BANGALORE, India — To get a feel for the
ambition coursing through this country’s high-growth, high-tech
sector, take a ride south of here to Electronics City, a 330-acre
industrial park known as India’s Silicon Valley. There, on
a verdant, four-year-old campus, sits the Indian Institute of Information
Technology Bangalore (iiit-b), a post-graduate university chaired
by N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Technologies
Its modestly lowercase logo notwithstanding, iiit-b seeks to be
nothing less than the Stanford of India. Funded by the state and
private companies, including Motorola, it offers stimulating courses
taught by tech luminaries and A-list professors, state-of-the-art
classrooms and a theory-light, practice-oriented approach. Berthed
on the second floor are innovation and incubation labs. Students
in a software engineering class rave about the flexible curriculum
and exposure to real-world tech.
“I’m dreaming of starting my own company,” says
Raghuram Ashok, a 23-year-old software engineering grad student
at iiit-b. A generation ago, such an aspiration would have been
rare among young, educated Indians. “If you go back 25 or
30 years, just to get a job after graduation, even with good qualifications,
you had to know the right people in the right places. It was very
dismal,” notes institute professor S.S. Prabhu. But the IT
boom “has unleashed a tremendous creative energy.”
Demand for Trained Talent
Yet therein lies a challenge. The institute is one of the players
in a drama now unfolding on Indian campuses, many of them freshly
planted, that could determine whether all this creative energy is
properly tapped and channeled. In particular, the white-hot pace
of expansion in the tech industry—an estimated 30 percent
annually—has upended the once placid realm of engineering
academia. And the escalating demand is not just for computer science
and IT majors. The expanding economy is also fueling an infrastructure
boom and increasing the need for civil, electrical and mechanical
engineers. According to one professor, India has now reached a point
where virtually anyone who wants to become an engineer, can.
But will he or she be any good? In addition to iiit-b, some 100
colleges and institutes have sprung up in and around Bangalore,
and many more have spread across the subcontinent. All are engaged
in an unprecedented real-time experiment: Can one of the world’s
largest countries—but one that’s still developing—assemble
a trained workforce at warp-speed?
The race to ramp up India’s institutions of higher learning
is shadowed by a sense of impending crisis, a fear that the dearth
of fresh engineers could short-circuit India’s IT juggernaut.
At even the most prestigious corporations, human resource managers
are worried. “We all have a shortage of manpower,” says
John K. John, deputy general manager for “talent transformation”
at HCL Technologies Ltd. Scarcely a day passes without the Hindu
or Deccan Herald solemnly proclaiming that the country’s formidable
tech industry will grind to a halt barring a drastic upgrade and
expansion of technical education. Tirelessly playing the role of
Cassandra is Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association
of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the chamber of commerce
for India’s IT industry.
“While some young men, on the brink of starvation, desperately
look for work, employers elsewhere look—with almost similar
desperation—for appropriate persons to fill tens of thousands
of vacancies,” Karnik recently remarked in London’s
Financial Times. “The market is providing strong signals about
the failure of our education system. It is not producing enough
people with the skill sets our economy needs . . . . This could
seriously stymie India’s economic growth.”
Though 464,743 engineering degrees were awarded in the 2004-5 period,
according to the All-India Council for Technical Education, up from
401,791 the previous year, that rate of growth is still too slow.
And too few qualified engineers are being produced. A joint study
by the global accounting firm KPMG and NASSCOM warns that 235,000
jobs may be left unfilled by 2010 unless schools focus on quality
as much as quantity.
Dire predictions notwithstanding, many experts remain sanguine.
“It’s good to be paranoid,” says Sanjay Anandaram,
founder and manager of the Jumpstartup venture fund. “It spurs
people into action. The good news is, the people exist.”
“There is no dearth of engineering talent,” agrees
Selvan D, senior vice president for talent transformation at Wipro.
“It’s only in the right skills where the shortage is
Stark Contrasts Persist
India’s impressive strides over the past two decades can
create a misleading impression, as it remains very much a developing
nation. For every entrepreneurial hopeful like Ashok, there are
many more working Indians who are left out of the IT story altogether.
One out of every three ekes out life on less than a dollar a day.
And while Indian companies have set the world standard for low-cost
offshore business processing, citizens in rural regions still struggle
without clean drinking water and electricity. At about 60 percent,
adult literacy still pales beside China’s 90 percent. Indeed,
two-thirds of the country’s engineers are schooled in just
five states, all located in the more progressive southern region.
In many cases, India’s institutions bring to mind a lumbering
elephant, slow-moving and resistant to change.
