Towards the end of last week, I spent a day in Pilani, at my old engineering college, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS).
I was invited to speak at the college’s annual academic festival, a fact which, to most people who were in BITS at the same time I was, should prove that God exists and has a pretty weird sense of humour. I was a pretty unremarkable student in engineering school although I was equally remarkable in many other ways that cannot be discussed in a family newspaper.
I graduated in 1991, a few months before India took the great leap forward by accelerating the process of liberalization it had started in the 1980s.
I hadn’t been to Pilani, a dry corner of Rajasthan close to the Haryana border since then, and my journey there was a revelation of the changes that this country has seen in the past two decades.
The most significant of these changes were those I saw on campus, although this doesn’t mean there was none of note en route.
For instance, Rajasthan is a state that takes the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) very seriously, and I experienced, for some part of the journey, evidence to this end. I took a detour to avoid traffic and travelled for at least 50km, soon after crossing the Haryana border into Rajasthan, on village roads that were being worked on under MNREGS.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Back when I was in college, most of the graduating students were worried about jobs in software or engineering firms and admission to graduate schools in the US or to Indian or foreign business schools.
I did run into some of that— I spent most of my day with students, although I must confess that I pressed the flesh with more deans and professors than I had done when I was on campus (and they actually seemed happy to see me)—but I also encountered several students with fairly focused objectives that I would have been hard-pressed to find on any campus in the 1990s.
One wanted to pursue an interest in social entrepreneurship, serving as a sort of facilitator for entrepreneurs.
Another was an entrepreneur himself, having tested a concept for a chain of stores that would sell fresh juices, and preparing to launch the first such store (or “lounge”, as he referred to it) this summer.
Both these could well be because BITS now has a Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership, or CEL, unit which does pretty much what its name suggests.
A third student I met was, apart from being a student, a staff writer for NextBillion, whose website says its aim is to bring “together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policymakers and academics who want to explore the connection between development and enterprise.” For those who came in late, NextBillion is a respected name in the domain of social enterprise.
There is the mathematical probability that I ended up meeting three students forming part of an asymptotic minority in a normal distribution. There is also some merit to the argument I have often heard that BITS produces generalists—which could explain why this writer is editor of a paper and not a code-jock in some hi-tech laboratory (there are those too). Still, I am convinced that what I experienced represents a change in the attitudes and aspirations of students. And I am convinced that this change is the result of larger changes in the environment.
For long, Indian colleges were criticized for not producing students who were keen to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities or explore unconventional vocations. It may well turn out that there was nothing wrong with the colleges. It was all in the environment.