Mumbai: Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) student volunteers helped Bihar flood victims with relief and health services last year. And they provided counselling and trauma care to employees of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower after the luxury hotel was attacked by terrorists in November.
Spirit of service: (top) The convention centre at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; and (above) a hall in the academic building. Kedar Bhat/Mint
Such work isn’t unusual for an institute that sent teams to refugee camps after Partition in 1947 and, more recently, helped in reconstruction work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and recorded farmer suicides in Maharashtra.
TISS has a record of stretching the definition of academics, from the postgraduate courses it offers in public health and social entrepreneurship to disability studies and action.
But for two years in a row, TISS’ health system courses have missed the top slot in the Mint-C-fore survey by a whisker. Last year’s write-up in Mint on the top-ranked Institute of Health Management Research in Jaipur generated scathing comments from TISS fans, who wrote in to complain that the Mumbai-based institute was worth a lot more than it had been given credit for.
All the more reason for a trek to the TISS campus in Mumbai’s Deonar area, a campus that’s so simple it could be a smaller version of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan in West Bengal.
Even the greenery on the campus is not in the form of carefully cultivated and manicured gardens. A stroll through the campus is more like a walk in the woods, with each tree and shrub allowed to grow and proliferate on its own, albeit not wildly.
The pre-independence institute was set up as Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work with 20 students. For the next four decades, it focused on social work studies and research.
“The institute was established in 1936 and till 1980, no new programme was included,” says C.A.K. Yesudian, dean of the School of Health Systems Studies and a TISS veteran. “That’s why when the hospital administration course (the institute’s first management course) was offered, there was a lot of opposition.”
“Why get into managerial areas?” he reminisces about what the course pioneers were told internally then. “We didn’t get classrooms, so we waited till 6pm for other classes to finish.”
When TISS started its hospital administration course, not many in the country knew about health economics, financing or networking with non-profits.
By 1993, the certificate programmes in hospital administration and healthcare administration had evolved into postgraduation degree programmes that taught students financial, marketing, quality and material management in a hospital or a healthcare initiative.
And in 2008, TISS started a master’s course in public health with an enhanced research orientation.
From 150 applicants in 1993, the number of applicants for the postgraduation courses has gone up to about 2,500.
A written exam and interview later, 50 successful aspirants will gain a seat in the hospital administration course, 40 in the health administration course and 20 in the new public health course.
The heavy student inflow has not made the dean happy.
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“In 1993, we had 15 (students) in one course and 10 in another. I’m not happy about this (year’s batch size). The course is not interactive then,” says Yesudian, arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head.
One likely reason for this displeasure could be the institute’s struggle to find faculty. Its School for Health Systems Studies has a 12-member faculty and an equal number of guest teachers, but needs six more.
“It is very difficult to find people who can fit the vacant slots and then retain them. You know anybody? I’ll hire,” says Yesudian.
Alumni who have come back to teach say TISS programmes are different from the courses taught elsewhere. “When I step into the class, I tell the students, let’s learn together,” says P.M. Bhujang, medical director of Mumbai’s Sir Hurkisondas Nurrotumdas Hospital and Research Centre and a 1985-86 alumnus who teaches quality, financial management and medico-legal subjects at TISS.
“The basic approach of teaching in TISS is through social work. That’s how it was envisioned and that’s how it has evolved,” says R.V. Karanjekar, an associate vice-president at Wockhardt Hospitals. “Others started as business management courses.”
The placement of TISS’ postgraduate health and hospital administration students is varied enough to qualify for a salad bowl.
The institute has placed students in top hospitals such as the Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai and Global Hospitals and LV Prasad Eye Hospital in Hyderabad, in government-run programmes such as the National Rural Health Mission, in non-profit agencies such as the National AIDS Control Organization, and in the corporate sector, such as ICICI Lombard General Insurance Co. Ltd.
Asked if Wockhardt Hospitals hires students from TISS’ School of Health Systems Studies, Karanjekar says, “On priority... They are especially adept at project finance and problem handling.”
Detractors say TISS students prefer working in big hospitals in metropolitan cities rather than in the grime of rural areas.
Nachiket Sule, a 24-year-old homoeopathic doctor who will earn his degree in health administration from TISS next year, says he would, in fact, like to work for a non-profit in the countryside, if only as a stepping stone.
“I would like to work for an NGO (non-governmental organization) that is deep in the rural interiors and focusing on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis,” says Sule. “This will get me closer to working with an organization such as WHO (World Health Organization).”