Paradigm Shifts In Indian Higher Education

I accept the Honoris Causa degree of Doctorate of Engineering with all humility at my command. This happens to be my 30th Honorary Doctorate, but I must say, this is a very very special one for me. Because this degree is being given by one of the new National Institutes of Technology (NITs) that have been created across the country and as luck would it I had some hand in this transformation of Regional Engineering Colleges to NITs.

My mind goes back to 1998 when the  Government of India set up a committee under my chairmanship. This particular Mashelkar Committee was asked to look at the 19 Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs) in India. It was asked to review the performance of these RECs and also make recommendations so that they could move into a higher orbits of performance and delivery. It was this Mashelkar committee that recommended the conversion of Regional Engineering Colleges into National Institutes of Technology.  And it was not just the change of name. It was the change of fundamentals from funding to governance. This involved moving the funding from the states to the centre, changing the constitution of board of governors, the governance structure, upgradation of infrastructure  and several other measures to provide autonomy, flexibility and freedom. The idea was to lift these institutions to a much higher level.

I am so happy that at the dawn of the 21st century, these recommendations were accepted fully by the Central Government and NITs were formed. You might ask as to what prompted the Mashelkar committee to recommend the elevation of RECs to NITs. We found that from around 200,000 students who appeared for the IIT entrance examinations, only around 2000 of them got in. But for those 2000 students who got in, we found that there were may be 20,000, who appeared for the exams, who were almost as good. They were left out and where would they go? They all went to Regional Engineering Colleges, Government Engineering Colleges, and so on. Our committee had wide ranging consultations with several stake holders, including the companies that employed these REC graduates. We found that the contributions that were made by the graduates of RECs to national programs such as space, defence, atomic energy and private and public sector industry were truly outstanding.

At National Chemical Laboratory, I have had the specific experience of having students from Regional Engineering Colleges do Ph.D.s under my supervision and I found them to be as good as those who came from the IIT system. For instance, Ravindranath, who came from the REC at Warangal, did work on modeling and simulation of polyester reactors and it became the last word. In fact I won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize on the strength of that work alone! It is being used all over the world today. So I was delighted that full justice was done to these high quality REC students by the Government of India in accepting the 1998 Mashelkar committee recommendations and NITs were created.

President Obama had said recently that the currency for the 21st century will be education and innovation. I will go further and say that what we need most now is education in innovation and innovation in education. And India needs it the most.

These are very interesting times for education system as a whole in India. First, the Indian system of education is undergoing a sudden massive expansion. When did you last hear that thirty new central universities, twenty new Indian Institutes of Information Technology, five new IITs, six new IIMs, five new IISERs were being created within a space of a couple of years?

Second, the role of private sector in education is being redefined because of the additional need for massive resources that will be required.

Third refers to liberalization of education sector in India. India was so far being viewed as a third world country. It is being now viewed as potentially the third most powerful country. All this is because of what happened on that magical day, 24 July 1991, when our present Prime Minister in his role as the then Finance Minister, announced the new industrial policy that was truly an example of a disruptive public policy innovation. Although the trade and industry was liberalized in 1991, the process of liberating India’s education and agriculture sector has not still been completed.

Connected with liberalization is this issue of globalization of education. As regards globalization of technology it has manifested itself in India. Practically all the leading multinational companies have set up their R&D Centres in India (almost 800 of them now employing about 200,000 Indian scientists, engineers and technologists). But what about globalization of Indian education? Indian companies are acquiring companies abroad. In fact, Ratan Tata, an Indian, is today the biggest employer of British in Britain with the acquisition of Corus, Jaguar Land Rover, and so on. What about Indian universities setting up compuses abroad? What about Indian universities hiring foreign academics as faculty?

Fourth, the issue of inclusive growth also translates itself into an all round inclusion of `have nots’, where this section of the excluded society gets an access to high quality education, that is “affordable and accessible”. The justifiable quest for `inclusion’ is also accompanied by the challenge of balancing `expansion, inclusion and excellence’.

Fifth, for teaming young Indians, the issue of `growth’ translates into `job led growth’. And therefore, education and skills that Indian education systems impact must lead to hundreds of millions of jobs. And the news is not good on this front. Reportedly, we are producing over three million first degree holders annually and less than 20% of these are employable! The problem is that as these graduates have neither skill set nor any disciplinary depth.  Therefore they are ill-equipped for crafting a meaningful career. This is a colossal waste.

Innovation in education involves the creative use of the fascinating advances in technology to do away with the old style classroom teaching, which is going to be a history.

