There is another crisis in education; can India turn this to its advantage?

There has long been concern about a couple of issues related to education in India: The poor quality of the humanities curriculum, and the c...

There has long been concern about a couple of issues related to education in India: The poor quality of the humanities curriculum, and the concern that English medium is becoming an albatross rather than an enabler. On average, it is assumed that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is in fine shape in the country, and this is a source of pride.

Therefore, it was startling to see the results of the Kerala state entrance examinations and the uptake in engineering. According to KEAM statistics, less than 10 students all over Kerala opted for Civil Engineering. But 5,000+ rushed into Computer Science, and 2,500+ into Electronics. There were relatively few takes for Mechanical, Electrical (Power) and so forth: Only in the hundreds each (Times of India, 12 November 2021, “2 engg branches get less than 10 candidates each”).

This, one could argue, is the free market at work, as there are more job opportunities these days for Computer Science graduates. However, it is an enormously skewed result: Doesn’t India as a country need a large number of civil engineers to help build infrastructure, which is a priority: Roads, railways, ports, power plants, bridges, and so on?

You could ask the same question about other traditional branches of engineering. India clearly needs mechanical, chemical, aerospace, and electrical engineers. The country is already deficient in technical skills in some areas. For instance, where are the materials scientists (nanotechnology is a hot multi-disciplinary area)?

It is not clear if the Kerala results are replicated all over the country, but it is obvious that an entire generation of engineers is ‘missing’. One problem is that a standard career path for engineers is to go directly to business school and come out as investment bankers, or management consultants, or other such positions where their engineering education is immaterial, and the nation’s subsidy (perhaps Rs 50 lakh) in them is wasted.

It is true that engineering is cyclical, and that disciplines go through ups and downs. An example is aerospace engineering in the US: after NASA sharply reduced its investment in space exploration, that discipline took a beating; some engineers lost their jobs, and in Seattle (Boeing territory) were found driving cabs for a living.

But computer science and electronics have retained their appeal. When I was a student, electronics was prized; later computer science took its place. The world runs on semiconductor chips and on software; so, on the face of it, Indian students choosing these should give India a competitive advantage.

But the reality is different: India is a no-show in electronics capability; yes, there are design skills for semiconductors, but in the absence of a single fabrication plant worth mentioning, the crucial manufacturing capability is missing; the MNCs that now use Indian captive centres for chip design can move easily to other countries, such as in Eastern Europe, either for geopolitical or for cost reasons. There is no stickiness with design positions.

On the software side, sad to say, there has been almost no Intellectual Property generated in India for Indian companies; the vast majority of effort has gone into software services, not products. Perhaps this will change as a new generation of startups comes up, especially those that depend on the JAM trinity and the availability of inexpensive bandwidth. But the fact is that software services jobs haven’t created any long-term value for the economy.

Thus, it must be noted that unlike Silicon Valley, where the early pioneers left a solid basis for further innovation, the IT majors in India have done almost no R&D, despite making many employees and shareholders wealthy. In that context, it is worth noting that Silicon Valley is now losing its pre-eminence as digital nomads are setting up shop elsewhere: Miami, Austin, Singapore, etc. Competitive advantage can be evanescent.

Is there something that India can offer its STEM graduates that creates for them a long-term incentive to stay on? If not, they will move to other areas: eg, demand for courses in commerce has gone through the roof. Presumably, these will lead to financial sector jobs.

And this comes at a time when the ‘woke’ mentality, created and nurtured by American academicians, is coming to India as well, where it will find fertile ground, considering that the prevailing narrative in Indian academia is even more far-Left. I personally learned to keep my mouth shut in cafeteria conversations over lunch, lest I be lynched.

This is a problem even in Indian business schools. Worse, even the best-regarded universities in the humanities and social sciences appear more capable of producing unthinking consumers of propaganda than of coming out with any world-class research. This is a huge failure of the system.

The effect of merely introducing a few humanities streams in IITs has been notably negative. The ghost of Trofim Lysenko looms over them. India’s NEP 2020 is a misguided effort to turn India’s monolithic STEM schools into what are called ‘universities’ in the West. Chances are that they will, instead, turn into citadels of ‘woke’.

Wokeness has turned American universities into bastions of intolerance, targeted attacks on certain groups, groupthink, safe spaces, and a general dumbing-down. It used to be that an undergraduate degree from the US was worth something, but no longer: For the money they charge, US universities provide little value.

It is as a revolt against this that Niall Ferguson, a historian (and incidentally an apologist for imperialism), wrote about the new University of Austin that he is helping to co-found. The goal is to bring back to the humanities their original purpose, supposedly the pursuit of truth.

This sounds good, but there might be bigger forces at play. The traditional university may be on its way out. Going back to the Kerala example, a number of departments may close for lack of students; some engineering colleges have already shut down. This has also happened to business schools already. The age of campus placements may be over.

In a world where excellent content is available to anybody everywhere, often free, on the Internet, and where I hope machine translation will soon make the content available in the mother tongue (in real-time), the preponderance of English, as well as the Anglosphere model of universities, may both be under siege.

Can India come up with an alternative model and do a leapfrog? As Dharampal’s work shows, traditional knowledge systems used to produce well-rounded citizens long ago.

The writer has been a conservative columnist for over 25 years. His academic interest is innovation. Views expressed are personal.

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India World News: There is another crisis in education; can India turn this to its advantage?
There is another crisis in education; can India turn this to its advantage?
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