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Tech education booster prescription

Dr. R. Natarajan
One of the new millennium goals for education institutions in general, and technical institutions in particular, is to achieve world-class status and become internationally competitive. It is a matter of concern that very few India’s approx 1,200 technical institutions have succeeded in commending global respect. With the coming into force of GATS from this year, and with foreign institutions targeting India as a prime destination, it becomes imperative to become globally competitive.

It is pertinent to remember that post-1991, there was considerable resistance to the opening up of Indian industry to international competition. But within a decade since, many Indian companies have established global brands. However in the technical education sector progress has been tardy. Even our best institutions have not fared well in worldwide rankings, and very few of them have ventured to set up campuses abroad.

It is after asserted that India has achieved "phenomenal global success" in IT, ITES and software development, and that we are well on the way to becoming a knowledge superpower or knowledge powerhouse. More realistic assessments (by C.K. Prahlad and F.C. Kohli) reveal that our global share in these industries is very small, and we need to move up the value chain and graduate from services to products. In comparison with China, we rate second-best.

Asia Week has been publishing rankings of universities in the Asia-Pacific region for several years. In its well-researched ranking exercise, the following criteria are employed – academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources, research output, financial resources and internet connectivity of students. India’s five IITs fare extremely well in these rankings.

Moreover in the October 1999 issue of Prism, the monthly journal of the American Society for Engineering Education, Thomas K. Grose wrote a feature ‘Jewel in the crown’, highlighting that "in a country with more than its share of tech schools with global reputations, the Indian Institutes of Technology is the gem that shines the brightest". He quoted the example of Prof. Andre Tits, University of Maryland’s associate chair for graduate studies, who would like to admit at best 30-40 students from the IITs in his graduate programme in electrical and computer engineering, but for competition for these graduate students being very keen from American universities.

Therefore there’s no doubt that we are producing world-class undergraduates form the IITs. But in the areas of postgraduates, research output, patents or faculty awards, the IITs have not achieved a similar status. The Sarkar Committee report, the bas document for the creation of the IITs, held out MIT and Imperial College of Science and Technology which are strong in postgraduate education and research, as their models.

In Inia’s other technical institutions, quality differs widely with the NITs and a few other government universities and colleges as well as private institutions moving up the ladder. With international collaboration, they undertake sponsored research and industrial consultancy, have secured NBA accreditation, and are striving towards continuous quality improvement. However, a large majority of our technical institutions, many of whom started less than five years ago, are struggling to attract good faculty and students. They have a long way to go. In many cases, the objectives of their managements are commercial rather than academic. They need the Supreme Court to enforce adherence to norms and standards, as is evident from the apex court’s recent judgement on Chattisgarh’s private universities.

There are several barriers to academic excellence and quality with particular reference to our country. A deeply-ingrained chalta hai attitude permeates academic institutions and in general. For too long we have accepted two kinds of quality: quality for export; and quality for domestic products. Export-quality products were either not available for local consumption, or were too expensive. But globalisation, liberalization and the imperatives of international trade have forced us to think again about quality and excellence. Quality implies respect for the customer. Even private sector industry is just beginning to respect the customer. For much too long, it has enjoyed a sellers’ market.

It is pertinent to stress that quality and excellence, like Rome, are not created in a day. Today’s internationally respected world-class institutions didn’t start out as centres of excellence. It took the vision, commitment and dedication of hundreds of leaders and stakeholders to build their global reputations. In this day of fast food and instant communication, it is useful to appreciate that it requires patience, steadfast perseverance and time to build and sustain institutions of excellence.

Quality of faculty is the crucial ingredient to create excellence. And international tradition and practice recognise PhDs as the ultimate qualification of faculty. But there is a mistaken impression in the minds of several institutional managements that PhDs can be mass-produced. They require competent knowledgeable guides and research infrastructure. Mere pooling of computers or equipment does not guarantee the supply of PhDs.

In short, technical institutions in India urgently need to get their act together to move up the quality chain. They should work towards NBA accreditation, commitment of resources for attracting and retaining quality faculty, upgrading infrastructure to global standards and benchmarking against proven world class institutions.

It is a tall order. But with determined effort and coherent direction, India’s technical institutions can do it.

(Dr. Natarajan is a former director of IIT-Madras and hitherto chairman of AICTE)

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