world.gif (8759 bytes)  Technical Education-A View Point


M. A. Pai

University of Illinois

          The success of the software industry in India in terms of its global impact has clearly underscored the fact that Indian engineers can rival the best in the world.  Software has provided a quick vehicle to demonstrate this point, although for those who have seen the achievements in   nuclear, space and the missile development, this was obvious long ago. This image is strengthened by the observation that a number of Indian computer scientists have made it big in the U.S. as entrepreneurs, by going up the corporate ladder or being successful in academia after getting an excellent post-graduate education in the U.S.  It is equally true that an entrepreneurial spirit in India has also spawned forth a number of successful software ventures.  But these successes have also to be tempered with the fact that in terms of software products Indian firms have had negligible impacton the global market.  The strength so far lies in the services, which is less dependent on hi-tech manpower such as higher degrees in computer science beyond the Bachelor degree.  Basically one has to draw conclusion that the training of the engineers in India is good and that in technical education India is not a third world country. 

Engineering--A Brief Look Back:

         India has had a long tradition of research in the physical sciences starting from the pre-independence days.  In the engineering or more broadly in the technical education field, it really started in a big way in the 50's thanks to the vision of Nehru.  The Sarkar committee created the five Indian Institute of Technologies and each of them produced excellent engineers through state of the art curriculum.  Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur gave the lead in terms of a new approach to technical education through the introduction of a semester system, course wise promotion, integration of science with engineering, production of indigenous textbooks and finally starting the B.Tech, M.Tech and Ph.D degree programs in computer science.  Needless to say these activities have had a big multiplier effect nationwide and have become the norm.  Education being primarily a state subject, has seen phenomenal growth in Indian engineering colleges, and like in any other industrially advanced countries, we also have engineering institutions that can be calibrated in terms of quality.  In the 50's, the vision of Nehru together with men like Bhabha, Sarabhai and Bhatnagar created the infrastructure of space, atomic energy, national as well as defense laboratories which have legitimately made India a self reliant country.  Events like the Pokhran, Agni or the ISRO satellites are ample testimony to the high level of Indian expertise.  It is also noteworthy that the success of these technologies relied very little on the graduates of the IITs.  For example, Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) had its own in-house training program for the Bachelor degree holders in science.  There is an important lesson to be learnt from this.  The basic background of most of those seeking admission to degree-granting engineering schools is good.  The successful and the well-prepared ones for the entrance examination get into the IITs.  The rest get into other technical institutions.  This is somewhat similar to the U.S., where there is fierce competition to get into the Ivy League or so-called elite schools.  Recent research has shown that those graduating from these elite schools are better "connected" and have "peer" competition[1]In the long run they do slightly better than equally good students going through not so elite schools. 

        In India, those graduating from IITs have definitely a better chance of getting into post-graduate studies abroad in good schools.  However, noting from the success of Indians in the Silicon Valley, there are a large number of non-IIT people who are equally successful.  Assuming that an IIT student stays in India, it is difficult to guess whether in the long run they have an edge over other students.  This is a point that authorities must consider before allocating resources to technical education.

Choices, Solutions & Strategies:

          After the Sarkar committee report in the 50's, there has been negligible growth in the number of IITs.  Out of nearly 120,000 students who take the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), about 3000 get into the IITs.  Judging by the law of large numbers, at least 10,000 should be entitled to a comparable education. This will happen by lowering  the cutoff point for admission in JEE slightly, and increasing intake into IITs or having more institutions having the same autonomy and well qualified faculty like the IITs. Herein lies the tragedy of technical education.  If proper mid-course corrections had been made, IITs  should have had an output at least twice than in the 70's by incremental investments in the infrastructure. Among the private institutions Birla Institue of Technology & Science (BITS (Pilani)) is of comparable quality and those who do not get into an IIT their first choice is BITS (Pilani). Institutions such as Regional Engineering colleges (RECs) should have been elevated to the status of IITs by negotiating with the state governments over the seat quotas etc. Thus the aspirants for higher technical education would have had access to quality education.  Current news reports suggest that, the government is thinking along these lines.  By a cursory look and from the writer's own experience, if the intake to IITs  is 10% of those taking the entrance exam, the country would have a much better technical manpower pool.  Those aspiring to go abroad will do so, which cannot and should not be discouraged.  In the long run they create a brand equity in the countries they go to and succeed.  Some form of reverse brain drain will eventually occur and help the country as we are witnessing today in the Information Technology (IT) sector.

