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With more PhDs, India can be a superpower

By M A Pai
March 10, 2006 15:29 IST
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The Indian media is full of news these days about the country becoming a knowledge superpower in the 21st century. This rhetoric starts from politicians down to the common man. But every once in a while we hear an opposite viewpoint.

This is one such viewpoint.

If one takes a look at the industrially advanced countries like the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union nations -- sharing similar political systems such India -- all of them seem to have stable growth not just in terms of GDP alone, but in education as well as infrastructure -- electricity, roads, airports, sanitation, water, etc.

In India we have had decent GDP growth in recent years due to manufacturing and information technology boom. Yet, a reliable metric has yet to emerge. The education sector and infrastructure are perhaps the weakest links in the whole developmental process.

Unemployment is still very high and the IT success which has given employment to nearly a million people has not been matched by bold initiatives in the science and technology education sector so that the country can move up the value chain.

In this article, I shall talk about education, more specifically technical education (undergraduate and post graduate), which is the driving force behind all advanced economies.

In India, technical education is numerically healthy, but quality-wise it is very poor across-the-board. Last year, India produced 250,000 engineers, US produced 70,000 and China generated 600,000. There is no independent verification about the numbers from China.

These numbers are quoted over and over again in the American media in connection with a National Academies report, which came out recently, saying that the US strength in science and engineering is slipping. The report proposes remedies to strengthen US science and technology education all the way from K-12 through Ph.D. [1].

A major national effort is underway in the US to meet the challenges posed by resurgent China and India.

I argue that Indian manpower though numerically high is short on quality. I also propose remedies that can be implemented without recourse to committees.

Undergraduate education

The output of graduate engineers is healthy, but two things are missing, namely the quality and the level of training. As a Microsoft vice president pointed out recently in Bangalore, India produces about 50 PhDs in computer science per year, which is a normal number in an average US public university. [2]

In other areas of engineering, the picture is no better. Most of us know that except for the Indian Institutes of Technology and a few other institutions, the quality of undergraduate training is poor although the intake from the 10+2 system is good. Basically, we not only need a large number of graduates, but also good quality graduates. The recent U R Rao committee report has highlighted this issue clearly [3].

So how do we address this problem? Unfortunately officials at the Union human resources ministry as well as academicians seem to have avoided this problem all these years. Instead, we hear of efforts at e-education, distance education and education via satellite and taped videos from IITs. All these modes of education have not succeeded in other countries in engineering, but result in waste of human and financial resources, which India can ill afford.

We need to concentrate on giving quality education in the traditional way to a large number of students. Are there any other options besides opening up new IITs? Opening new IITs is always the first option. It is also a costly option. It requires long gestation periods, acquiring land, infrastructure, faculty, etc and cannot be a viable option at the moment unless the private sector comes up with a proposal.

The second option is to upgrade existing institutions with a proven track record to the level of IITs. Since the intake beyond the first 4,000 from JEE (Joint Engineering Examination) up to the next 10,000 is comparable. This option is being considered seriously very seriously and seven institutions are being upgraded to IIT-type institutions although logistics still remain a bottleneck.

Recall that over 150,000 students take the JEE every year. It is now well known that the 10+2 students now coming to good institutions and undergraduates from non-IITs perform very well. Hence the country must expeditiously move to make room for students beyond the first 4,000 to impart IIT-brand education. [4].

If a state like California can have ten University of California campuses giving comparable undergraduate education, certainly a country of one billion can have at least 20 IITs or IIT-type institutions!

The eligible institutions must be able to teach IIT-type undergraduate curriculum and that is a prerequisite. One hopes that the upgradation of the seven institutes will be the first step. They must have a high percentage of PhDs on their faculty and simply have to be challenged to deliver an IIT-type education.

I think the country is ready for such bold initiatives. But, perhaps, the politicians are not. Just as the JEE format was changed within a matter of months, a similar bold initiative on this score can be taken.

A third alternative, which I have been advocating for a long time is the upward scalability of IITs, i.e. increase the intake at all IITs for the 4-year programmes. Dual degree programmes and degree programmes in new subjects outside of the science and technology area are not the mission of the IITs.

Currently, the student-to-faculty ratio at many IITs is more like 10:1, which is a luxury, compared to the 20:1 in most US public universities. In China, Tshinghua University alone turns out more than 2,000 undergraduates in engineering according to their Web site.

This scalability of IITs is something that can be implemented right away in addition to the upgradation of the seven Institutes. This can be done in many ways. Except for PhD scholars, rest must share rooms. If it is already the case in some places, quick hostel facilities from government or the alumni can be created.

The IITs have vast spaces and they must be utilised optimally. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore can also join the four-year undergraduate programme with perhaps a greater share for science graduates. This is one way of exciting young minds about science since they will be in the same campus as top-notch scientists.

The experience at IIT Kanpur in the '60s of having an integrated 5-year science degree programme, where excellent research was also done in the sciences, should be a convincing factor. There are very few world-class institutions excelling in research without a good undergraduate programme and the IISc must be persuaded to fall in line.

