India’s institutions of higher learning should aim to be globally preferred, with strong R&D, Nobel winners and global students. They should help to build a strong manufacturing and service base for the country. It is in this context of innovation and delivery that I view the Outlook rankings of professional colleges, done in collaboration with Drshti.
This year’s rankings include many new engineering colleges and saw enhanced participation from other streams. The process combines objective data from colleges, verified through visits to selected colleges, combined with the largest perceptual survey to date: perceptual ratings by nearly 7,000 students, professors and recruiters and professionals. This composite ranking has been the most robust to date. It must be used to help identify areas for institutional improvement.
Areas for institutional improvement, however, do not come only from ranking processes—the economic and social cost of inadequate research and development by our premier institutions is clear by just looking at the newspapers. We import the majority of technologies for our defence, as well as many other sectors, including electronics, material sciences and power.
In this decade, the seventh of IITs, we struggle to build tanks and trainer aircraft, to have a minimal electronics industry or to import solar panels. Many put the blame on the government R&D institutions; others find India’s earlier-closed economy the culprit.
How do they explain ISRO? This institution proves that humility, focus and clarity of objectives can create greatness. Let us just look at China. It had a closed environment for a long time, and started to open up after the 1972 visit of US President Richard Nixon. Today, China leads in electronics and plastics, and has launched passenger aircraft, built stealth aircraft, and seems to be dependent on itself for most of its needs. It drives innovation through government funding and by providing a strong manufacturing ecosystem. Controlled banks also provide easy funding—a situation somewhat like in Japan and Korea in the early days of economic growth.
Let us look at some other examples. The current US lead in R&D and innovation is driven by the troika of industry, institution and government, with the government investing in many long-term R&D projects, and entrepreneurs funding long projects as well. Canada has a firm working on nuclear fusion, funded by entrepreneurs and the government. Both countries have an educational system that encourages a free-thinking environment and encourage cross-disciplinary interactions and learning in their academic institutions.
As I observed last year, multidisciplinary approaches and convergence will drive the future. Future-readiness needs us to build a strong culture of invention and innovation, and drive this innovation culture across disciplines such as engineering and life sciences, through multidisciplinary learning. I do not yet see signs of freewheeling and multidisciplinary approaches, but hope to see this in the future. Let me bring together some key factors for building future-ready and successful INStitutions. These could be at an institutional and macro level:
1. Funding for infrastructure and hiring top professors: a) The right infrastructure attracts good talent, b) the right talent inspires the next generation. 2. Cooperation among institution, industry and government (where institutions need to be free, but accountable, as well as well-funded). 3. Freedom to build a culture of R&D, learning and innovation, with rewards for doing so (freedom from interference in course delivery, to innovate, but with accountability), rewards from recognition, industry utility and contribution to the country and economy. 4. Continuous course overhauls, to make the education reflect the fast-changing environment (which requires less central intervention at course design level) and multidisciplinary exposure for students by design, especially at top institutions.
At an input level, there must be an overhaul of the school system, with better teaching and a target of developing thought rather than rote and overhaul of the present admissions system that rewards regurgitation and lack of thought. Within the engineering college system, green shoots are visible: 95 per cent of our top engineering colleges have incubation centres. Institution-Industry tie-ups are on the rise. This government has opened defence and other sectors—and is driving reforms.
For students, there will be a few years of pain. Placements are likely to be soft in software over the next decade, with innovations in machine-learning and artificial intelligence driving job replacements amid a more maligned environment in the West. This may drive more to do engineering jobs, if available.
From my window, the medium-term future looks better than the past if institutions continue on their path.
(The writer is MD, Drshti Strategic Research Service.)