Indian institutions churn out more than 500,000 science and engineering graduates every year. These and related statistics have been touted as signs of strength. However, we should make a distinction between degree holders and those who actually have complete education and are ready for the workforce. In the course of my travels I have talked to executives of several leading companies (both Indian and multinationals) and a common denominator in these conversations is their need for well-qualified new graduates, as a significant number of them have to be (re)trained to make them functional after they are hired. This leads me to conclude that a large number are just degree holders.
When I visit universities in the country, I am struck by the deficiencies in infrastructure and facilities. This is compounded by the mediocre quality of teaching and the lack of high-quality professorial talent. All of this indicates—not surprisingly—that our academic institutions are in need of an overhaul if India is to achieve its ambitious development goals.
Testing and admissions processes in colleges have also come under a great deal of scrutiny lately. In theory, these are merit-based, but in practice, they evaluate the ability of the student to take tests (and do well) in order to gain entry into an institution of choice, but not his or her ability to learn and flourish once inside.
This approach, of course, is the antithesis of what one sees in several leading colleges in the US, where students are expected to demonstrate skills and aptitude that translate into success within the university setting. The admission criteria used combine academic excellence with other achievements that are indicative of well-rounded personality development. The process in the US is not perfect, and certainly, the country’s educational system has faced its share of criticism. But at the university level, it does demand more of students than test-taking talent. And during the four-year process of getting an undergraduate degree, more skills are cultivated and developed than the ability to take tests once a semester.
While I can see several reasons why adopting the US system could be difficult, these surely aren’t insurmountable. We will all be better served if the graduates of Indian institutions were educated and acquired skills beyond just test-taking during their four-year stint at an engineering college.
The US has a significant entrepreneurial drive; in fact, it is well documented that most employment in the country occurs in small and medium enterprises. The US higher education system has been a significant contributor to the economic development of the country. This is the result of significant government investment in research and development at universities, policies that enable and encourage the commercialization of intellectual property created at universities, and a culture of entrepreneurism that encourages and rewards taking risk. In fact, the US has demonstrated how investment in research and development, creation of an excellent educational enterprise and rewarding risk-taking can be combined to create a virtuous cycle of economic development and job creation. And there is no reason why any country, and especially India, cannot adapt this model to drive its own economy.
The entrepreneurial drive that has taken over India in the last decade is significant in many respects and bodes well for the country. It is indicative of a belief that an expanding economy creates opportunities for all, regardless of social and economic background, to thrive. In order to keep the economy expanding, India has to take several actions. However, a significant action is the creation of several great Indian research universities that will play a key role in increasing the momentum of economic development for decades to come. This will, for example, require investment in research and training of a few thousand highly trained PhDs over the next decade; it will require an open and peer-reviewed process for allocating research grants; it will require allowing foreign universities to operate within the country and compete for the research grants; it will require creating an environment where excellence in research is rewarded and so is transitioning the research. Seeding this process will require hiring several hundred or more highly qualified faculty members who should be recruited from around the world (Singapore’s strategy in this regard could be a good starting point). In short, removing bureaucratic hurdles, levelling the playing field, and creating a competitive environment for education and research will go far in achieving the goal of technology-enabled economic development.
Creation of excellent research infrastructure will encourage students to pursue research as an attractive and viable career option. In steering students back to research to build future researchers and a professoriate, we have to convince them (and their parents) that a promising and fulfilling career doesn’t necessarily have to wind through the by-lanes of software development and IT services, because there are exciting topics to be explored in the fields of engineering and sciences.
I am encouraged by the attention given to education reforms, both by the government and private bodies. New universities with an eye on world-class standards are springing up everywhere, while older ones such as the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore are institutional gems—established centres of learning that emphasize postgraduate research and boast of a highly qualified faculty. We have to sustain this momentum through public conversations and initiatives that place the issue centre stage. India will then be well on its way to optimizing intellectual assets in engineering and the sciences and creating sustainable economic development.
Pradeep Khosla is the jury chair for the Infosys Prize for Engineering and Computer Science and dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
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