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Develop a passion for your work and aim high - Ramgopal Rao, IIT-Bombay

Dr. V. Ramgopal Rao is an Institute Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay and the Chief Investigator for the Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics project at IIT Bombay. Prof. Rao received the coveted Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Engineering Sciences awarded by the Hon'ble Prime Minister, Govt of India in 2005 for his work on Electron Devices.
How do you rate Indian Engineering education in the global setup?
India has over 2500 engineering institutions producing over 6 lakh engineers annually. We produce nearly 30% of the global annual supply of graduate engineers. According to an Engineering UK study recently, the number of globally employable engineering graduates per 100,000 of population, in the UK, it was 14.3 per 100,000; two and a half times more than China (5.9/100,000) and one and a half more times than India (10.4/ 100,000). Though UK produces slightly over 10,000 engineering graduates annually, what is significant is the fact that over 80% of graduates produced by UK universities are considered globally employable.

What can be done to improve the employability rate?
The time has come for us to focus on the quality of our engineering education, rather than opening up more engineering institutions. It is essentially linked to the quality of faculty. It is suggested that we need something like 100,000 qualified faculty members to teach the engineering students in the next 5 years, which is a tall order. Once we have good faculty, the curriculum revision and other aspects of the education will also improve. At the undergraduate level, the requirement for laboratory infrastructure is not really a significant aspect.

How to address the problem of the quality teachers?
This needs to be addressed at multiple levels. There is an urgent need to strengthen the quality improvement programmes (QIP) for faculty from the levels at which they are operating right now. Currently about 100 Ph.D. and about 400 M.Tech/M.E. candidates are supported under QIP. This needs to increase by almost 10x over the next few years. Inbreeding should be strictly discouraged. Also, there is a need for strengthening the continuing education programmes for faculty. Distance education programmes for faculty are slowly gaining popularity. NPTEL, for example, is already a popular programme. All courses taught in IITs/IISc must be transmitted live and must be available for whoever wants to attend, with minimum need for infrastructure at the receivers end. IT based distance education can be an effective learning/upgradation tool for faculty in engineering institutions. There is also a need to open up the faculty positions in IITs/IISc to foreign nationals, as Indian nationals alone cannot meet all the existing and the future faculty requirement. It will also make Indian education system vibrant and multi-cultural. The existing main IITs must also scale up in terms of student intake, with a proportionate increase in faculty strength.

How to make the curriculum of engineering courses more relevant? What type of innovations would you suggest for curriculum design?
The emphasis currently is on rote learning, while it should have been on problem solving skills. At IIT-Bombay, most of our exams allow students to carry a formula sheet/textbooks or notes to the examination hall. The idea is that, no exam should test one’s memory; rather the exams should test basic understanding, problem-solving skills. That should be a norm everywhere. I have seen many engineering question papers outside where students are asked to write short notes on some topics as part of their examination. This needs to change. Engineering is all about optimization and problem solving. There is no perfect solution to anything; there is only an optimum solution. With rote learning, students will never be able to arrive at an optimum solution, as they are always looking for that “correct” answer. Until iPhone 5 was introduced into the market, no one realized what the iPhone 4 was lacking. That is what engineering is all about. With the available resources and technologies, design a product that looks perfect. When the technologies improve, and when the bar raises higher, engineers need the skills to adapt to the changing requirements/technologies. Technologies become obsolete in about 2 years time these days. Continuous learning/upgradation of skills is the key.

Entrepreneurship must be encouraged at all levels and must be made part of the engineering curriculum. Engineering is all about creating products, and engineering and entrepreneurship therefore go hand in hand. Government must create a risk fund and encourage entrepreneurship at all levels. Risk taking must become part of our culture, and engineers must be allowed to try new things. Creation of wealth occurs through technology, and selling stuff to each other moves money, but doesn’t create sustainable wealth.

IT sector has done a lot of good by absorbing large number of engineering students. However, there has been a criticism that it is hampering the supply of quality engineers to non-IT sectors. How do you view this?
The manufacturing sector in India hasn’t kept pace with IT industry. It is natural that an industry that is growing at a healthy rate will need people to sustain the growth. It also has to do with the quality of education that we impart to our students. Many of the graduates we produce currently are not good enough for anything other than an IT kind of a job. Since we primarily produce engineers who are job seekers, they will go to an industry where there are jobs. When we start producing high quality engineers, their expectations from a job will also increase, and they will not settle down for anything that will not satisfy their intellectual curiosity. It is a progression, and it must happen. We get many applications at IIT Bombay from people working in IT companies, saying that they are bored with their jobs and looking for research kind of careers. In a society, there is a certain balance and proportion, and when we disturb this balance, there will eventually be a negative repercussion.

Despite the world-famous IITs and IIITs, Indian IT industry still heavily depends upon services and unable to making strides into product development. What is the reason for this situation?
If you are an IT based Services Company and growing at a healthy rate, why would you want to change anything? In any business, when there is a healthy growth, complacency sets in, and that is what has happened with the IT industry. As they say, when the going gets tough, only the tough get going. As the competition increases, and when other countries catch up on the services model, Indian companies will not have any option but to move up on the value chain. This is already something that is happening, and I expect many of the Indian IT companies to do that. It is not an issue of competency; it is just a matter of complacency.

Why are engineering students not opting for a career in research?
This is fast changing. At IIT Bombay, we receive hundreds of applications for every research staff position we advertise. This was not the case earlier. However, this may be true for IIT Bombay, but even in general I receive many emails from students showing interest in pursuing a research career. Research at a good place and under good researchers can make a huge difference. Also, many of the jobs in high tech industries tend to be research oriented these days. For example, Intel, IBM kind of companies hire so many Ph.Ds every year. It is not true that after Ph.D., the only option left is to become a professor. The high tech companies need as many Ph.Ds as an academic place. Any industry that tends to develop cutting edge products mainly hires Ph.Ds. Doing a Ph.D. these days only improves the opportunities, and doesn’t narrow down the options.

How to make research an important component in engineering education?
Indian science & technology institutions have come of age in the last few years. Things have definitely become much better. However, research needs substantial levels of funding spent over a period. In terms of GDP, India’s spending on higher education used to be far less as compared to many of our neighbours. Only during the past few years, things have become a little more respectable. In the 12th Five Year Plan, India has allocated 1.5% of GDP to higher education for the Centre and the states together. On the other hand, China started early, invested heavily in infrastructure and research resources and launched major programmes to attract the best scientists to Chinese universities. In areas where India invested reasonably well, the returns have also been significant. For example, in the area of Nanotechnology, India ranks 4th, only behind China, USA and South Korea. India has overtaken Germany last year in terms of number of S&T publications in the area of Nanotechnology. India has brilliant scientists. Some focussed initiates and with higher levels of funding, there is every reason to believe that Indian institutions will start doing well. There is a dire need for greater levels of financial support for research infrastructure, faculty positions and research facilities in India.

How can fresh Engineering graduate identify the best job profile for himself/herself?
Jobs are indeed becoming specialized. With just a basic bachelor degree, the options may be limited, if you are ambitious. Follow your passion, and don’t be too enamoured by peers. Parents are your well-wishers, but they may not always be the best people to advise you, when it comes to career choices. So consult experts and consult people who have done well in their chosen professions.

What is your advice to budding engineers?
You are capable of achieving more than what you think you can. Give your best to whatever you do, develop a passion for your work, and aim high. There will be no looking back.
Published date : 23 May 2013 04:18PM

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