IITs and Skill India: An incomplete dream

To appear in Nov-Dec 2015 issue of IETE Technical Review as an editorial.

For commuting within New Delhi where I live, I often travel in an auto (a three wheeler and a popular means of transport in India). While traveling, I usually strike a conversation with the auto driver and enquire about his kids, their education and aspirations. On one such occasion, after knowing that I am a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, the driver asked me: Sir, my son wants to become an electrician. Is there any program at IIT which will make him a skilled electrician so that he can be self-employed?” His question sounded to me odd because tales abound of how IITs are known globally for their undergraduate and post-graduate programs in engineering. I told him: we do not have any program at IITs which can help your son in becoming a good electrician. I could see the disappointment in his face at my snappy answer.

In India, there are critics and admirers of IITs. The critics often say that IITs have not stood up to the measure in terms of developing indigenous technologies required in, for example, India’s space programs and defence applications or providing clean environment or green energy solutions and so on.  Roughly it costs about Rs. 3,45,000 per year to educate an IIT student while the annual fee collected from each student is only Rs. 90,000. Critics argue about the futility of subsidizing the education of IIT students when their contributions in helping India develop indigenous technologies required for improving the quality of life and providing security to the people of India is dismal.

While IIT students get world class education in different branches of engineering and sciences, observers who are critical of IITs often point out how IITians do not join in their core areas and instead drift to consulting, banking, business and many other professions which are not directly related to their core training. While some IITians, for example, Narayan Murthy and Nandan Nilekani (of Infosys), Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (of Flipkart), and Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhatia (of Olacabs) are popular names in India for their contributions through entrepreneurship, critics of IIT system argue that to our continued consternation, very few IITians join entities such as Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), government research labs (there are scores of defence and CSIR labs) or mammoth organizations such as Indian railways which require their technical services.

On the other hand, justifiably, there are many admirers of IITs and that includes me too.  The graduates of IITs have excelled all over the world as entrepreneurs, technologists, scientists and professors. Globally they have contributed enormously to the advancement of human welfare. While Sundar Pichai of Google is the most popular IITian today, there are several other blue eyed IITians whose contributions influence our everyday life in some form or the other.

Among many famous IITians, I am listing here only a few as representative examples: Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems (the company which developed the Java programming language), Google’s Amit Singhal  (whose team decides how search engine results appear on your screen), Padmasree Warrior who worked at Motorola and later at Cisco Systems (Forbes listed her as the 71st most powerful woman in the world in 2014) and so on. A recent Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report says that while Indians are only 6 % of the Silicon Valley working population, a whopping 15% of the 14,000 – 19,000 startup companies in the Silicon Valley are founded by them, which includes a significant number of IITians.

More often than not IITians have attributed their success to the quality of education they received from IITs. The faculty in these IITs, many of whom are IIT alumni themselves and obtained their degrees from world renowned institutes, do a remarkable job in training their students and in carrying out research. They, undoubtedly, are respected globally.

Let me now come back to my conversation with the auto driver and his son’s desire to have training by an IIT so that he can be self-employed. I think that his question is not because of his ignorance about what IITs do but about what IITs should be doing to help realize the dreams of crores of young Indians who are entering the job market.

The Delhi Government’s Economic Survey for 2014-15 reports that the number of unemployed youth with diplomas in different vocations in 2013 is 44,934. The situation could be as bad or even worse in other parts of India. These youngsters neither could get a job nor engage themselves in self-employment mainly due to the poor quality of training they might have received at scores of polytechnic institutes and vocational training centers spread across India. In the villages, towns and cities of India, it is common knowledge that the electricians, welders, plumbers, auto mechanics and civil construction workers, to name only a few professions, often self-learn the skills either on-the-site or as apprentices to friends and family members, devoid of any formal training, leading to poor service and un-employability.

A recent report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) indicated that only 2.2% of those between 15 to 59 years age group received formal vocational training. Bad training and un-employability also lead to lack of respect and a negative image about these professions discouraging youngsters from taking up vocational training. Skill development through vocational training is no longer an appealing option in Indian society. The only solution to overcome this problem is to make sure that the vocational training imparted to the students is of highest possible quality so that these youngsters can get jobs in the labour market or self-employed in different sectors of the growing economy.

Could IITs, with their strong emphasis on high quality education, consider this as a challenge to solve? The well-wishers of IITs may feel despair at my propensity for even thinking about such an impractical idea. Train the youth of India to become better electricians, plumbers, masons and mechanics? What about our research? What about getting into the top world university rankings?  Doesn’t it dilute the vision for which IITs are set up? Even if IITs decide to take up this challenge, isn’t the scale of operation enormous since it involves training thousands of young Indians? How can IITs do it? Have IITs ever carried out any such socially relevant operation on a large scale? Now, take a breath.

