Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy has commented regularly on the state of education in India. The visionary leader spoke to THE WEEK about how Indian universities can improve. Excerpts:
Q/ Indian universities do not feature in global top-100 lists. What more needs to be done to improve the standards?
A/ Indian universities must create a plan to improve their own institution in [relevant] criteria―whether it is patents, papers in reputed journals, the kind of jobs that the students get, and the quality and the number of PhD students passing out each year. I have always believed that competition is the best management guru. Therefore, Indian universities must study their competitor-universities which are in the top 20 in the world, find out what is it that they do to be in the top 20, and start doing it.
Q/ It is said that AI could replace certain jobs. What kind of courses should students choose to get jobs that will stay relevant? What changes should universities effect to enable this?
A/ We should use these technologies in a human-assistive mode rather than in a human replacement mode. Therefore, our universities, particularly the technical ones, will have to frame the curriculum for their courses on new technologies like ChatGPT, AI and other new technologies to teach the students how these technologies can be used in a human-assistive mode. They should teach how these technologies, used in such a way, have improved the productivity and progress, how they have reduced the cost, and how they have improved entertainment and comfort. Once the universities do these things, the students will become more useful to the industry, and they will automatically get jobs.
Q/ You spoke about the role of technical universities. But, a large number of seats in STEM courses are vacant. One possible reason is students going abroad. How can universities rectify this situation?
A/ There are two ways of handling these problems. The first way is for the industry associations to obtain the estimates for the economic growth from the relevant agencies in the government for the fifth year from today, obtain the standards for productivity of engineers from the companies, and compute the net increase in the number of engineers needed five years from now (as they are four-year courses). Obviously, that estimate would be approximate, but it is better than what we do today. Based on the association data for increases in the number of engineers published in newspapers and reports, the engineering colleges in the country should start increasing or decreasing the number of seats.
The second way is to study the quality of education in graduate and doctoral studies abroad, particularly in the developed world, vis-à-vis the Indian universities and educational institutions. Most of our students who go abroad go for job opportunities in the countries where they go for their graduate studies. My view is that the number of students going abroad for higher studies and jobs is a small percentage of total number of students in our country. I do not think that we should be worried too much about it.
Q/ Could you elaborate the points you mentioned about students going abroad?
A/ The students are looking at job opportunities. It so happens that the developed world offers better paying jobs. It is easier there to obtain good schooling for their children. There is a possibility of obtaining good jobs for their spouses. There are facilities like good nurseries for children when the parents go to their offices. Therefore, the students feel that the quality of life in these countries is better. It is very natural that a certain percentage of our children who can afford to go abroad will obviously want to go abroad and study. I feel there is nothing wrong in that. I would request these youngsters to become model citizens of whatever society they adopt and bring respect, honour and prestige to India.
Q/ Many universities have brought in full-time foreign faculty or faculty with international experience on a full-time basis, apart from having foreign visiting faculty. Does this help? If so, how?
A/ The Indian universities and educational institutions will benefit by inviting faculty from those universities that are ranked high in teaching and research. The faculty members coming from the developed world would seed critical thinking and problem-solving skills in our students. That is the way our universities can reach higher in the rankings and produce students who are beneficial to our country.
Q/ The UGC seems to be getting ready to allow the functioning of campuses of foreign higher educational institutions in India. If foreign universities come to Indian shores, what impact will it have on the educational system in India?
A/ I am very happy that the UGC has introduced a policy to welcome setting up of campuses in India by foreign universities. I would only hope that we would receive acceptance of this invitation by universities from the developed world. I believe that it is better for the country since the quality of students passing out of such foreign universities operating in India will generally be higher. They would have learnt problem-solving skills, and they would be highly employable. In the end, the country will benefit.
This policy will result in faster growth of our country. Market competition determines the winner and the loser. The winner is one that has a larger market share of students aspiring to join them. It means that such universities attract better quality of students and make them more employable. Therefore, these students will get better jobs. Regulation of market competition by an open, fair, and transparent regulatory agency will only produce high-quality graduates. Parents or guardians will not send their wards to Indian universities that do not produce employable students. Over time, they will atrophy.
Q/ How can the academia-industry collaboration be improved in India?
A/ There are many ways to improve the academia-industry collaboration. The academic institutions should introduce courses that will make students employable. These institutions should work out an arrangement with various companies to invite successful leaders and managers of these companies to give lectures as part of their courses. They should constantly update their curriculum to keep up with the demand for skills that the industry demands. The researchers in academic institutions should spend a few months every year in the industry to understand the context in which their graduating students will contribute to the betterment of the company. They should also do R&D projects to solve some of the major technical problems faced by the industry. They may use such visits to decide on the research topics for the thesis of their PhD students. If the academic institutions do some of these things that I have suggested, I believe that the industry and the academia will work very closely on a win-win basis.