Look at the dramatic changes that are happening around us due to advances in Information & Communication Technology. Digitisation, virtualisation, mobilization and personalization are the four new megatrends. All these will lead to game changing cocreative, self-organising, self correcting, borderless, globally distributed, asynchronous, dynamic and open systems. Data, voice and video will be delivered with 3G and imminent arrival of 4G in India. The processes of self learning, interactive learning and life long learning will undergo a sea change with all these paradigm shifts.

Discovery Education is leading the way in the digital learning movement by making video-based content that reaches more than half of all U.S. schools, including 1 million teachers and 35 million students. The company developing digital math and science curricula for public school students in Chicago and Detroit.

Togetherville is creating a social network built on top of Facebook for kids, families, and teachers that allows them to express their thoughts on educational issues. Roughly 90,000 U.S. schools are already included in its database.

OpenStudy is building a social learning network where students can ask questions, offer help, and connect with other students studying similar topics. Its mission is to make the world one large study group, regardless of students’ locations or backgrounds.

Irynsoft is providing the first basic mobile platform that allows users to take a course on their iPhone. It has already been adopted by MIT Open CourseWare.

Khan Academy is building a collection of more than 1,800 short, simple video lectures and chalkboard demos that cover everything from math to physics to economics. The brain behind these web tutorials: Sal Khan, a 33-year-old Harvard MBA who developed the project out of his closet. Now, with Gates Foundation funding, he’s taking his adaptive learning system to classrooms.

In India’s journey from a third world country to the third most powerful country in the world, recognizing and leveraging these signposts of paradigm shifts alone will create the India of our dreams.

Innovation means doing things differently that can make a difference. It means innovative use of resources. I will just give you one example. Four lakh  engineering  students spend six months of the final year in working on technology projects. This means over two million human months of our ‘yuvashakti’ being spent on solving real life problems. For the first time, we have an access to the magnificent outcome of this great endeavour.

The inspirational leadership of Prof. Anil Gupta of National Innovation Foundation was responsible for creating This now has over 100,000 technology projects. In just six months, the minds of over 3 lakh students have been mapped. This impossible looking feat has been achieved due to the extraordinary energy of Hiranmay Mahanta.  You will be proud to hear that he is a product of NIT. He and his team of volunteers of Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology (SVNIT), Surat have created this magic. The challenge is to take this grand initiative forward. What do we need to do?

First, it is not the power of ideas alone, but the power of execution that is going to matter. A student has designed a strategy for an active control of space launch vehicles in the presence of fuel slosh. Should not Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) be looking at this solution? A few girl students have together designed a Black Box for vehicles just like we have for aeroplanes. Should not our auto manufacturers be looking at it? Such knowledge and information sharing networks between these creative students and the ultimate users must be created.

Second, we have to concentrate this unique “yuvashakti” on Indian problems that “need” to be solved rather than those that “can” be solved. We should ignite these young minds with India’s grand challenges. How do we partner with the engineering colleges to make the youth focus on these grand challenges?

Third, we must link 100,000 MSME and the informal sector enterprises, who are in search of solutions to their problems with these databases.

Fourth, our national laboratory systems as well as agencies such as Department of Science & Technology (DST) and Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR), must put their weight behind these ideas.

Fifth, there are hundreds of eminent Fellows of our national academies of science and engineering. They must all join in as mentors by registering on Their mentoring in their individual domains of expertise will raise the quality and be truly motivating for these young innovators.

Prime Minister of India has declared this second decade of the twenty first century, i.e. the years 2011-2020, as the Indian Decade of Innovation. And in this Indian decade of innovation, let us take a pledge:

–    We will make a transition from being a weak and hesitant private sector partner to a strong practitioner of privately managed non-profit institutions
of higher education.
–    We will do away from being a tentative destination for occasional foreign students to be a preferred global destination for foreign students.
–    We will change the image of being suspicious viewer of foreign institutions to aggressive partner and competitor of foreign institutions.
–    We will move from minor follower and a player in R&D and innovation to a global leader and a giant in R&D and innovation.
–    We will be an aggressive disruptive innovator rather than uninspired incremental innovator.
–    We will be a confident and competitive intellectual property promoter rather than being protective and restrictive intellectual property practitioner.
–    We will move from occasional world-class university builder to builder of a hundred world-class universities.
–    Instead of being copier of best practices in education and research, we will become the creator of next practices in education and research.

And it is these paradigm shifts in our attitudes and in our actions that will make the Indian dream of moving from the position of a third world country to the third most powerful country in the world come true.