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Interview

with Sanjay Kaul, President, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES)

21.04.2011 / Energyboardroom

What was your vision when you started to think about creating UPES for the first time, and how long did it take you to move it from an idea to reality?

My career with the oil and gas industry was very rewarding. In a very short time, I discovered how critical the industry was for a nation. India was an import dependent country, and it was very well known that we were going to be increasingly import-dependent in the years to come. The fact that we were a coal-driven country was also very obvious. The fact that nuclear and renewables would take years to develop was also very obvious. At the same time, I did not find this strategic importance of energy very well translated into the need for the talent for this industry. To give you a small example, when I was in the oil and gas industry working for an oil company, I could go and walk into the hotel on a highway and find a hotel management graduate, whereas an industry that contributed almost 16-17% of India’s GDP did not even have a university.

It was very simple – it was no grand vision. It was just something that was required. If you are a democracy and your constitution gives you a right to life and liberty, you cannot do it without the basic need to power your home or to be mobile. For that it is very obvious that you need energy. I was in one part of it, which was oil and gas, and we were a generation that was trained on the peak oil theory, so we also knew that you were training yourself up for something which the next generation may not spend its time on, but then gradually that attitude shifted; a lot of technologies which happened in related sectors where for the same amount of oil you could travel much faster or carry more.

The entire gamut of this thinking also was helped by another phenomenon, which were the reforms; the way that telecom, insurance, banking and IT suddenly catapulted themselves into fully-fledged industries. IT just boomed, and suddenly there were no software engineers, there were no hardware engineers. Innovation could only come from overseas. I thought to myself that if the same reforms come to the power sector and oil and gas sector, would this also happen? That you have got the reforms done, investment is pouring in, you have got a multiplier effect fuelled by the 9-10% growth rate, but no talent to fuel it.

And of course the world feared phenomenon of an entire generation missing the oil and gas sector, failing to join, it being construed as a dirty industry, or a messy industry, or an industry where you are in deserts and jungles, or in large factory environments. Not only this, but an entire generation which was brilliant enough to get in from the chemical engineering and design and EPC side got poached by the IT and the other white collar sectors.

Here I was with an idealistic stage, looking at my own loyalty to the industry. If this was the situation, who was going to save it? What is going to happen? At that age, fifteen years ago, you feel that you have been born to do a great thing. So I said, let me try to do something. In 1995 I made the plan, and the company I was working for found great merit in the idea, but the world’s interpretation at that time was that the next focus of the world’s attention would be China, not India. The world was not wrong – what we see today in China and India, and the fact that the first wave of deregulation only came in 2001, mean that 1995 was not the right time.

So I left the oil and gas industry but the dream was left with me. The first vital step in deregulation came in 2001, when India first decided that they would deregulate prices because you have to really deregulate the downstream side in order to bring in upstream activity.

I thought that if it takes an institution fifteen years to establish itself, which is the minimum time you need to give to an institution, then 2001 was the right time to start this, because by 2015, you would have established yourself, and you would have your first crest forming, and then you can build upon that and show our face to the world and get the best.

The other thing which contributed was that a huge number of people were going to the Middle East and other places to be workers, and they were great mechanical and they were good vocational people, and one could easily convert them into high end workers, but there was no institution or effort made to convert a person who was semi-skilled into highly skilled in the energy sector. That was another need that hit me; there was a huge vocational training programme that the energy sector required.

I was so moved that completely illiterate villagers made great seismic survey crews, because they had perfected the art of laying the geophones, they could read a map, and in Rajasthan they were a great help on their camels. If illiterate people could do 75-80% of seismic acquisition, including operating the vehicle which creates the vibration, how far could you go with a 12th grader or a graduate? But for that you needed a university base. You cannot do vocational courses if there is no high-end option in place.

What was true for oil and gas was true for many other sectors, whether it was power or automotive; sectoral education was a must. I could not work out why it was not there. It was because there was no regulatory framework to allow it to happen. We needed almost a reform movement in that area to come up with a PPP kind of model that was acceptable at a state level. We realized that we had to make one license work to prove the point, and today when we find that the majority of our courses being the very first time it has been done anywhere in the world, again even the bar council approving a B Tech LLB programme, where it has realised the importance of an engineer-like lawyer, shows that sectoral education has now been recognised.

It was a major effort with State Government and Central Government agencies to prove the point that there could be an MBA in oil and gas management, there could be an applied petroleum engineering course, which allows you to specialise in gas in downstream and upstream; that there could be a balance between how much fundamental science you do in a B Tech programme, and how much you put in the application side of it, so the person is employable at the end of the course rather than merely trainable.

I do not know whether it was a vision, but it was a need whose time had come. Somebody had to test whether a public private partnership initiative in sectoral education without grants could work within this regulatory system. And then, to an extent, that it worked so successfully that it is replicable.

Your mandate, position and role that you have chosen as President of UPES is to go out and promote your organisation to Indians and to the world. How was that first pitch when you needed initial support for your idea?

It has been an interesting journey, but I must give credit to my earlier employers, especially Shell, who taught me scenario planning. I was perhaps one of the youngest managers they trained in that art, and I owe it to them. They are the people who also thought of a school here in India. Today they have a facility in Bangalore, which is now taking fresh talent. Eventually they have done it!
Things were very simple. We could not go for the idea of a university straight away to anyone, whether to regulators, or to users. The first thing to approach them with was continuing education, because you have to establish your credibility. If you would have gone and told the industry that you were going to set up the University of Petroleum, they would have asked “who are you? What makes you think you can do it?”