As for classroom space, there is plenty in all the IITs and the IISc since one can have classes in the mornings and afternoons and the same method applies to the laboratories.

This is the normal practice at any American university. The old practice of tutorials must be done away with. It was introduced in the '60s when the country did not have enough textbooks. There are many inexpensive textbooks now for a course and also the Internet.

Students are more mature. Instead of tutorials, one should use postgraduate students for grading homework and office hours by faculty, and the postgraduate students should be enough for the students to have access to.

The Internet can be used effectively to communicate with students about homework, etc. There will be opposition to this third alternative from the faculty at the IITs since disturbing status quo is always difficult in a democracy. But, in the larger interests of the country, the faculty will rise to the occasion.

Postgraduate education

It was pointed out earlier how high quality of students in large numbers can be produced by the existing, as well as by expanding the current, IIT system. Until now most IIT graduates have gone abroad leaving only a few going to postgraduate studies. An increase in graduate students from IITs as well as IIT-type institutions will feed the postgraduate programmes.

Fortunately, in sciences, since so many B.Sc and M.Sc students were produced since 1947, many of them ultimately went to do PhD and then into academia and industry. Today we produce about 7,000 PhDs in science, including agricultural sciences, and a paltry 700-plus in engineering, annually.

It is not going to be easy for engineering to do what has been done in sciences. But if India has to be technologically strong, this is a MUST. In fact, strong science and engineering PhD programmes are precisely the catalysts for the amazing growth of China.

It will take time and patience to do this instead of blaming it on the poor quality of students from non-IITs. The question is how do we go about doing this. Not by appointing more committees. We have statistics from Thacker, Nayudama and Rama Rao committees. Unfortunately most of them have stressed things like what courses to start, stipends, GATE, etc. These are now minor and irrelevant issues. The British system of starting new programmes in order to get more funding/buildings must be done away with. As for stipends one cannot attract students for postgraduate work by stipends alone.

An institution has to show that quality work is being done at those places in order to attract students as the IISc has shown. As for GATE, it is high time it is done away with and replaced by something simpler and similar to GRE or the new JEE-type exam. From the Rama Rao committee report, it was shocking to read that so many seats went unfilled at the postgraduate level. One hopes the situation is better now.

In all this, however, the silver lining has been the Quality Improvement Programme (QIP) that needs to be strengthened in a great measure. If we have good tier-2 institutions today, it is thanks to the QIP programme initiated many years ago by the ministry of education. There was no GATE exam for those teachers!

Let us look at some of the options now:

1. Since the quality gap between an undergraduate student at an IIT and a tier-2 institution is rapidly decreasing, the first step must be to have postgraduate programmes in some of these institutions. The choice of such institutions must be strictly on a merit basis and not on geographical or any affirmative action basis. Just as IITs helped countrywide integration, such a step will accelerate the process since IITs have maintained the highest level of impartiality and indeed are the envy of many countries.

2. Currently each IIT produces on an average about 400 M.Techs and about 50 PhDs per year in 5-6 engineering disciplines. Thus, the total number of PhDs is very low. Good students must be able to finish the MTech programme in one calendar year and move on to the PhD stream quickly, thus getting seamless postgraduate education leading to a PhD degree. Those who wish to have M.Tech terminal degree can do so.

In fact there is every reason to scale back the M.Tech duration and define it in terms of courses and thesis instead of fixed period of 2 years.

3. The current method of giving stipends directly to students needs to be looked at afresh. This practice discourages faculty members from writing research proposals and get money from the industry or national agencies. In addition, sponsored research projects will attract more students and this should be encouraged.

The spirit of liberalisation must be accepted here also.

4. The industry has a great responsibility in attracting PhDs. It is a tragedy that unlike in sciences, the engineering industry hardly goes after doctorates. This outdated attitude must change. Perhaps, the industry can advertise this by creating R&D cells, instead of going in for foreign collaborations all the time.

5. Finally many of the institutions in large metropolitan places such as Bangalore, Chennai, etc. must have an aggressive, evening M.Tech programme for relevant industries. Students are hungry for knowledge to move up the economic ladder. Some do have distance education programmes, but their usefulness is not known as yet.

A start can easily be made for the information technology industry and the IT industry must demand such a programme.

Unlike the undergraduate programmes, it is not an easy road to develop a good postgraduate education programme in engineering to meet the fast changing needs of Indian academia and industry with particular emphasis on training a good number of competent PhD students.

The IITs and the IISc must play an aggressive role in this regard to produce larger number of PhDs because of their existing infrastructure and funding levels. It is hoped that this discussion would provide a framework to do that beginning as early as August 2006.

[1] Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.
[2] 'Microsoft official wants India to revamp curriculum'.
[3] The committee's report 'Revitalizing Technical Education' is a review of the performance of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
[4] 'Thinking beyond IITs', M.A.Pai, Silicon India, Nov. 2000.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, Illinois and was formerly at IIT Kanpur.

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