‘I expect wonders over the next three years’

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I will act as an enabler and an important cog of ‘Digital India’, says Dr S S Mantha, Chairman, AICTE, in an interview to KS Narayanan of ENN

Dr S S ManthaThe Digital India programme is on ground now. What, according to you, will it take to make this programme successful?

It is a great idea to connect every corner of the country. Digital capability is important as a growth vehicle. A lot of fibre runs across the country. That infrastructure is in place. A lot of value applications developed by different bodies are there in education and other sectors. What needs to be brought into this space is the last mile connectivity. Many of our institutions have a certain bandwidth with them through service providers.
What government should aim is connecting each of these institutions together. It will first allow you to share information across institutions and select 500 best institutions excluding IITs and NITs and share best practices, R&D experience and good faculty. For this to happen, you need best last mile connectivity. I am stressing on this because we cannot start off a lecture and link breaks after 10 minutes on account of power or data failure.

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Anytime timeframe we should look at before we call it a success?

A lot of infrastructure is already in place. What we need are cutting edge applications that reach the common man down the line and certain applications that are nationally important and industry specific. A lot of success comes when there is a will. I expect wonders over the next three years.

How do you see yourself contributing towards Digital India?

I am part of the entire development process. Therefore, as a chairperson of the apex technical education body of the country, I will act as an enabler and important cog of ‘Digital India’.

What are the challenges that need to be addressed to revamp technical education in India?

Technical education in India has seen a lot of expansion. As a result, access is taken care of. Any student who wants to study engineering, technology, pharmaceuticals or architecture has the opportunity to get into any college. However, 90 to 95 per cent of technical institutes are in the private sector. Over 12,000 institutions in India have been set up in the private sector and 1,000 are government- run or government-aided. Funds to these institutions are difficult in both the sectors as many of them are located in rural areas. There are additional challenges of getting faculty, retaining, training and re-training them, industrial internship for faculty and students. So, while accessibility issues have been addressed, quality issues persist.

How do you address quality issues?

Quality is not limited to physical infrastructure in terms of good classrooms and labs. One important factor is good faculty and good students. Faculty has its own aspirations. Faculty looks at career prospects and wants their own children to get into good schools. They also look at the research and development facilities available at these institutes for them. Providing all of these in a rural set up is a challenge. Retaining the faculty is another challenge. So we see many students migrating from rural to urban areas. Expansion is also happening in cities with existing colleges adding more classrooms, campuses and courses. As a result, finding students for institutes in rural areas is a new challenge. A lot of job opportunities in the secondary and tertiary sectors have to grow in rural areas as well. Unless that happens, the quality aspect in the rural sector is difficult to monitor. In the urban areas, there are good colleges. Cost of living is high and a teacher, who is good, would expect respectable salary to take care of his or her needs. So, institutions will have to cut a compromise between these requirements. Good institutions will grow while institutions that look at academics like any other job would not succeed.
My own belief is that quality of an institution is also based on student intake. . We need to look at technology enabled mechanisms. Faculty should also be encouraged for industry internships for three months every two years to get an understanding of the market and the demand it places on students. This would improve the quality matrix.

What innovative measures do you advocate to ensure better technical education?

One factor which puts Indian institutions at disadvantage in terms of ranking is quality parameters. Any institution can grow provided there is a cross-cultural mix of students, faculty and so on.
We have made some interventions by allowing vacancies to be filled by foreign students by allowing 15 per cent over and above supernumerary seats where there are no vacancies. Both the government and institutions need to go to SAARC countries and get students. Our education is way ahead of what they have. Therefore, we have to create an enabling mechanism. Similarly, we should also invite faculty from UK, US etc to visit our institutions for at least one semester and not one-day visits. It will bring best practices and raise the bar.

“In terms of accessibility, we have brought down the entry level percentages. Now at the end of four year period, to expect students who comes out of this setup to be of quality is asking for too much”

Innovation and research by universities drive economic growth in many South East Asian economies. What about India?

We should also have strong linkages with industry. At least our best institutions should have revenue from consultancies they offer to industries. Very little happens as of now. It is limited to IITs and government aided institutions. I don’t expect every institution to tie up with L&T, Siemens etc. I know it will not happen. There is a huge medium, small, micro enterprise sector in India. If I assume one institution tying up with one MSME in the district, it helps both. Institute will understand what is happening in MSME and industry benefits because they get additional inputs and can even expand and employ from these institutes.
In our country, there is hardly any product created. Most of the research is faculty and not industry/product/ patent-oriented. So we need to look at Germany’s “Fraunhofer Model”. Under this model, there is an institution at the centre. This institute sets the goal for productisation and acts as coordinator. Take combat recovery vehicle which is imported into India today as an example. I would want to manufacture it here. Every system can be discretised into electrical, electronic, control and so on. Smaller centres look at each of these systems and design the sub-system. These sub-centres will tie up with appropriate industries. Very tough deadlines are drawn and pilot is implemented by the central institute while manufacturing is done by whom they have tied up with. So, a huge ecosystem is created for productisation. This results in new products and improves the job market.

Is India adopting ‘Fraunhofer Model’?

We have created council resolution to create five to six centres in different parts of the country. We are talking to government. Once necessary approvals come, institutes will take off.

What about financing it?

Initial finance can be from central government or bodies like AICTE. Once it is set up, it should run on PPP model and each sub-centre should become a profit centre. n

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