As it turns out, what IIT Mumbai and IIT Kharagpur are doing in an area that will have a far reaching social impact in India is praiseworthy.  Let me brief you on this. Lack of well trained teachers is negatively impacting the Indian higher education system leading to closure of hundreds of engineering colleges across the country. Even those who pass out from these engineering colleges are utterly unemployable in the job market due to the poor quality of education they receive. Under the National Mission on Education through ICT (NMEICT), IIT Mumbai and IIT Kharagpur have taken up the “Train 10 thousand teachers” initiative with an aim to provide training to the engineering college teachers to improve their teaching skills in core engineering and science subjects. Already thousands of teachers have experienced the usefulness of this approach and over the next few years, this silent revolution could change the way education is imparted in engineering colleges across India.

How did these two IITs manage to do this experiment at such a massive scale? By doing away with the traditional class room teaching and by heavily deploying technology involving eLearning, animation, spoken tutorials, virtual labs, and Free and Open Source Software for Education (FOSSEE). NMEICT is a great example of how IITs have the willingness and the expertise to take up large scale experiments with a wide spread social impact even if these activities do not have a direct bearing on their own research output.  The exercise carried out by these two IITs is not a half-hearted cookie-cutter attempt but a radical reorganization of our approach towards social commitment.

In similar lines, the vocational education and training by IITs need necessarily to be done on a massive scale with a well thought out plan for execution, standards for training and evaluation, and measurable outcomes. The trick is unless we raise the expectations of what IITs can do, optimal results cannot be realized. The older IITs, after nearly half a century of their establishment, and also the newer IITs, have a historic opportunity today to impact the Indian society, particularly the socially and economically backward Indian youth to become job-ready and self-employable. Since such a move by IITs could lead to job creation to tens of thousands of Indians who cannot fit into the traditional college education, it is bound to positively impact the economic prosperity of India. Providing vocational education and training to the Indian youth, therefore, should be the next high social impact experiment that the IITs could consider on a priority basis. IITs can rope in the underutilized infrastructure available at hundreds of engineering colleges for this purpose since skill training involves hands on experience in the laboratories. Without involving IITs and the other higher educational institutes, which are the sources of skills, a task of this nature cannot succeed.

If thousands of young and aspiring Indians get transformed into skilled workers with new career opportunities opening-up and if this benefits their families and the Indian economy, would that not make IITs a source of pride for all the Indians?

Let us think about it.

MJK-photoMamidala Jagadesh Kumar is a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India. He is the Editor-in-Chief of IETE Technical Review and an Editor of IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices. He has widely published in the area of Micro/Nanoelectronics and is known for his excellence in Teaching.  He is a member (PT) of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). More details about Dr. Kumar can be found at http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala

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5 Responses to IITs and Skill India: An incomplete dream

  1. Kushal Shah says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This is not only a brilliant idea but absolutely the need of the hour. IITs can no longer be satisfied merely by granting the coveted degrees. Its time to hit the ground and get our hands dirty. Its true that IIT faculty members are hard pressed for time. But if the departments can be flexible to allow their faculty to engage in such vocational training activities for one semester per year in lieu of our regular teaching load, finding time won’t be a big problem.

    The only catch is that this program should not become just another way to get an IIT tag. We need to ensure that only those who are genuinely interested in the skill enrol for this. The best way to ensure that is probably to set reasonably high standards. A participant should get the certificate only if s/he clears the final test with good marks.

    I would personally like to be involved in a teacher’s training initiative (at both high school and college level) if IITD takes this up.

  2. WhizKid says:

    Wow. Excellent idea Sir. Engineering is about solving problems and papers, recognition, rankings etc should be a byproduct instead of main focus. If we solve problems, our utility will automatically increase. The kind of problems we solve in India (social or engineering) would be relevant to a major part of the world which’s developing. In this regard, I would like to link to another article by Prof. Milind Sohoni:
    https://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/RD.pdf

  3. Ramachandra Rao says:

    Hi Jagadesh, your observations are relevant and valid. However, there seems to be a bit of confusion regarding the priorities of IITs as a part of outreach. IITs must keep doing the best what they can do in terms of research and quality tertiary engineering education (both on and off campus). Innovation is something that must be the serious focus at the present to stay relevant.

