Is NIFT falling apart at the seams?


Is NIFT falling apart at the seams?

That the appointment of a former cricketer as chairman of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) sent the premier institute for fashion education “trending” on Twitter and television will go down as a memorable irony. The way NIFT has hit a plateau as a top educational hub while its challenges mount has long deserved the glare of the spotlight. But if the new chairman had been a lesser known industrialist, bureaucrat, or an unfamiliar political figure, instead of a cricketer, the appointment wouldn’t have triggered the same outrage du jour.

NIFT is an institute of repute, known for the quality of fashion education it imparts at the lowest fees (Rs.1 lakh per semester) and the talented professionals it churns out every year. It offers a four-year bachelor’s course, a two-year master’s course and enrols Phd scholars. Across its 15 centres, NIFT, an autonomous body under the ministry of textiles, has roughly 400 faculty members and takes in around over 2,700 students every year through a centralized admission procedure.

On the other hand, it is mired in red tape, bureaucratic dominance, internal rifts, insufficient grants, inadequately paid faculty constantly bashed for its inadequate and stunted domain knowledge given the dynamism of the contemporary fashion industry. Pros and cons merit rational discussion. But while a number of stakeholders outside NIFT spoke to Mint on these issues, NIFT itself is currently silent.

Emails to additional director general Pramila Sharan, an Indian Revenue Service officer; Vandana Bhandari, dean, (academics); and Bharat Sah, director of the Raebareli campus; besides telephone requests to professors Banhi Jha and Kirpal Mathur at the Delhi campus, went unanswered. After the Chetan Chauhan brouhaha, an internal guideline was circulated at NIFT strictly advising faculty members not to speak to the media, people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

Set up in 1986—first on paper to become functional only from 1988—NIFT was meant to support the garment export industry by training professionals in fashion design, manufacture and marketing. It started as a two-room college in New Delhi’s Samrat Hotel before it would move places to finally find its current address at Hauz Khas in New Delhi.

Rathi Vinay Jha, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, the founder director of NIFT from 1987 to 1993, says its strengths were numerous, not to mention that its first board was chaired by noted Indian cultural and textile activist Pupul Jayakar.

“Faculty trained at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, relevant curriculum, excellent resource centre, international collaborations, students selected on the basis of merit and creative potential, a single campus, with a cohesive team approach between faculty and director were our strengths, possible because of support from the government without any interference,” she adds.

Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, currently on the NIFT board of governors, who takes pride in the fact that he is a non-political nominee, agrees that NIFT’s achievements have not been bragged about enough.

“It is a premier institute that has churned out the top names in India’s fashion industry,” he says naming famous ones like Manish Arora, Rina Dhaka, J.J. Valaya, Ashish Soni, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Kolkata NIFT), as well as the younger designers like Namrata Joshipura, Pankaj and Nidhi Ahuja, Amit Aggarwal and Aneeth Arora among others. “The list is endless, their contributions influential and lasting,” says Sethi, who sent his own daughter to study at NIFT.

Dhaka, from the first batch of NIFT, agrees that the educational foundation went a long way in shaping their work and success. She emphasizes, though, that things have drastically changed now, as fashion has become what a lot of young people see on their phones so education must keep up with the currency of the times. “NIFT has hugely scalable options but requires consistency and an optimum utilization of the connectivity it can offer to its students,” says Dhaka.

After the NIFT Act of 2006 was passed, the institute began offering formal bachelor’s and master’s degrees; before this, students only got diplomas.

NIFT’s assets are held up by many others. Jaya Jaitly, the founder-chairperson of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, who has been a part of numerous NIFT juries for students projects, is one of them. “NIFT started as a fashion-oriented institute but it has gradually become inclusive of the textile and crafts sector and its learnings. I also feel that NIFT teachers are dedicated,” she says.

Today the 15 campuses include non-fashion hubs like Raebareli, Kannur, Kangra and Bhopal. The choice of these centres in the name of “expansion” is largely seen as political (no prizes for guessing why Raebareli got a NIFT for instance) by fashion industry experts. “Political interference and complying bureaucrats were responsible for the unthinking proliferation of NIFTs without assessing the pros and cons,” says Jha. Expansion led to campuses with insufficient facilities and limited trained faculty. “There was a time when all newly hired faculty was first trained by seniors before they went to take a class. Now, it is about hiring today and teaching tomorrow. The quality of education is compromised,” a person at NIFT said on condition of anonymity.

