharashtra. What are the challenges in bringing about social and cultural assimilation between the students of different campuses?

Students from all campuses are admitted through common entrance processes, and the composition and diversity of students across the campuses are the same. In any of the campuses, the student composition is from diverse kinds of backgrounds to begin with: rural, urban, first generation learners and general category. Thus, the Institute in its very DNA is oriented towards bringing in cultural assimilations. Moreover, students from different regions apply to all the campuses depending on their choice of Programme that they want to study.

The selection and deployment of faculty as well as the courses taught in the various campuses are through centralised procedures, ensuring that the nature and quality of the Institute remain the same in all locations. Further, the culture of TISS as an Institute is maintained across the various campuses through adherence to its Vision and common standard operating guidelines. With TISS becoming a paperless university, all the library material are dignitalised and are available through remote access, ensuring that students across all the campuses have access to the same educational material.

 

TISS has collaborative research and student exchange programs with over several universities and institutions across the world. What role is TISS playing in these collaborations?

All of TISS’s programmes are developed with local as well as global perspectives. Courses like Globalisation and Labour has been developed and offered in collaboration with Global Labour University, International Labour Organisation (ILO); and offered across various overseas universities. Other examples of new generation courses developed through international collaborations include Public Health in Policy, Finance and Economics developed in collaboration with London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

TISS has collaborations with over 180 universities across the world; that provide opportunities to faculty and students to high quality research and teaching environments. Most Schools and their Centres and Independent Centres also have partnerships to substantially enhance their research. In addition, TISS is part of several networks of universities and institutions – Himalayan Universities Consortium, Global Labour University, Family Studies Network, ACCESS Network, DAAD,Linnaeus Palme,and Obama Singh- variously for collaborative research, student exchange and institutional capacity building. Of particular significance is TISS’s partnership with several Erasmus Mundus consortia from the beginning like Erasmus Lot 15,13,11, EMEA and EMINTE.Another key collaboration is TISS’s active involvement in the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM)-Round 7 programme.

 

As a social sector expert, how do you evaluate government initiatives at creating human service professionals to work with and enable people overcome poverty, deprivation and unemployment?

The current Government has strengthened and added to Social Protection measures created by UPA government. Government of India, from 2014-16, has committed to reach an estimated 260 million people with a basket of five schemes.

Young professionals working in the field have a critical role in energizing and capacitating local governance structures and ensuring the successful delivery of government programmes so as to ensure sustainable and just development. This along with widespread capacitation in areas such as community organising, rural development, health and education is essential for the realisation of these ambitious Programmes. The gap in human service professionals at all levels – community, district, state, region and Nation – to actualise the programmes is becoming more evident, and has resulted in not only many of the TISS graduates being employed by various state and central government departments and ministries and the seeking of TISS expertise to train various community and government functionaries; but also the initiation of various Fellowships to deploy development professionals in key areas of work such as Enterprise Development in NRLM, synergy at the District and community administration, etc.

 

Academic objectivity, rising above political bias has been considered one of the hallmarks of TISS. How challenging it is to work at times as arm of judiciary to investigate reasons for government’s policy failures?

TISS has always played a critical role in evidence based policy advocacy – telling truth to power; playing a key role particularly with respect to key Flagship programmes of the government. TISS has a long tradition of working with all levels of social.

For instance, in the area of health, TISS works to strengthen the human and institutional capacities of the national health system. Saksham, a partnership of 38 institutions of higher learning is running a capacity building programme for over 5000 integrated counseling and testing centres; with 1200 counseling supervisors trained till now. Supported by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria  (GFATM), Saksham is fore-runner in public-public partnerships between universities and Ministries of HRD and Health and Family Welfare.

These partnerships with the government seek tangible solutions to the complex real world issues that concern people in India, by enrolling diverse actors who are committed to the common purpose of addressing poverty and ensuring universal well-being. This common purpose allows TISS to be critical about various government initiatives without losing its objectivity, while retaining healthy relationships with all the various government bodies. As a result, TISS works very closely with the state and central governments through research, evidence based policy advocacy, consulting and program development and implementation. Simultaneously, the judiciary calls upon the TISS to investigate core issues and suggest ways of addressing them without dissonance.

 

As TISS moves on, has it set itself a goal to celebrate its 100 years of existence?

TISS is truly a Community Engaged University that has achieved the top position amongst universities as per NAAC assessment with a core of 3.89/4.00.  It is unique in the world, in its commitment to stand with the poor, and its commitment to working with a wide range of stakeholders. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences is striving to achieve World Class University status given its substantial contribution to Sustainable Development and Social Justice. A recent internal review benchmarking of TISS’s current work against the Sustainable Development Goals (2016) revealed that not only is TISS working in all the areas identified by the goals; but is already in synergy with the most advanced thinking amongst evolved world leaders. Further, TISS is steadily keeping pace with the key developments in Social Science knowledge and its practice across the world. Given that the need for its trans-disciplinary work will only increase in future, TISS will strive to make Social Sciences as one of the most important disciplines studying, understanding and addressing pressing needs of the people and how to achieve development that is sustainable.