India’s graduates lack inspiration, not infrastructure

Students at IIT Madras prepare a presentation Copyright: Flickr/Akarsh Simha

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India should be inspiring science and technology graduates to stay in the sector, rather than building new institutions, says Anant Kamath.

India wants to become a ‘knowledge superpower’, and has made strengthening technical education a top priority. But policymakers do little to help India’s future scientific capabilities when they focus simply on building more institutions or increasing graduate numbers.

Such strategies ignore one fundamental problem. From the most modest to the most distinguished institutions, the incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology (S&T) and research and development (R&D) are poor.

Where are all the graduates?

There are barely 300,000 scientific R&D personnel in India. That represents a disappointingly low ratio of around 7.5 R&D staff per 10,000 workforce. And, according to the India Science Report, published by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in 2005, only 53 per cent of the five million people working in S&T related professions hold degrees.

Yet there is a steady supply of science graduates — one estimate has suggested that approximately 200,000 graduates in science, technology and engineering emerged in 2001 alone.

Where are these graduates going? This is not just about ‘brain drain’ overseas. Internal or ‘inter-sectoral’ brain drain — students moving away from S&T to work in other sectors within the country — is also significant. Unfortunately, it has rarely been addressed in academia or policy.

Why is it happening? It is not just that non-S&T careers like business management, corporate finance or banking offer better wages. I have interviewed faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras. My study shows that there are a host of economic, non-economic and institutional factors simultaneously at play.

Uninspiring education

To begin with, students report being de-motivated by uninspiring classroom environments. They criticise textbooks as being sluggish and out of touch with reality.

Many students report that internships, which are supposed to give them hands-on experience of industry, only fuelled further disinterest or indifference towards an S&T career. Many claim they faced a bureaucratic work environment and outmoded infrastructure in the S&T organisations they are sent to, which stonewalls their creativity.

Even seemingly minor factors, like the quality of pre-placement presentations, sway students’ minds. Students observe that wealthier multinationals, even many homegrown corporations, are conscious of the attractive power of good presentations and have visibly invested in them, in contrast to presentations by many government-run R&D labs or even private S&T organisations.

And however much teachers strive to make S&T or R&D more appealing and relevant, the long time it takes to gain recognition in a research career leave students uninspired. In today’s highly connected and informed world, finding alternative professions or academic opportunities that offer faster recognition — in India or beyond — is easy.

In institutions all across India, top decision-makers are well aware of these problems, yet little is being done at any level.

When it comes to maintaining interest, we cannot put the onus on students alone. A dull classroom, for example, extinguishes any interest they begin a course with. Such an environment unintentionally lays to rest any enthusiasm for creativity and could have long term repercussions for the spirit of innovation among students and, at a higher level, the country’s scientific future.

One could argue that students are simply misinformed — that their syllabi or classrooms do not paint a picture of the fascinating world that R&D really is. But if so, then it is up to the decision-makers, faculty and textbook writers to provide a better picture of S&T in practice.

Misguided priorities?

Evidently, India’s higher education system is in more urgent need of stimulating and nurturing incentives than of better physical infrastructure (though this is also greatly in want). But the good news is that almost all the factors contributing to the problem lie within the higher education system itself — and so could be tackled.

Addressing the disincentives to technical careers should form a key component of India’s science policy. Without it, it is questionable whether hundreds of new institutions are actually worth endorsing.

As a first step, we need more studies to assess how far India’s technical education system actually contributes to its S&T human resources to assess where India’s S&T graduates actually end up, and why.

We already have the infrastructure: a splendid institutional network, crowned by the Indian Institutes of Technology. What we lack are courses that provoke creativity, and campaigns that promote creative thinking as a future long-term profession.

Anant Kamath is a PhD researcher at the UN University / MERIT, the Netherlands. His study on IIT Madras was carried out in 2006-07 under the supervision of Professor Sunil Mani at the Centre for Development Studies, India.