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.
Mamidala 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