    The strengthening of the technical education (read ITIs and Polytechnics) is the need of the decade. The lack of proper skill sets is obvious in the shoddy work most of our technicians display when they are at work. There is a huge gap in the tech/supervisory level, which needs altogether different solutions. It may be useful to look at other countries who have better training/diploma programmes at this level. It would help if IITs keep away from this as they do not have any experience in handling such programmes. Indeed this would help unlock thousands of jobs which would be on offer and help easing out job pressure as each year lakhs of people are joining the job market.

  4. dear prof. jagadesh kumar

    thank you for broaching this topic and i agree that training of 10,000 teachers is indeed a good act just as sharing anything which one has with others is good. the basic question is whether the average IIT professor has anything useful to share. or really, what is worth teaching?

    i will point to a question asked in the JEE advanced of 2015:”A nuclear power plant supplying electrical power to a village uses a radioactive material of half life T years as the fuel. The amount of fuel at the beginning is such that the total power requirement of the village is 12.5% of the electrical power available from the plant at that time. If the plant is able to meet the total power needs of the village for a maximum period of nT year, then the value of n is: (a)..(b)…”

    it is clear that the question-setter understands neither a village nor a nuclear plant. moreover, for a village student, such a question would be utterly confusing, unless he is coached to “abstract out” the intended question. you will agree that many courses inside iit have a similar flavour. in fact, in iitb, most students who graduate are not required to step out of campus, say to visit a factory or a pump-house or whatever, through-out their stay. most faculty members too have not seen a factory or an actual work-place. moreover, the key science/engineering that we need now is groundwater, cooking energy, sanitation etc. about which the IITs know precious little and in which the regional colleges are better situated and used to have better “practical” knowledge, at least before 1980s and before TEQIP ruined all incentives for local work. so perhaps, we should organize a teach-out for the 5,000 IIT faculty and take them out to some real-world situations which need engineering.

    on IITians doing well, consider the following two scales: the “JEE advanced” and “goodness at science”, the later is which the JEE claims to measure. i will concede that the current MCQ JEE is well designed to the extent that the top 2% in the JEE are within the top 15% in “good at science” with a good chance in a non-coached society. so there is nothing surprising that some IIT students are very good. however, with the “placement” and “branding” distortion thrown in, i see even that as increasingly remote. what is sad is that the failed 98%, or perhaps the unrecognized 9% who are good at science, have no legitimacy or location to work on real-world problems that need attention, i.e., the chulhas, the public transport systems etc. many of these defeated 98% or the “good at science” 9% are girls from poor and rural homes whose parents are unable and unwilling to spend any money on her coaching; the complete antithesis of the typical iit student.

    the real tragedy is that the JEE system of science has substituted true “processes of science”, i.e., of observation, documentation, argumentation and the enquiry of the vicinity, by an MCQ expertise in the “known subject matter of science”, i.e., the Biot-Savart’s law, structure of atom, esterification etc. In fact, the CBSE curriculum for XIIth standard has Maxwell’s equations in their full glory, a curriculum truly for the very “gifted”. the JEE system of science misses that experimentation and argumentation are very subtle inter-disciplinary skills which have regional and cultural roots. it also misses that science in europe was a political and democratizing force which had representatives from all walks and all classes of society. the outcome of our 2% bureaucratic science is visible for all to see. we are still using chulhas which havent changed in 50 years and still need to borrow designs of diesel locomotives.

    i had outlined this in a letter to the AICTE review committee composed of ahem, two IIT professors, one bureaucrat, and exactly one representative of the colleges which fall under AICTE. my letter is available at http://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/commentsAICTE.pdf
    what more…current science has agreed to publish it!

    but i agree that the IITs must start talking to other engineering colleges and start engaging with them and with regional problems and developing case-studies. such an approach is followed by CTARA (www.ctara.iitb.ac.in) which aims to convert engineers into development professionals. also see http://www.ctara.iitb.ac.in/tdsc and its linkages with other colleges. i would be very happy if IETE journal (or current science or sadhana) has a “development science and engineering” track where good case-studies may be reported.

    in any case, i must thank you for the space that you have created for discussing such matters. i am sorry for this long comment.

    thank you and regards,

    Milind Sohoni.
    IIT Bombay.

    p.s.: a minor quibble. how did you arrive at 3.45 lakhs? at 1500 graduates per year and say an annual budget of 300 crores, gives me 20 lakhs per student.

  5. analogist says:

    One good way to restrict poor engineering colleges is to increase no. of attempts to take JEE Advanced and age relaxation. If a boy after completing diploma wants to get in IITs for engineering , he may stand a chance to do so.

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