Why IIT? The whole education system is Jurassic in its content

Published: Saturday, Oct 08,2011, 12:15 IST
Indian Institutes of Technology, Jurassic, NR Narayana Murthy, Peter Drucker

Much hot air has been generated over NR Narayana Murthy’s comments on the quality of students emerging from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Among other things, he has blamed coaching classes for the malaise.

The problem, however, is one of success for the wrong reasons. The initial aspirational status of the IITs may have been well-deserved with good teaching attracting good students. But once this became self-evident, a separate eco-system was created to funnel students into the IITs because entry into these hallowed institutions was seen as an end in itself. The other things (jobs, money) followed as a matter of right.

The objective today is not to become a good engineer or physicist or scientist, but to crack the IIT-JEE entrance hurdle. This is where coaching classes come in. They saw money in it – and encashed it. So who cares what the end-product looks like?

However, the problem is also at the other end. This is where Narayana Murthy becomes part of the problem, and not the solution.

Normally, you don’t need engineers to write software code. But thanks to the Infosyses and TCSes of the world, and given the relative cheapness of Indian engineers compared to the rest of the world, our software companies are soaking up engineers and starving our engineering companies of them.

It’s a rational decision, of course. Why recruit a 10th standard passout—who can reasonably be trained into a software coder in a year to two—when engineers are available off-the-shelf?

So both the entry line at the IITs (generated by the coaching classes) and the exit line (populated by the software companies) are manned by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Is it any surprise that Larsen & Toubro Chairman AM Naik, in an outspoken interview to DNA newspaper in 2007, was vehemently anti-IT?

He said:  “There are more than 75,000 engineers working on design in India for foreign companies. They are the brains, and there are 150,000 other engineers working in the IT industry who are non-computer science engineers. Then the Bangalore IT Club complains that infrastructure there is cracking. Arrey tumko kisne bola tha 100,000 engineers leke aao Bangalore mein? Secondly, who asked you (the IT companies) to recruit civil engineers? There are no civil engineers available to build infrastructure!”

Though Naik has since cooled down (reason: he has his own IT company to think of), it is emblematic of the kind of system we have created.

We have IITs and engineering colleges which generate engineers who code; we have IIMs that produce MBAs with lousy people skills (they think management is about making money, not handling people); we have medical schools which produce super-specialists and plastic surgeons and not doctors for the masses; and we have general graduates who know nothing about anything – after having wasted five years after their 10th standard doing useless studies. The skills they need in any job would have been there at the 10th standard itself – unless they upskilled themselves differently.

What India has essentially done is to keep people out of the job market for five years after school – but we still end up with the same unemployable people after that.

India is thus headed for disaster—since everyone, from the rich to the poor—is now chasing the same IIT-IIM-engineering-medical dream machine—when the world has changed completely. We are T-Rexes in Jurassic Park.

The world we are entering—have already entered, in fact—needs people with multiple skills and quick learning and re-learning abilities, but the education system and wrong aspirational culture we have built around the IITs and IIMs are out of sync with reality.

Four broad trends will dictate the kind of education system we need:

One, jobs are not for keeps anymore as companies have to constantly adjust for market changes. This means employees have to be more opportunistic than before. They have to be more flexible and adapt to new jobs faster.

Two, new job categories emerge and disappear quicker now as technology changes businesses. This means employees have to be periodically re-skilling themselves. Education has to focus not only on students about to enter the job market, but also on people with jobs today who may not have one tomorrow.

Three, knowledge is growing obsolete more quickly than before. This means learning and work cannot fall into a neat linear timeline where one learns for the first 20-and-odd years of one’s life and then works till the age of 60 or more. Learning and working have to continue life-long. Both have to be interspersed after school.

Four, income and wealth are ephemeral in a world of volatile market movements (Read Alvin Toffler on Revolutionary Wealth). Even fixed income avenues are not safe any more – they can crash or soar in value (example: Greek bonds). Even if you save a lot, its value may shrink or soar with market moods. Thus, your ability to learn and earn is what matters at any age – whatever be your bank or demat account balance may be at any point of time. It can disappear overnight – as many Americans found after the Lehman crisis.

Let us expand on some of these trends.

Companies are hiring fewer permanent staff, and outsourcing and out-contracting more jobs. There is almost no such thing as a stable job anymore. Some 30-40 years ago, a bank job was considered the safest thing in India after a government naukri. Today, bank jobs are being outsourced – to call centres, to direct selling agents to technology geeks. As the late management guru Peter Drucker noted, there are more people working for a company outside it than inside.

Once upon a time, all the big jobs were inside the bank. Today, they are all outside – as customers stay away from branches and get their jobs done at ATMs or over the telephone or internet. Customers serve themselves. Banks don’t need too much staff to help them do that.

