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'There is talent. We have to nurture it'

By Shobha Warrier
June 28, 2017 09:57 IST
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'I have told industry that if we accede to their pressure and change to mere skill development institutions, they would be the losers after 10 years.'
'Curriculum should not become a mere skill development programme.'

India students graduates

IMAGE: "We are like 29 countries in Europe, and doesn't each state need at least one IIT and one NIT?" asks Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, below.
Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

The blame game between industry and academia over unemployable graduates has been going on for some time in India.

Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, tells's Shobha Warrier what can be done to solve the problem in a way that India's students are the ultimate winners.

Bhaskar Ramamurthi

For many years, Indian industry has been complaining about the unemployability of new graduates.
How do you think the gap between academia and industry can be reduced?

There has sometimes been a difference of opinion between what industry wants and what even a good academic institution can provide.

Academic institutions are meant to provide education, not skill training.

Some skill training as a corollary is fine, but providing education should be the first priority for any educational institution.

Unless a student gets broad education, s/he will not be able to manage in any industry.

Our expectation is that any company that recruits a student fresh out of college will need at least a month of industrial training.

Industry, on the hand, is always in a hurry.

They want the few months' of training a student needs to be done in the college itself.

But you must remember that every industry needs different kinds of training.

However, it is also true that the syllabi and curriculum of many engineering colleges are very outdated.

So, the issue is nuanced -- to some extent, there may be wrong expectations from industry and there may also be a need for revision of the curriculum.

When a student joins industry, it demands hands-on knowledge of the latest tools from the student, which rarely happens.

And in some curricula, they don't even know that certain methodology has changed, and it becomes problematic when the students are unaware of the changes.

I have told many industry people that if we accede to their pressure and change to mere skill development institutions, they would be the losers after 10 years.

Curriculum should not become a mere skill development programme.

I would say some complaints are justified and some unjustified.

Shouldn't some industrial training be part of education? In most colleges, there's no proper internship.

Industrial training is a part of the curriculum, but the problem India faces is the large number of students.

Because the numbers are so large, industry has not been able to cope with the kind of training a student should have.

If you look at world famous universities, most of the innovations happen in their R&D labs where students work closely with industry. Is such a thing not happening here?

In the IITs it is beginning to happen, but it has to improve a lot.

Industry-academia collaboration in R&D has to improve.

In IIT-Madras, 20 to 25 per cent of our funded research comes from industry.

We also have a good start-up culture.

Yes, all of this has to increase in numbers, but we are on the growth path.

There is also another side to it.

Industry in India has not traditionally been into developing new technologies; they are more into importing mature technologies.

Only if industry is willing to take the risk of developing new technologies will they possess cutting edge technology.

In Germany, more than in America, the faculty are very well aware of what's happening in industry as most of them have spent some time with industry before becoming faculty.

In India, very few of our faculty have in the past spent time with industry.

So, they are not used to understanding the complexities of commercialisation of technology.

But we are beginning to do this, and that's why our collaborations are increasing.

Do you feel more and more start-ups will emerge, and more innovations will happen in India soon?
Will there be a move from services to product development?

Both services and innovations will happen.

Slowly, there will not be any distinction between them.

When you develop sophisticated products, you have to often provide services using the products.

Many start-ups are offering services using their own products.

We have seen some of the start-ups from IIT-Madras become services companies using their own products.

This is not a new model. This is happening all over the world and happening more often these days.

So, you cannot make a distinction between product companies and services companies in many cases.

Increasingly, such differences are going to be unimportant.

Yes, it is important to innovate.

But what you have to see is whether we have the competitive advantage.

We shouldn't be worrying too much about distinctions between services and product development.

With initiatives like Start-up India, Digital India, etc, do you see more start-ups coming up?

I see it happening already, but there has to be more.

India's industrialisation -- whether it is in the level of industrialisation or sophistication of industrialisation or competitive advantage of the industry, or the kind of innovation -- is happening, but not enough.

Innovations happen only if we are not risk-averse.

How behind are we?

We are definitely behind the world in many parameters.

Our manufacturing sector is not growing fast.

Not many of our products are known globally.

We have a significant share only in very few products.

Many of our exports are in the lower part of the value chain.

The more you sell the final products, the more you have the competitive advantage and high value addition.

There definitely is a gap, and we have to work hard to improve our products, their quality, delivery and logistics.

On one hand, we talk about the advantage of having so many talented engineers, and on the other, we are still far behind in developing our own products.
Where does the problem lie?

It is not as if we cannot do it.

Ultimately, competitive advantage, innovation, etc come from the human mind.

What everybody is saying is there is no lack of human ingenuity.

We have the raw material here, but we have to develop it, hone it, and create an ecosystem that promotes quality and excellence and not mediocrity.

Mediocrity leads to vulnerability. This is what people are saying: There is talent, but you have to nurture it.

It is like, only if you help the child grow by providing the right kind of food at the right time will s/he grow into a healthy child.

You may have talent, but if it's not nourished or polished, it will not be of use.

We have the people who can do better, but for various reasons, they are not doing as well as they could.

With hundreds of engineering colleges mushrooming all over the country, tens of thousands of engineers are coming into the market looking for jobs.
Unfortunately, a majority of them are alleged to be mediocre.
How do you view this situation of quantity taking over quality?

We have a huge population and the aspiration levels are also high.

Colleges came in to satisfy the needs.

Market forces are correcting it.

Many of these colleges are closing down due to lack of students.

Parents and children are realising very quickly that seats are going vacant and bad colleges are shutting down.

I don't think public money is being wasted.

Most of the students who still opt for mediocre institutions know that these are not really good, but they still want a degree.

We are not under the illusion that they are all good engineers and they are all employable as core engineers.

The customers, the government regulatory bodies and the public at large are all aware, and it will correct itself.

It was the case with arts and sciences colleges earlier, now, it is happening with engineering colleges.

It's nothing new in India.

I must also say that some of the private colleges are doing a good job.

How can the government alone provide education to such a huge population?

The issue is not private versus government; it is whether you follow certain parameters in starting colleges and you allow the market forces to decide.

We talk about the lack of good institutions, yet some say that by opening so many IITs and NITs, the government is diluting quality. Do you think so?

Not at all. We are like 29 countries in Europe and doesn't each state need at least one IIT and one NIT?

All the IITs, when fully built, can accommodate around 20,000 students per year in total; now the number stands at 11,000.

Ultimately, it is not going to go beyond 50,000 students per year, including the NITs.

But 20 million children pass the 12th standard every year.

I am sure we produce more than 50,000 very good students every year who want to be engineers.

There was a time when the IITs complained about the lack of good faculty. Do you still find it difficult to get good teachers?

It was the case earlier, but today there is no dearth of good faculty.

There are very good qualified people who are available, but they become available only at a certain rate each year.

We are getting very good applications even for the new IITs.

The situation has changed dramatically in the last 4, 5 years.

It is mainly because the job market abroad in academia for their PhDs is not very good.

Here at the IITs and IISc (Indian Institute of Science), too, we are producing many PhDs.

Earlier, we were producing fewer PhDs, and the demand abroad for their PhDs was very high.

The availability is more today -- both of locally produced PhDs as well as Indians with PhDs from abroad.

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Shobha Warrier / Chennai
Related News: IIT, NIT, graduates, unemployment, jobs