“There was a time when India played a dominant role in the higher education system and we had renowned seats of learning like Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramashila, Valabhi, Somapura and Odantapuri…… India now has to work towards regaining that glory of the past in today’s era of globalization, which rests on the pillars of Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication.”
Late Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Former President of India
India boasts of the 3rd largest higher education system world-wide after China and USA with almost 1000 universities and nearly 40,000 colleges as per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) of Ministry of Education. Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), now at 26.3% is inching towards 30% with 37.4 million students pursuing higher education. No doubt, India has taken great strides in higher education considering the fact that the GER of USA is 34% and China 28%. However, this remarkable growth in tertiary education coupled with the mushrooming of Higher Educational institutions (HEI) has brought about its share of concerns and challenges pertaining to access, accreditation, employability, equity, faculty, funding, research, quality, and ranking. There are alarming statistics in a NASSCOM report, which estimates that of the 3 million engineering graduates joining the IT workforce annually, only 25% of graduates, are employable. These figures are grave in the context of graduates from sciences and humanities, which is less than 15%. These reports are further reinforced by perspectives provided by industry bodies such as FICCI and NSDC.
The recently-announced National Education Policy (NEP) has also flagged this concern of employability. Interventions towards strengthening the innovation ecosystem in upcoming Science, Technology & Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020 are imperative to compliment the much-needed reforms in education so as to equip Indian graduates to address the current and future science, technology and innovation challenges of India and thereby realize the vision of the NEP. To make Indian graduates industry-ready, collaborative and radical out-of-the-box initiatives are mandatorily needed. Towards this, 3 recommendations are presented:
- Formal Linkage of innovation/entrepreneurship club/cell in HEI to Atal Tinkering Labs/science & technology clubs in schools: This initiative imbibes spirit of collaboration and innovation outreach by formalizing a linkage between university/college and school students. This is primarily applicable to institutions in the disciplines of engineering, management and arts & sciences. As such there are innovation/entrepreneurship club/cells in these institutions which are active and vibrant with student engagement and participation. In fact, Ministry of Education is mentoring the Institution Innovation Council (IIC) in 1700 colleges with an organizational structure, pipeline and mandate towards building an innovation ecosystem. Activities include innovation and entrepreneurship-related activities, mentoring support and organizing hackathons, ideation contests as well as student-driven initiatives. Higher secondary schools on the other hand have avenues like science & technology clubs or the disruptive innovation of Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL). Nearly 5000 ATLs have already been set up and running and 9000 are in the pipeline. These empower our youth with the ‘skills of the future’, which include computational power, Internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, design thinking and advanced robotics. However, since tinkering is a new concept in India, it will require continuous handholding facilitated by a sustained engagement for which mentors from civil society have been identified. These efforts can be complemented by college students, who can act as mentors for ATL and organize project competitions, tinkerfest, hackathon and design competitions for the school children. A win-win situation emerges wherein the school and its children benefits and the college students are not only able to collaborate, mentor and tinker with their peers in the schools but also leverage and apply their innovations.
- Mandatory one-credit course based on outcomes of professional body/society membership for all Undergraduate (UG), Postgraduate (PG) and doctoral students across all disciplines: Benefits that would accrue from these memberships vary from accreditation of programs, scholarly journals, research funding, patenting, innovation & start-up support, networking & knowledge exchange through various events such as conferences & workshops, value-added courses, certifications, seed money for projects & research, digital library, awards & recognitions, travel grants, concessional rates for members for conferences, contests and competitions like design contest, product innovation and hackathons. For every branch of engineering, medicine, science and humanities, there are several professional bodies. If you take computer science, there is ACM & CSI; IEEE & IETE for electrical and electronics engineering; CII Young Indians for business; Indian National Science Academy (INSA) for sciences and so on. At an institutional level, every HEI would identify the professional bodies for their students, have pro-active collaborative engagements & linkages with them and bundle the membership charges for the society’s membership in the student fees. HEI would also promote student chapters of these bodies so as to have a proper institutional structure as also coordination of multiple student chapters. At the last semester/year of the academic program, the student would have to provide a report with outcomes of leveraging the professional body to his faculty mentor/proctor. This could be in terms of creation of IPR or other activities like participation and/or organizing of activities and/or initiatives of these professional bodies. This initiative provides opportunities for innovation, projects, group dynamics, leadership, organizational capabilities and societal engagement thereby enhancing attitude, abilities and life skills, which escalate to better employability.