The director of NIFT Jodhpur (launched in 2010), Raghuram Jayaraman, however defends his institute. “Best practices are employed across design education and infrastructure along with hands-on experience and industry exposure given to students. We organize international conferences once every two years and in the last two years, my faculty and I have put out more than 75 academic research papers,” he says.

Students too seem by and large happy with their courses. “Our course equipped us to learn about travel, craft, illustration, photography, design besides textiles which was my primary thrust and gave us a readiness to become a part of the industry,” says Ankit Kumar, who passed out from NIFT Kannur in 2010 and currently works as a designer with Dastkari Haat Samiti. All the same, NIFT apologists are sorely divided on some issues. The consistent appointment of bureaucrats as chairpersons and DGs instead of academicians or domain experts like in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) or even the National Institute of Design (NID) is one. “NIFT is politically divided from the inside—because it has always been governed by bureaucrats who have unfortunately favoured the policy of divide and rule,” said a professor who didn’t want to be named. Allegedly, the faculty has become factionalized due to bureaucratic interference.

The board of governors, constituted every three years as mandated in the NIFT Act of 2006, may not have all political appointees as Sethi points out, adding that designers like Kavita Bhartia and Sabyasachi Mukherjee have been on it. Yet, mandatory representations from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha as well as assorted people from the industry riding on favours make it a political brew. This time, for instance, the board includes Ruby Yadav, a Bharatiya Janata Party politician and a former beauty queen without established fashion expertise.

A slew of bureaucrats and non-academicians have occupied top posts at NIFT starting with Jha, its founder-director. They include Kiran Dhingra, the chairperson right before Chauhan, and Prem Kumar Gera, the director general (DG) who preceded Sudhir Tripathi, the current DG. In 2010, Venu Srinavasan, chairperson of TVS Motor Co. Ltd, was appointed as the NIFT chair. Mint tried to reach Santosh Kumar Gangwar, minister of textiles, for a comment on this assembly of bureaucrats and non-academicians at NIFT, but he remained unavailable.

“It must be stressed that some bureaucratic leaders have been inspiring and enabling, especially chairpersons” says Sethi, adding that painting all with the same brush would be unfair.

But most people feel that the hiring of fashion seniors or academicians, especially at the DG level, is germane to keeping NIFT in tandem with the changing industry. A DG’s tenure is six months to a year only; the constant change leads to inconsistency in administrative policies.

What is seen as NIFT’s decline is an outcome of the dynamic growth in the industry and competition from other institutes. According to fashion industry statistics compiled by industry website, the domestic market size of the clothing and footwear industry is $68 billion, while that of the textile industry is $108 billion. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, textile and apparel exports from India are estimated to increase to $65 billion by the end of this financial year. Technology, fashion forecasting, designing, finance, visual merchandising, luxury marketing, retail, human resource, online portals, store management, blogs and websites, aesthetics, styling, fashion journalism are only some of the professions that have opened up in this industry.

“I feel NIFT is on a decline and the reasons could be to do with the rapidly changing industry, need for intellectually superior and trained faculty, direct connects with the industry, technological impetus and training in the classroom and the importance placed on life skills,” says Sharad Mehra, chief executive of Pearl Academy of Fashion (PAF).

Launched in 1993, PAF has given sustained competition to NIFT which other institutes like Wigan and Leigh, Apeejay Institute of Design, Institute of Apparel Management or numerous smaller and constantly mushrooming fashion institutes have not been able to do.

Asked about NIFT’s biggest challenge today, Jha says “lack of good and trained faculty.” Most will agree. But as insiders point out, NIFT does little to motivate existing faculty or attract new talent.

The pay scales are much lower compared to professors under the University Grants Commission (UGC). Also, NIFT faculty do not get a pension, a medical allowance or housing. While having a doctorate is now mandatory, research grants and facilities are poor. Many faculty members have been given one-year study leave to pursue a doctorate in exchange of a three-year service compliance bond at NIFT.

Chauhan clearly has a complex field to navigate. But with the present government’s keen slant towards supporting the textile and handloom industry and encourage digitally smart sectors, it may be the right time to bat (and win) for NIFT.

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