So we had to prove our credentials; that we knew what was required by the industry, and what the industry really requires for years to come, both now and in the future. At the same time, we could not afford to be either arrogant or convinced of the simplicity of the idea. We needed a forum where we could go with all humility and offer the idea on its own merit to be adopted by others.

We did a simple thing, which was to set up the Indian School of Petroleum. It went about finding the training needs of 750,000 people already directly or indirectly employed in the oil and gas sector, and started doing training programmes, workshops and seminars. Within three years we had trained 5,000 people, and at the same time we created a forum; the Oil & Gas HR Round Table, which is an annual event. The tenth one is on August 27th 2011. We created that forum, and started presenting the challenges of the HR specific to the oil and gas industry, so perhaps for the first time in this country, a sector based HR forum got created.

Two of these forums met and automatically came to the conclusion that a university was required. It was so obvious, but the advantage of that was the forum also deliberated over how it was possible, and then it was the industry’s initiative and not someone else’s, because everybody came to the conclusion that this is what was needed. In this forum, we also presented our findings of our very large-scale market research comprising of 900 students in 8 cities and interviews with 165 practitioners in oil and gas.

The moment there was a resolve in the industry that an oil and gas university should be put in place (by that time the credentials of the Indian School of Petroleum were there, and an impressive board added vital supported). We immediately went to five State Governments to give us legislative support. From that time, the challenge for the first five years was convincing people about the product quality and that they needed what they never had. My challenge as President was convincing the industry to try out this product, and our arguments were very solid. When you had an MBA whose qualification is in oil and gas management, you are not worried because he has committed himself to the industry. When you hire an applied petroleum engineer, one is not an electrical engineer or a chemical engineer that is going to find their calling somewhere else.

Did you find much resistance from the existing academic institutions to this idea?

They were curious, and perhaps they thought that the challenge we had ahead of us was very difficult and that we would fail. In a country where jobs are scarce, where it is difficult to have a career break, limiting yourself to a very narrow career path with few openings, in a sector which was 80% controlled by government was courageous and daring at that time. But since it was a pioneering effort, we only needed pioneering parents and students to trust us, and we got them.

Could you tell our readers a little bit about the efforts you are making today to develop UPES?

We have five major objectives in front of us. We believe that we spent a decade, 2001-2010 in making it a reality, but this was done to satisfy a market need. What that has done is not only given the market what it needed, but also going beyond to the next decade, we will raise the expectations of the market from what we have created. Oil and gas, power, energy and transportation are international sectors; they are global from the very inception. Either they consist of units that are globally tradable or they consist of commodities or products or content or technologies that are global.

In the next decade, we need to ensure that having established a framework and a platform of sectoral education that we also deliver the promise that it is replicable. Secondly, that it can be done on a self-sustaining basis with public private partnership (PPP). We are the first university in a PPP to be recognized by the UGC (University Grants Commission, an Indian statutory and regulatory body governing university education in the country). Most of our programmes did not pre-exist in India. Some of our programmes still do not exist in the world, like an M Sc in Oil Trading or Energy Trading or our undergraduate programme in Petroleum Engineering. So the second part to show that the PPP model works, and it can be done professionally; you do not need industrialists or a businessman or a family business to do it. A group of professionals can take a bank loan and do it.

The third challenge we have is that in our zeal to create a new product through a new methodology for an emerging industry, at some point in time we have to institutionalize the entire process. That is a time and process driven exercise that needs to arrive at a particular stage from where the journey of excellence must start. We have come to a stage where the plate is now full, and the University is at its optimum level; the courses will not rise in number and neither will the students, and what one has to do is institutionalize whatever new pioneering work we have done, without necessarily compromising our pioneering spirit and our innovation.

Our fourth challenge is that having understood and benchmarked ourselves across the world we need to find a way to internationalize our offering. We went to fourteen of the best institutions in the world, and we could not find one additional programme to bring to India. There were great programmes that were being delivered very well, but they were not suitable for an emerging market like India. The next challenge is that having done that, having now got a set of courses that are working well for the local requirement, can we make them the best in the world also?

So the next decade will be focused on this. There is a university I will not name who has got the best programme in the world, but it has only a postgraduate programme. We have gone to them and asked whether they want to adopt our undergraduate programme and take it to five more new emerging markets. They have the expertise of running their programme for fifty years; we have done it for seven, but emerging markets need an undergraduate programme. There is great potential for collaboration.

The fifth challenge is that to date, we have been able to forge very good relationships and interactions with the industry. They are there when our course curricula are created. But it has only been an interaction. Our greatest challenge is that for our future programmes, can there be a mechanism so that they are driven by the industry? The plan is to create a forum that will work on a scenario paper for the next ten years, detailing the kinds of people we will need and the skill sets we will require. They will write down precisely the kind of engineer, manager, vocational person they see which is required five to ten years from now, and the University only creates that. It is ambitious, but it can be done.

Do you have a final message that you would like to send to our readers?

Corporate life and anything you may have done other than education is great and respected. That is what keeps education ticking. But through your magazine and your portal, I would like to send out a message; if all of us are there doing things other than education, how will the best come to education? Through you I am appealing to anyone who thinks that they are the best in their trade, to see if they can also become involved in education. I would very much like that the best people think that education is worth their while. It may not be worth their while in terms of their bank accounts, or the class they travel, or the benefits or perks they enjoy, but it has such rewards which no other industry I have ever worked in can give.

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