Kapil Sibal’s appointment as the human resource development (HRD) minister is welcome. As a matter of fact—meaning no disrespect to Sibal—anybody would have been welcome after the recent past when education took a back seat to political agenda. So, expectations from this alumnus of St Stephen’s college and Harvard Law School, who served as minister of science and technology in the last government, are high. Unfortunately, however, the website for the ministry of science and technology offers little help if one wants to learn more about Sibal’s achievements as minister. His own website is also cryptic. But the need for a person with exposure to science and technology to look after education is fairly clear.
Let us take a look at how our science and technology environment interacts with our higher academia. While the US turns out around 50,000 PhDs annually in science and technology, with China snapping at its heels with numbers in the same street, the Indian estimate is around 400! Yes, that’s not a printing error.
Faced with such acute lack of interest among our populace in pursing higher studies in science and technology, here is what the All India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE (which has been called an “effete” organization—to use a euphemism—by some of the government’s own committees) did. Rather than work hard to attract more students towards masters and doctoral programmes, it reduced the academic requirement for faculty in engineering colleges from PhDs to masters of technology (MTech). Soon, it discovered that even MTechs were not easy to find.
Given the archaic syllabus of the available MTech programme, with its little relevance to the science and technology industry, the brighter students of bachelor of technology (BTech) found that they were better off going in for employment—available aplenty in the information technology (IT) and related sectors—immediately after getting their degrees. So, AICTE obligingly reduced the academic requirement of the faculty in engineering colleges to BTech in many of the disciplines. Now, the BTechs who opt to teach are typically those who cannot find employment even in a good job market and, hence, are by definition substandard. Can a vibrant science and technology foundation be built upon a generation of engineering students who will be taught by substandard BTechs? Incidentally, BTechs comprise 30-40% of engineering colleges’ faculty outside of the Indian Institutes of Technology.
And about the sciences as career options, and the quality of master’s of science in our universities and colleges, the less said the better.
A recent visit to the Bangalore campus of Cisco on its annual innovation day was an eye-opener for me. On display were Cisco’s myriad innovations in IT. For instance, a teacher was addressing students from several remote villages on the subject of math using WebEx—a Web conferencing application. Any student could ask a question, and the teacher could see the students and vice versa. Even the other students could see the one who asked the question.
There was a paramedic taking the pulse, blood pressure and other vitals of a patient in a remote village, with the information directly accessed by a qualified doctor through WebEx. Thus the doctor, who could see the patient and the paramedic online, could prescribe medication across several villages using WebEx. There was a human-less bank, where the client could get a private banker or portfolio manager online in a seamless interface.
I am not aware if Indian universities, or even IT companies, are developing such large-impact innovative products. But if they are to do so, they are going to need a science and technology environment in the country that needs speedy and thorough overhauling. One hopes that coming from the science and technology ministry, it would be one of Sibal’s priorities at HRD.
V. Raghunathan is CEO, GMR Varalakshmi Foundation. Views expressed here are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org