- By Thomas K. Grose

Students no longer have to leave India to get an American engineering education, as U.S. schools are increasingly setting up shop in this heavily populated nation.

No argument that India's engineering students and professionals are among the finest in the world. That's why they are in such high demand. Each year Indian universities—in particular the six Indian Institutes of Technology—turn out thousands of high-caliber, extremely motivated, well-educated graduates. And every year, there is a mad scramble by American graduate schools and businesses to scoop up as many of those graduates as they can, or to lure away young professionals who have a few years of experience under their belts.

That helps explain why 35 percent of the country's engineering students head overseas—mostly to the United States—before the ink has dried on their newly minted diplomas. It also accounts for the fact that 40 percent of Silicon Valley startups are headed by Indians. And it's the basis behind fears that India suffers from a “brain drain.”

But despite the exodus, huge numbers of students and young engineers remain in India. And they constitute an untapped potential for American tech schools who want to dip into that talent pool and, at the same time, help India retain its brightest lights and bolster its domestic industries.

“The allure is obvious,” says Darsh Wasan, vice president of international affairs at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and an India native. “India has a reputation for turning out top high-tech students and professionals, many of whom have come to the United States and made successes of themselves.” Vinayak Dravid, an engineering professor at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, agrees: “In a global world, India is a leader in information technology . . . it offers talented students and faculty.” Certainly, it is a country that has not taken full advantage of its technological prowess. While it exports $7 billion worth of software annually, less than five Indians in 1,000 own a personal computer. And with a population of one billion, many of whom are poor and undereducated, India has not yet learned to use technology to tackle the severe social problems that poverty and ignorance spawn.

But just as there is no one way to teach a course, build a bridge, or design software, neither is there one true path to India for America's tech schools. And three schools that are now (or soon will be) operating in India—Illinois Tech, Northwestern, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—arrived there by taking very different routes. Here is a look at how each of these schools has forged links with a country whose engineering potential seems limitless.

 

Illinois Institute of Technology

While Northwestern and M.I.T. have only just announced their India programs, Illinois Tech got in the game a while ago. Its program of offering two “cutting-edge” engineering master's degrees to Indian professionals may have been the first foray onto the subcontinent by an American tech school. And it owes it all to Motorola.

A division of the American company, Motorola India Electronics has a software operation in Bangalore, India, and asked Illinois Tech to use its expertise in distance education to offer advanced software engineering degrees to some of its up-and-coming young staff. Wasan thought that was a marvelous idea, but wanted to expand upon it. “I saw a need to offer it not to just one company but to open it up to others,” he recalls. Motorola agreed, and soon companies like Infisys, Oracle, Lucent, Digital, and Honeywell were involved. “I had these companies select some of their top performers, young people who could not get to the United States, but deserved an American graduate degree,” says Wasan, who believes that the best graduate engineering degrees in the world come from US schools.

Today, 150 students—almost all of them professionals—are in the program, and each year 15 to 20 sponsoring companies are involved. Two advanced degrees are offered, one in software engineering, the other combining software engineering with telecommunications. There are 10 to 11 courses, and on average it takes students two years to earn a degree. Twenty-five students graduated in March, and another 15 will graduate in November.

Wasan calls the degrees a bargain for Indian students, who pay $8,000 to $9,000—with some help from their companies—for degrees that would cost $30,000 if taken at the Illinois Tech campus. Still, in India that remains a high price, says Santosh Vijay, 28, a program manager at Sasken Communication Technologies. He was in the first class and earned a master's in software engineering/telecommunications. Moreover, he adds, the cost becomes greater each year because of the depreciating Indian rupee, while financial aid from sponsoring companies has fallen to 10 to 25 percent.

It's not a huge profit center for Illinois, either. “We don't make much money, but we are raising the profile of our school,” Wasan says. “If you ask me what we get out of it, from a selfish point of view, I'd say I get a lot more Indian students coming to my college.” Increased enrollment of Indian students at Illinois Tech's Chicago campus has been an unexpected benefit of the program, says Mary L. Dawson, associate vice president of international affairs. She thinks it has helped Illinois gain a strong reputation within India's engineering education community.

Illinois Tech has a long history of offering degrees to working professionals and has been a pioneer in distance learning. So it was natural to take on the challenge in Bangalore. Still, as Dawson says, it was very difficult in the early days, because the Internet was less established in India then and connections were unreliable. Students do have the option of going to Illinois study sites in India and using the school's computers, and initially there was a heavy reliance on videotaped lectures. But now, with better online links, the school regularly uses streaming video and live PC conferences. And students communicate with professors in Chicago using e-mail, “electronic office hours,” phones, and faxes.