- Mandatory three-credit course on experiential learning program based on village internship for all UG students in disciplines such as engineering, management, arts, sciences, humanities and life sciences: Universities like Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham have implemented such a program titled as Live-in- Labs® @ AMRITA’. This is a program in which university researchers and students along with their counterparts in premier global universities such as Harvard School of Public Health & John Hopkins University, USA; University of Manchester, UK; Ryerson University, Canada; Hosei University, Japan and EPFL Lausanne, Switzerland spend 2 weeks up to 6 months in villages across India; their mandate being understanding the village’s recent challenges and address them through various technology and/or management solutions. Since 2013, this 3-credit elective has been offered for all students and on an average, around 500 AMRITA students across all disciplines and 200 students from foreign universities are availing this elective every year. This has impacted 60,000+ beneficiaries in villages in 21 states in India. From 9800 hours of service in 2014, the program participants have clocked 200,000 hours in 2019. Every project results in an inter-disciplinary student research paper published in reputed journals and conferences. It also improves employability and student progression in terms of higher studies, high-paying jobs and social entrepreneurship. Success stories for villages include creation of organic farming collective, technology solution for distillation of lemon grass oil, modular water distribution system, smokeless cook stove and solar power for rural electrification. These experiential programs are learner-centric, participatory and hands-on and they provide students an avenue to apply their acquired knowledge, concepts and skills on a real-time basis. They focus on complementary active learning paradigms such as service learning focused on community, co-operative learning focused on group dynamics and situated learning focused on the social situation. These programs help students to leverage skills such as communication, problem-solving, investigative and decision-making which are all vital towards evolving a Learning Outcomes Curriculum Framework (LOCF). There is a huge opportunity for all HEI to adopt similar active learning programs. India is unique in the sense that 70% of the population reside in villages which have its fair share of challenges in infrastructure, sanitation, potable water and nutrition. One cannot ignore this huge community primarily involved in farming as also their efforts in feeding the billion plus population in India. Towards this, ministry of Education has implemented a massive rural engagement program called Unnat Bharat Abhiyan (UBA) , wherein 2600+ institutions have already signed up. This program primarily focuses on extension activities & technology interventions with student engagement so as to provide HEI an opportunity to work with the people of rural India in identifying development challenges and evolving appropriate solutions for accelerating sustainable growth. Not only is this program very ambitious and extensive, but also it has developed institutional structures and mechanisms for implementation. Policy interventions are however needed to expand this program to cover each and every HEI in India. This can only be done by giving more teeth to the UBA program by making it mandatory and embedding it within the curriculum for various disciplines. Linking to the innovation and startup eco-system and creation of IP by HEI stakeholders can add another dimension to the program. In other words, conduct the program like an elective like the ‘Live-in-Labs @ AMRITA’ with a structured curriculum, credit structure, lesson & activity plan, field-work exercises & activities and evaluation rubrics focusing on attainment of clearly-defined outcomes.
These three recommendations focus on the three pillars of innovation, collaboration and inclusivity and if comprehensively executed, have tremendous potential to bring about dramatic improvements in the quality and employability of Indian graduates. Two of these also serve towards leveraging their talent towards societal transformation. Not only do these proposed policy initiatives add value to the STIP 2020 framework, ecosystem and its stakeholders, but also seamlessly dovetail into the implementation road map of NEP, for which deliberations have commenced.