Jobs that existed before are disappearing fast. Take the media, for example. Once upon a time we had something called proof-readers and typesetters. The arrival of computer typesetting killed both jobs. We still have sub-editors and reporters – but the job content is changing dramatically – they have to write and report for multiple media, as the news world converges around the web.

In the West, the Internet has become the main source of news and information. Newspapers are closing down faster than you can say “all the news that’s fit to print”. But surely, this is creating more jobs in web journalism?

Well, er, it is. But not of the kind we normally see as a job. The web is full of news entrepreneurs and citizen journalists who do it all for free. They publish their own little news and opinion sites (blogs, columns) and Internet journalism is often about sourcing content and paying for its use bit-by-bit – one article at a time. Full-time jobs are few and far-between because journalism is still to be fully reinvented.

All this is happening because economies are changing dramatically due to technology – and job demands are changing faster than ever due to this. Consider how fast the land line telephone has become history after India’s mobile telephone revolution. If you were a company making those telephones, you would be history too.

Product time lines are getting shorter, and technology products have to be treated like perishables. In November last year, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Tab in India priced at over Rs 36,000. Within four months the price had crashed by 25 percent as other products emerged in the same space.

In less than five years, we have had five different versions of the iPhone and two iPads. Consider the products we killed in the process. The iPod killed the Walkman (poor Sony) and changed the game for music companies forever. The iPhone is about to cannibalise the iPod. If it hadn’t, someone else would have done the same. Companies are now killing or denting their own products in order to avoid the ignominy of having someone else do it for them.

When products disappear, companies caught flat-footed by change (eg, Kodak, which stuck to film too long after digital cameras took its market away) may die an unsung death. When companies die or shrink, jobs die and shrink too. No company is forever.

Government, once the last provider of jobs, is also shrinking. Weighed down by debt and failed projects, most politicians have gradually realised that governments cannot really deliver everything – and that too efficiently. The west is weighed down by huge social security costs, and India is heading the same way with outsize social security schemes like NREGA and Food Security that have not been fully thought through. The bills are already coming home to roost with higher inflation and slower growth.

Jobs are simply not expanding fast enough and in the five years from 2004-05 we added all of 2.2 million new jobs when the previous five years added more than 92.7 million. Clearly, jobs of the right kind aren’t being created in the new Indian economy, and this calls for more adaptation by job-seekers if they want to survive and prosper.

This is where our education system – with its long, 16-year schooling cycle from kindergarten to graduation – fails completely. It sucks. If we leave out the lucky buggers who get into an IIT or engineering college and then land on an Infosys campus, we have an army of unemployables.

We enter kindergarten around four years of age, and finish 10th standard around age 16. If one excludes a few worthwhile professional courses, the next five years are practically a waste for college-goers – as nothing we learn prepare us for the new world out there.

Among the things we need to rethink the following issues:

One, should the five years after 10th standard be used both for doing a job, and reskilling, or do we continue with our existing system of going nowhere? A two-year job stint followed by a course for learning specific skills for the jobs that exist or are growing would make better sense.

Two, college and university education has to move away from sterile degrees and become more flexible to the job market’s needs. This means curricula should be constantly under review and corporations and non-governmental organisations should play a part in their creation. If a new job description is emerging today, a course should be immediately offered by colleges and universities. When some job categories disappear, courses relating to them should be put out to grass.

Three, this degree of flexibility means not only curricula, but even faculty and teachers, need constant reskilling. Or, alternatively, there should be more short-term induction of college professors from the corporate world or relevant work areas.

Four, since career options can open up or reach a dead end any time during one’s lifespan, colleges and universities cannot thus be only tailored to the young. They have to be created for everybody – even 55-year-old grandmoms who need to earn a living or 40-year-old bank cashiers who find that no one comes to the counter anymore.

Five, even professional courses like those for doctors and lawyers need to have short-term and long-term elements built into them. Do we need a five-year MBBS to create high-cost doctors who don’t want to work in rural health centres or shorter-term courses for those willing to work there? The current high-cost MBBS (high capitation fees, and long stretch of study time) is simply not viable for the rural areas. Maybe, Munnabhai MBBS courses are the answer.

Six, we clearly need a very solid information system on jobs and skills from a robust, live, national database where information flows from all potential employers constantly.

If the only options available for a good job are IIT, IIM, medicine, engineering, or law degrees, everyone will head there. This is why Narayana Murthy finds the skills of IITians poor. They are just trying to crack the system.

But the real system is already cracked and broken. But we don’t seem to know it.

Steve Jobs, Dhirubhai Ambani and Bill Gates were either dropouts or not formally educated like your average IIT/IIM alumnus. This clearly proves that success does not necessarily come only from formal education. It comes from within – all we need is to pick up the skills that can enhance our inborn talent.

We need to build an education system that would allow an Ambani or a Gates to take a refresher even after they have earned their millions. Or after they have failed in businesses or careers.

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