A third of India’s one-billion-plus citizens are under age
15, so the question of how to steer more of India’s youthful
and bountiful population into engineering is a crucial one. Yet
it has only gained attention quite recently. India’s modern
engineering educational system dates only to 1947, when the country
gained independence and the republic’s education-minded first
prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spearheaded investment in civil and
mechanical engineering. Unfortunately, Nehru’s passion for
pedagogy favored higher education at the expense of primary institutions
and was aimed not at creating jobs and raising living standards
but at constructing too many capital-intensive trophy public works.
The renaissance of India’s economy began in 1991, when the
“License Raj,” a Soviet-inspired system of restrictive
bureaucratic regulation, was partially dismantled. The move unleashed
a tidal wave of investment by domestic and overseas firms and opened
up India’s antiquated, hidebound economy to the world. Though
oxcarts and beggars are still features of life, even in Bangalore,
this tropical city of 6.5 million, once a balmy idyll where retirees
spent their golden years, is now where Indians are making gold.
As they redefine efficiency, these newly minted Bangalore entrepreneurs
are remaking the face of modern business from Toronto to Tokyo to
Toulouse. Every high-tech marque that matters has hung its shingle
in this once somnolent pensioners’ paradise, from multinationals
like Google, Yahoo!, IBM and Motorola to local outsourcing majors—Wipro,
Infosys, HCL, Satyam and Tata—not to mention scores of lesser
rivals. India’s success at training its low-cost workforce
to serve as the call center and business-process “out-sourcerers”
for overseas companies has transformed its economy into the second-fastest-growing
in Asia, piling on an average 6 percent growth every year for the
Push for Engineering Education
The liberalization of India’s trade regulations not only
energized business and gave Indians new confidence about competing
on a global footing. It also injected fresh air and scale into the
state university system, permitting for the first time the establishment
of private colleges and institutes, some chartered by an astonishing
range of homegrown luminaries. The SSN College of Engineering in
Chennai (Madras), for example, was set up in 1996 by Shiv Nadar,
the billionaire founder of tech giant HCL.
Until recently, quality higher education in engineering was guaranteed
only to the precious few students who made it into the “tier
1” schools—the elite Indian Institutes of Technology
and the Indian Institutes of Science, which award only about 3,000
undergraduate degrees a year. About twice as many four-year engineering
students are taught at second-tier schools such as the National
Institutes of Technology. The lion’s share of students are
enrolled in tier 3 institutions. Most of these bottom-tier schools
are private ventures less than a decade old, a product of what Indians
refer to as their own perestroika.
Predictably, the feverish pace of college expansion has come at
the expense of quality, and many tier 3 schools are, in fact, diploma
mills, with no shortage of clientele. Anandaram, who has financed
a number of tech startups, describes these schools’ appeal:
“I’m a poor kid from some remote village, I see this
flashy neon sign—‘This is your path to glory, all you
need to do is pay me so much money, go through this six-week program
But uneven quality plagues even conventional four-year institutions.
According to a widely quoted McKinsey Global Institute study, three-quarters
of all engineering grads are unemployable, either because their
training was too theoretical or outmoded or because of a lack of
instruction in “soft” skills, which often translates
to a poor command of English. India supports 18 official languages
including Hindi, and only about 350 million Indians speak English
as a second language.
In addition, when it comes to the teacher shortage, the IT industry
is its own worst enemy. Industry salaries are so high that new bachelor’s
holders can earn several times what their Ph.D. professors make.
Understandably, precious few students can be coaxed into sticking
around to earn postgraduate degrees. And Ph.D.s – forget it.
Only a few hundred were trained last year. As a consequence, many
schools must settle for teachers with only an undergraduate degree.
Aiming for the Top Tier
And yet, many of the upstart new private colleges have visions
of attaining the standards of top U.S. schools. “All of us
to some extent were influenced by MIT and Stanford,” says
S. Sadagopan, the gregarious director of iiit-b. Sadagopan is something
of a legend within Indian engineering circles, the archetype of
a traditional Indian scholar whose modest demeanor belies a formidable
academic career. He is also distinguished by his crimson caste mark,
his habit of padding around barefoot and his apparently infinite
memory for students’ names. Sadagopan despairs of the absence
of a Stanford-style menu of majors at his own institution. “What
we do not have are full-fledged liberal arts schools, a business
school, a medical school—which would bring a lot more energy
and dynamics” to the engineering school.
|Finding Common Ground
An Indian-reared U.S. professor spearheads a drive
to boost engineering education in both his native and adopted
countries. By Spencer Potter
India and the
United States have a lot in common. Both countries are thriving—the
U.S. being the world’s largest economy, India its most
populous democracy. Both are built on pillars of tolerance
But in engineering
education, the two nations differ sharply. U.S. schools view
research and Ph.D. programs as the heart and soul of their
departments, while educators in India cite lack of research
as one of their most significant shortcomings. American engineering
schools have trouble recruiting and keeping enough engineering
students to meet domestic and international demand. For college-bound
Indians, engineering is one of the most popular pursuits,
but the degrees conferred at second- and third-tier institutions
are of questionable quality.
professor and Dean Emeritus of Engineering at the University
of Massachusetts, Lowell, saw an opportunity for organized
collaboration that would benefit both countries. Born in southern
India, Vedula received his undergraduate degree from the prestigious
Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, and came to
the U.S. to pursue graduate work 37 years ago.
