Solutions worth spreading – ChemECon 2020!

Thursday, 5 March 2020 02:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We admit around 30,000 students per year to our public university system. The number however fulfilling the admission criteria is much, much more, as only about 15% find their way into the free education process in the national university system. This is not a positive healthy situation. 

You look at Europe and in countries such as Norway and Sweden and their developed economies and you find that everyone is usually assured of a place in a university within a course that one would like to pursue higher education once the admission conditions are fulfilled and there too the education is free. This transformation is possible when you and everyone else identify the position of a university to the society. 

Recently the Chancellor of University of Manchester stated that the university to the city must be similar to that of the cathedral! That is indeed positioning the university as the top most institution in the hearts and minds of the citizenry. Well this is achieved through simply being relevant!

Per year more than 25,000 projects of various types do take place in our university system and they have to be completed too if the convocations are to have any graduands! The gamut of these projects span across number of disciplines but the salient question is how much of these projects, which led to the formation of a graduate results in outcomes other than that of supporting the formation of the graduate.  

In other countries the projects are linked to issues that are prevalent in the society or in the region. Students are trained with real life examples and tested on them. This aspect of activity or challenged based education is becoming ever more relevant. Our system for the most time looks at criteria fulfilment and we spent many hours filling documents and calculating numbers and averages and then finally place all the reports inside cupboards and or on shelves which are then eternally condemned to a life of dust and solitude. 

Today we engage in placing digital copies of the post graduate studies available on demand too which is quite positive but it is instructive to check whether all of us are agreeable to share the uploaded documents freely. It is important that we have open days with engagement showcasing to the outside of what we are doing and actively pushing for interaction.

Empowering undergraduates to reach professional excellence

Solutions worth spreading is an exercise in trying to achieve exactly that objective, carried out by the Chemical Engineering Students’ Society, also known as ChESS – the student body of the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering of University of Moratuwa. This society run by the students, function with the aim of empowering undergraduates to reach professional excellence while focusing on personal development aspects through a variety of programs organised annually. 

It is almost an embodiment of ‘Api Wenuwen Api!’ ChemECon 2020, the conference showcasing research and industrial projects conducted by undergraduates, is a first time event organised by ChESS this year. This provides a platform for undergraduates to reveal their potential in solving industry-related problems as well as research-related problems through their innovative ideas in the field of chemical and process engineering as what they would be showcasing and explaining are what they have done in their final year.

The event will be held on 10 March at the university premises with an expected audience of above 250 participants, comprising industrialists, engineers, technical managers, researchers, academia, and undergraduates.

The event will have two separate sections dealing with process optimisations and sustainability aspects. I know that presence of many more would be really valued as the multiplier effect is enhanced. Anyway ChemECon 2020 is an open event. May I expand on why one should attend!

State institutions and universities

At times when you participate in workshops and conferences when it is time to question some take to pieces the State institutions and universities. In particular you hear the word irrelevance oft-stated in such situations. What we are doing in the system is indicated to have no merit whatsoever with the result that there are no jobs for the graduates. 

One even hears of how a ministry was created to cater to both highways and higher education together and indicates the fit for purpose of such a scenario identifying that students are most of the time are on the road than in lecture rooms. It is also indicated that the attributes, which are in need by the private sector in particular are lacking in the graduate. This is not an attempt to take on the whole set of accusations in one go or not responding on behalf of the whole system.  

However, I feel that with 35 years in the public university system I can state my responses with confidence. However, this is again not going to defend even part of the system which is perhaps what I know best. I am stating only a humble request. 

We know that those who criticise us at the drop of a hat for the most part have not even set foot inside a university let alone spent time listening to those who actually work within. Some I know are quite good at heart and they make some of the remarks with sincerity expecting that things would change. I am also aware that bringing CEOs and MDs – those who are from the c-suite – are quite difficult. We are also aware of exceptions and I have written on those here as well. 

Systems are improved only by moving the needle away from the average and creating a new normal. Either way much more interactions on-site are necessary. It is also expected those interactions to lead to a greater understanding and built up of trust. Trust of course would not materialise from mere exchange of pleasantries. The exchange of ideas and solutions matter more and form the basis for the mutual trust to emerge. 

Universities in the United States

Consider the scenario presented from the universities in the United States. The figure presents and assessment of startups and value created to the economy from the usual university activities. The diagram clearly states how the universities have added value and they do so not just by producing graduates but by coming up with ideas and then converting those ideas into possibilities and finally scaling them up in some way in partnership with industries and investors. The numbers are interesting and should excite decision makers on the power of potential. 

University graduates coming from any of the fields of specialisations need not beg for employment, which is only indicative of a prevalent weakness and also reflect on the self-confidence. State should also understand this fact as a symptom and seek remedies differently rather than through becoming guarantors of employment. That is almost a recipe for disaster though short-term mindsets may not comprehend as such. 

Here is throwing the gauntlet again from this development – to the naysayers, critiques and also the well-wishers and to the community at large! ChemECon 2020 is a showcasing event of importance organised by the Chemical and Process Engineering Department of University of Moratuwa. Come and evaluate yourself you may be surprised! 

Strong communication needed

I agree that the onus for strong communication falls on the university side and has been lacking over the years. Our public university system is used to the free handover of talent to the system by the University Grants Commission and – we know this fact very well at University of Moratuwa – without any promotion. As such the institution has lost understanding of the concept marketing and the required positioning in the mindset. 

Of course the general media has always given free coverage of the negative events, which I of course would admit are also unfortunately too frequent for comfort and has contributed in some way to the indelible image that had been created in society other than among the parents and the close associates of the graduates and students in the system. There is a need for understanding of this fact and the necessity for remedial measures too if the universities are to climb into the desired position of excellence. Solutions worth sharing resulted from problems worth solving! These problems are taken from an industry context and some even from a national context. Imagine a collection of urine being used to generate ammonia and then enabling future in-situ energy production. If not energy you have the fertiliser option. That is one solution a visitor will come across.