Dawson says the school is still grappling with class sizes in India because too many students can overload the professors. Still, she adds, the faculty has embraced the project with enthusiasm. And professors take turns going to India to teach occasional short courses to give the students class time. The first to go over was the chairman of the computer science department, who wanted to get a sense of the students' capabilities. He returned obviously impressed. “Indeed,” Dawson notes, “he wants to go back.”

Other “logistical nightmares” are inadvertently caused by students who are working full time and also traveling for business. Again, the Internet has eased this problem by letting people do class work when it best suits them. Vijay says that he was often in Paris in 1998-99, “and had a bit of a tough time managing customer's expectations and finding time for studies.” Then there was the time when he was juggling three courses and had to take three weeks off for his honeymoon. When he got back, he “had to catch up on 24 hours of missed classes, quite a few assignments, and a couple of projects . . . plus there was also three weeks of backlog at work.” Vijay survived, thanks to understanding profs who gave him a bit of extra time.

Dawson says Illinois Tech is considering adding more graduate degrees to its India program, but the focus will remain on working professionals.

And Vijay, whose cumulative grade point average in the program was 4.0, says it was definitely worthwhile. It has spiced up his résumé, and his impressive GPA shows that he understands the concepts in his field. He now also helps as a local teaching assistant in the program and enjoys that experience as well.

And Wasan is also proud that under Illinois Tech's program, “India is not losing brain power . . . We help industry there to create wealth, which helps the country.”

 

Northwestern University

The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science is, at least for now, eschewing a degree program in India for cost and operational reasons, and instead is taking a more “grassroots approach,” says Dravid. Last June, the school signed a five-year partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB). Under the exclusive agreement, the two institutes will send faculty to each other's campuses to teach classes and seminars, set up undergraduate and graduate student exchange programs, and collaborate on research projects.

Dravid, an architect of the agreement, says the schools have strengths that complement one another. Northwestern, for instance, is noted for its expertise in high-technology equipment and nanotechnology, while IITB's areas of excellence include computer sciences and biotechnology. By combining their strengths in new research projects, he says, they will be able to tap into newly available global research grants from places like the World Bank. And because, Dravid says, teaching and research are inseparable, those new funds will help underwrite the exchange programs.

Dravid is an alumnus of IITB, class of 1984, who has been at Northwestern since 1990. Because IITB and the other Indian Institutes have spawned so many successful graduates, many of those alumni have been involved in donating money to the schools, he explains. He calls the Northwestern partnership “a natural outgrowth of fundraising . . . something that goes beyond that.”

Reaction from faculty and students has been very positive, Dravid says. “That has been extremely pleasing for me.” When the head of IITB made a quick, short-notice trip to Northwestern a few months ago, Dravid hastily convened a meeting with faculty and students. He was astounded to find it was standing room only. Dravid says as a member of the scientific community, he knows that the world's intellectual capital must be exploited. “There is a need to see science as a global playing field.”

He is also certain that IITB will benefit from the McCormick School's rich resources. “And as for McCormick, this offers it a chance to partner with one of the top-notch institutes in Asia.”

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Few research laboratories have renown outside their fields of expertise. Not so with MIT's Media Lab. Since its creation in 1985, the Media Lab has gained “street cred” by involving itself in the kinds of high-tech research that often capture the public's interest. These projects include such areas as wearable computers and interactive cinema. The Lab's funding comes from a long and impressive list of corporate sponsors, including Eastman Kodak, Mattel, and DaimlerChrysler, who agree to share the fruits of its labors. The Lab has also benefited from the high profile of its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, who has become a sort of information technology guru. Now the Media Lab is venturing into a scheme to expand its brand globally, into countries that want to further their technological abilities.

Last year, it opened the Media Lab Europe in Dublin. And in June, it signed a one-year contract with the Indian government for an exploratory project to create a Media Lab Asia (M.L.A.), which would be based outside Bombay and have regional outposts around the country. The government has ponied up $12 million, of which $1.7 million goes to MIT, which will supply visiting researchers to M.L.A. If the project goes ahead, it's estimated to cost as much as $1 billion over 10 years, with 20 percent of the money coming from public coffers in India. Further seed money will come from corporate sponsors, as it does in the US and Ireland.

The focus of M.L.A. will be on India's social problems and on using technology to advance education. “The overarching goal of M.L.A. will be to facilitate the invention, refinement, and deployment of innovations to benefit all sectors of Indian society,” Negroponte says. Areas for potential research include disaster control, bringing the Internet to rural Indian communities, using digital technology to improve health care, and providing low-cost computers. Explains India's Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan: “The idea is to take information technology to the people and change their lives.”

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.