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Saveetha Dental College, Chennai has not only topped the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranking table in India but has also come on the world map by making it to the 18th position in the prestigious Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world ranking. Dr. Deepak Nallaswamy Veeraiyan., MDS, MS (Toronto), MDP (Harvard), Professor (Prosthodontics) & Director of Academics, Saveetha Institute of Medical and Technical Sciences (SIMATS) tells the inspiring story of Saveetha Dental College’s ascent in his conversation with Dr. Aswatha Kumarswamy.
Dr. A. Kumarswamy: Please tell us about your transformation into a maverick educationalist.
Dr. Deepak Nallaswamy: Being a maverick educationalist was always a part of the DNA of the Saveetha group of Institutions. The pillars of the university have long prided themselves on being unconventional educators. Our credo has always been to do something distinctive and unique, and this has been the case from the initial days starting with our chairman Dr. Veeriayan. As soon as we attained university status, we endeavored to implement several advances and innovations. The primary justification for pursuing university status was to gain economic independence, allowing us to develop a curriculum that stands out from the competition. Upon becoming a university in 2005, we added nine new courses, including forensic dentistry, dental armamentarium, and practice management, significantly expanding our dental syllabus and curriculum. Even the Dental Council of India (DCI) found these additions interesting and integrated some elements of our curriculum into their final edition of the DCI undergraduate curriculum 2008. We have always sought deeper educational intricacies while taking our time to become stable. Moreover, we have eventually been able to design newer courses that are rich and valuable educational experiences that are currently used as templates for education models for developing the next-generation curriculum. The transformation happened over time and not overnight.
How difficult was it for you to step into the oversized shoes of the illustrious Dr. Veeraiyan?
Stepping into the shoes of Dr. Veeraiyan was an arduous task. What helped me was the vision, inspiration, and way of thinking instilled in me throughout my upbringing, which prepared me over time for this position and responsibility. Much of what we have accomplished was inspired by my father’s hope for a brighter future. Growing up looking up to my father, it was my childhood ambition to establish a successful name on my own. I am proud of my contribution to dentistry as the author of the “Textbook of Prosthodontics,” which elevated me to the profession’s forefront and served as a resource for many generations of students.
What made you think of embracing an untried model of undergraduate training in Saveetha?
Our undergraduate training program is a hybrid structure that combines western and eastern educational systems. Although it had not been tested in our nation, the concept was not entirely new. However, implementing the reforms was more difficult since many people were anxious and worried because the things we were trying to execute were big. Nevertheless, we were confident that this system would not collapse and that we could go ahead and establish it. We allowed our faculty to work independently as specialists in our comprehensive clinics. The new system empowered our students to work at a holistic level. Both these changes started giving results. With time, this system infused a substantial level of confidence among our students and professors. I must confess that even though we had anticipated resistance and several obstacles, we were thankfully bestowed by excellent faculty members who were highly supportive and made all of this possible. In this case, I want to express my gratitude to my faculty and students.
Could you enumerate the challenges in executing the new comprehensive model of training?
Our comprehensive model was based on rotating the faculty to multiple clinics. The earlier challenge was to convince our faculty, who were very anxious. It was not an easy path. There were financial challenges as we needed more teaching faculty, material supply, and armamentarium to run the clinics smoothly. Also, it took some time for our staff to adjust to newer clinic systems. However, the results were highly encouraging. Within three months, our outpatient numbers increased significantly. We also started getting excellent reviews and feedback from students and patients, further boosting our confidence. I must thank Dr. Veeriayan for constantly supporting us and motivating us to look forward to new challenges. From the day we began our comprehensive training on October 6, 2012, Dr. Veeriayan has stood behind us to support and mentor the teachers. Also, Dr. Sindhu Ramesh helped us push through and overcome several interruptions, making a significant contribution with so much endurance by keeping a long-term perspective in mind.
What is the secret of staff retention in times of frequent migration of talented staff?
I can proudly say that we have more than 30 faculty members who have served as Saveetha Dental College’s cornerstones since its founding. We have a very transparent policy framework which makes it comfortable for every faculty member to look forward to their job allocation, performances, monetary benefits, etc. We also provide our faculty early leadership opportunities based on their abilities and achievements, rather than having them follow a hierarchy as seen in other universities. We pridefully state that our employee welfare programs are among the best reforms, including Medicaid, insurance, travel grants, incentives, and food allowances, created to promote a healthy work-life balance.
Do you have a template for the placement of UG & PG students towards higher education in India or abroad?
We have an extensive NEET coaching center and a student counseling cell, where we interview each student individually to understand their career objectives and overall well-being better. We then regroup them according to their interests by creating separate study clubs. We hold regular meetings to review their development and whether they succeeded in advancing their ideas. A significant amount of effort also comes from our placement department, which puts constant effort into helping our students succeed professionally. We are delighted to say that 50% of our graduates who cleared the last NEET PG entrance exam have acquired postgraduate seats in various departments, and among them, 85% have passed the exam with an excellent score. We want to emphasize that, due to a large number of outpatient visits (3000 every day), our interns are constantly occupied and active throughout their clinical hours. In contrast to other universities, where most interns concentrate primarily on entrance exams, our interns, although occupied by their hectic clinical schedule, score high in entrance exams.
Please tell us about the research activities at Saveetha Institute of Medical and Technical Sciences (SIMATS).
One of the foundational elements of SIMATS’s success tales is research. Beginning in 2012, we pioneered undergraduate research with initial level research focusing on surveys and minor projects. With time, we raised the bar of research into advanced genetics, genomics, and molecular biology programs. With the research culture in our institution, the number of publications has also substantially increased. The university has invested more than 100 crores in research promotion and over 25 crores in research infrastructure during the last four years. With a massive establishment of various labs, equipment (Nano CT, Dynamic INSTRON, SEM), and the talent pool available at our institution, the concept of research and publications have become very fluid and accessible to all our students rather than outsourcing to IITs or other testing centers.
Could you let us into some plans to take SIMATS into the top 10 globally?
It is an extremely competitive atmosphere to make it to the top 10 since funding is significantly more in other schools, which significantly influences meeting many other requirements. Yet we do hope we can turn a leaf because we have democratized research by making all undergraduates a part of it, which is unique to our institution. For continued advancement in the ranking, we are also working on our perception score at a global level. Being among the top universities in the world in terms of productivity, we now need much better documentation of work, for which we are putting in significant effort. We look forward to a future where our institution is recognized worldwide as a leading education center that gives degrees that meet the highest global standards.
Do you have any faculty exchange programs designed to encourage creativity in education?
Faculty exchange programs are an integral part of our curricular development. We have MOUs with more than 200 foreign universities. We have also ingrained the practice of participating in national and international conferences and student exchange programs, exposing our faculty to various elements that can empower them. These faculty exchange programs have positively impacted our university’s advancement every year, with at least 100 individuals from our institution participating.