By Steve Toloken
NEW DELHI -- India’s largest plastics trade association and two American universities with prominent plastics engineering and material science programs signed an agreement Feb. 3 to help build an international-level university for polymers in western India.
The agreement with the two American schools, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the University of Wisconsin, is a step forward for the plans of the Mumbai-based Plastindia Foundation to build a university-level program educating several hundred engineers a year.
But to become reality, foundation representatives said they still need to raise most of the $30 million needed to fully build out their vision, to be called Plastindia International University.
The foundation will kick in about $6 million to start work, with the rest coming from private fundraising yet to be done by the country’s plastics sector, according to Plastindia Foundation President Ashok Goel, speaking at the signing ceremony held during the Plastindia trade show.
Still, he predicted that the first phase of the university will be able to open by 2014 or 2015, at its 50-acre campus in the city of Vapi, Gujarat state, near Mumbai. Gujarat is one of India’s major centers for plastics manufacturing.
“We have made good progress,” he said. “We have the master plan done and we have the partners identified. The land is in our possession.”
Goel, who is also vice chairman and managing director of Mumbai-based packaging firm Essel Propack, said officials have yet to decide what exactly will be included in the first phase and what would be built in later phases.
The project will be entirely privately financed, he said.
The American universities are not putting in money but will help develop curriculum to international standards.
Stephen Driscoll, professor in UMass Lowell’s Department of Plastics Engineering, said the university hopes its collaboration with the PIU will ultimately draw more students to its campus in Massachusetts.
Lowell officials said they have strong ties to India historically, noting that India contributes more students to the campus than any other foreign country.
Lowell is one of the more prominent plastics engineering programs in the United States. An official from Wisconsin’s plastics program said the university was the first in the world to offer a course in plastics engineering, in 1946, and sees this as a unique chance to help build a new program.
“It’s fun to see the progress of plastics education around the world,” said Tim Osswald, co-director of the university’s Polymer Engineering Center. “Probably for all of us our first love is teaching and education. This is an opportunity to start something from the ground up with very capable partners.”
Plastindia officials said they sought out American universities, rather than partner with Indian schools, because the Indian educational system produces graduates with theoretical knowledge but not enough experience applying the knowledge.
Goel, in a speech at the ceremony, said the PIU will seek certification under the state of Gujarat, rather than the national system in India, because national rules are unclear and Gujarat is offering more flexibility.
“We can have some sort of autonomy in designing the courses,” he said.
Hemant Minocha, director of masterbatch maker Rajiv Plastics Ltd. in Mumbai, said the Indian university system is too focused on theory, forcing companies to spend the first year or more training its new engineers. He said in an interview at the ceremony that he wants a more practical approach from universities.
“I don’t get anyone straight out of university in India with practical experience,” said Minocha, who earned a master degree in plastics engineering at UMass Lowell in 1998. “The kind of exposure we got from UMass., there is nothing that equals that.”
Goel said the PIU in time wants to add master and doctorate programs. Its engineering courses will include a strong management component, and the PIU wants to bring in another partner university to help design a formal management program, he said.
Plastindia employed American architectural firm SWA Group to prepare preliminary designs, and in a presentation at the ceremony, an SWA architect showed a potential campus design for 2,000 students, with housing for students and staff, and that would use green practices such as rainwater harvesting and water recycling.