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. Such work isn’t unusual for an institute that sent teams to refugee camps after India’s partition in 1947 and, more recently, to record farmer suicides in Maha-rashtra, and help in the reconstruction work in the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
TISS has a record of stretching the definition of what comprises academics, from the postgraduate courses it offers in public health and social entrepreneurship to disability studies and action.
TISS campus in Mumbai’s Deonar area, a campus that overwhelms with its simplicity, could easily masquerade as a resort sans hammocks or a smaller version of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in West Bengal.
Even the greenery on the campus is not in the form of carefully cultivated and manicured gardens. Strolling among the greenery is more like a walk in the woods, where each tree and shrub has been 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.
Resistance to change
“The institute was established in 1936 and till 1980, no new programme was included,” says CAK 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 of what the course pioneers were told internally then. “We didn’t get classrooms, so we waited till 6 pm for other classes to finish.
Three decades later, he must be happy the institute did not waver.
When TISS started its hospital administration course, not many in the country knew about health economics or financing.
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. These programmes also trained the students in health insurance, medico-legal and medical technology management.
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 in 2009.
A written exam and interview later, 50 successful aspirants will gain a seat in the hospital administration course. The heavy student inflow has not made the dean happy. 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 and shaking his head. One likely reason for this displeasure could be the Institute’s struggle to find faculty. Its school for health system 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 PM 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 RV Karanjekar, an associate vice-president at Wockhardt Hospitals.
Karanjekar’s comments explain why the placement section in the TISS annual report for 2008-09 is a modest blurb, in contrast to the shrill pitch of placement announcements by other professional institutes. 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 Organisation, and in the corporate sector such as in 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, rebuts the notion. “I would like to work for an NGO (non-government organisation) that is deep in the rural interiors and focusing on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis,” says Sule. “This will get me closer to working with organisations such as WHO.”
Next year, TISS will launch a postgraduate course in health policy, economics and financing in collaboration with the London School of Economics (LSE). LSE has an extensive course in pharmaceutical economics, and TISS is hoping to bring in some of that expertise.
This course will focus on healthcare professionals in South Asian countries. Those enrolling for the course will spend the first year in classrooms and the second back in their area of work.
Yesudian wants teaching to be less classroom-intensive and more oriented to research and fieldwork.
“We need to rationalise the course burden. We are teaching too much,” he said. “It is better to give them a framework and ask them to gather information on it and critically examine it.”
The prescription pill for the institute is ready. Or so it seems.