         For one reason or another there has always been an opposition to the increase of admissions to IITs since the 70,s. If one looks at he space utilization of the class rooms and labs, one can easily make a case for increasing enrolment by incremental investment. If one cannot increase the intake to IITs what are the choices left?  There are several that one should consider.  Apparently the fees are increasing at the IITs and they are encouraged to find funding from industries or the alumni.  This is a welcome move.  But this increases their "eliteness" even more. It is also argued that it is difficult to recruit faculty with Ph.Ds in IITs. This problem has always been solved by taking top ranked M.Techs who teach as well as work for a Ph.D.  In a country of one billion people, there has to be more of the institutions of the quality of IITs. 

        The key factor that distinguishes an IIT from other schools is the undergraduate curriculum and of course the quality of faculty.  The non IITs must upgrade their curricula.  This is beginning to happen in some schools.  In the early 70's through the Quality Improvement Programs (QIP) many faculty from non IITs got their Ph.Ds from the IITs.  This has resulted in some improvement of the curricula.  However, more needs to be done to bring many of them on par or even close to the level of IITs.  Human Resource Developmen (HRD) Ministry must allocate proper resources and monitor the performance through an accreditation mechanism.  The discussion so far has been restricted to undergraduate curricula only.

Stressing Post-Graduate Education-need for a Paradigm Shift:

          If the country has to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world in the next century, it can only be through quality postgraduate training on the same scale as the undergraduate training of the 50's and 60's.  Only through such investments can real R&D flourish in the technical areas in India.  Sciences have had a good track record by producing enough Ph.D's.  But in Engineering there are not enough M.Tech's to go around and Ph.D's are a mere trickle.  This may be one reason why the country cannot enter the software product area as opposed to services or hard core engineering design fields. On this base of manpower, the country cannot compete with the industrialized world.  What the country will witness is that the Multi-National Corporations (MNC's) will open up Research & Development (R & D) centers for the benefit of their parent companies, and the fruits of research will not be available to the country at large.  This is the inevitable consequence of globalization, and there is no point in preventing it.  Indian companies must compete for the best talent, and just as in the software services sector a level playing field may eventually result.  But for that to happen the institutions must produce enough M.Techs and Ph.Ds of good quality to meet the demand. 

        The question is can the existing IITs deliver?   Given the current scenario, only the IITs can increase the output of M.Techs and Ph.Ds.  One possible solution, though drastic, is to convert IITs into post-graduate institutions only, just as the  Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has done.  IITs can take good talent from engineering schools and concentrate on R&D and postgraduate training.  As indicated, this is a drastic solution and perhaps may not be welcomed by many.  The other alternative is to have QIP type program for the industry.  This is particularly needed for the engineering and software industry if they have to graduate to the level of producing products instead of services and collaboration. Academic institutions also need these products for maintaining their excellence. IITs & IISc must take a lead in Distance Education (DE) at the post graduate level where many foreign universities are already making their presence felt.


          The bottom line is that technical education requires immediate attention on the part of the HRD ministry.  It cannot be business as usual any more if India has to make best use of its best resource, namely human potential.  India is not a third world country in technical education.  Instead India should get the maximum out of its vast human capital.  In certain key areas of infrastructure, such as power and transportation, we have failed.  In the telecommunication area, perhaps we are slightly better.  In the computer area, the country has to go beyond providing merely software services.  In the other engineering areas, the country must invest in training R&D personnel at the IITs and IISc in a massive way.  Industry must be encouraged to have the QIP version for upgrading of their skilled personnel.  In the long run it will be a win-win situation for the country.

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[1] R. J. Samuelson, "The Worthless Ivy League?", Newsweek, November 1, 1999.