ASEE has partnered
with Vedula, providing him with the resources to realize his
vision. After drawing an overwhelmingly positive response
from other Indian-born U.S. deans of engineering, Vedula founded
the Indo-U.S. Collaborative for Engineering Education (IUCEE).
Together with ASEE, Vedula and his colleagues organized a
two-part IUCEE Action Planning Session to advance the quality
and global relevance of engineering education in India and
The first forum,
held in June 2007 at the Infosys Mysore Campus Leadership
Institute in Mysore, India, drew 81 education and business
leaders from the two countries, along with government officials.
Afterward, a delegation led by James Melsa, now ASEE president,
visited New Delhi and briefed India’s outgoing president,
Abdul Kalam—who has a degree in aeronautical engineering—and
U.S. Ambassador David C. Mulford. A second forum, with more
than 100 attendees, was held two months later at the National
Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C. It culminated with
a $333,000 pledge to IUCEE by the Deshpande Foundation.
concern to participants at both forums was the lack of interest
in science and engineering in the U.S., the inadequate preparation
of engineering graduates in India, the shortage of students
pursuing Ph.D.s in engineering in India, and the need to encourage
and support women and underrepresented minorities in engineering
careers in both countries. Several promising models were considered
worthy of large-scale implementation.
The two sessions
resulted in plans for an Indo-U.S. Engineering Faculty Institute
with four areas of concentration: curriculum content and delivery,
education quality and accreditation, research and development,
and innovation and entrepreneurship. The Institute is intended
to help prepare the large number of faculty required by engineering
colleges in India and in the U.S. to meet the needs of industry
in a global economy. Also contemplated is an Indo-U.S. Engineering
Student Network to facilitate student internships and interactions
and provide access to high-quality learning materials. It
will be linked to the Global Student Forum currently sponsored
by ASEE and the International Federation of Engineering Education
Societies (IFEES), an umbrella organization of engineering
societies, deans councils and student groups.
are expected to benefit India by increasing the number of
qualified engineering faculty, including more Ph.D.s; offering
students access to better curricula; producing graduates with
skills needed by industry and encouraging research. Benefits
to the U.S. include opportunities for global experiences for
faculty and students, collaborative research, development
and entrepreneurship in emerging technologies of global relevance,
and access for U.S. universities and companies to well-trained
engineering graduates from India.
Deshpande Foundation, and the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology
Forum provided initial planning support for the forums. Additional
corporate support came from Agilent Technologies, Autodesk,
Dassault Systemes, Hewlett Packard, The Mathworks, Microsoft,
National Instruments and Siemens. The U.S. Embassy in New
Delhi, IFEES and the Indian Society for Technical Education
(ISTE) were also important partners.
Potter is ASEE’s International Programs Associate.
Just down the road from iiit-b is the Bangalore campus of the Amrita
School of Engineering. In some ways a distinctly Indian enterprise,
Amrita is financed by the foundation of Mata Amritanandamayi Devi,
or Amma, a charismatic 54-year-old fisherman’s daughter. With
only a fourth-grade education, she has gained international renown
as a spiritual leader, popularly known as India’s “hugging
saint.” Religion is not a requirement at Amrita, which offers
majors in medicine, biotechnology and nursing, alongside courses in
Ayurvedic medicine and yoga. But the founder’s humanist moorings
have helped this engineering school lure back from California’s
Silicon Valley a number of Indian luminaries, though it comes nowhere
close to matching their previous salaries. They include P. Venkat
Rangan, who founded and ran the University of California-San Diego’s
multimedia lab until decamping for Amrita in 2003.
“If you’ve lived in the U.S. for 10 years, then you’ve
made enough,” says Shekar Babu, another former expatriate
on the Amrita faculty, who reportedly relinquished a salary about
30 times what he now earns for the chance to give back to society.
To increase the offerings at its multiple campuses in three states,
Amrita has started giving selected classes on a high-bandwidth,
interactive satellite E-learning network; it is also working on
beaming lectures over an IP network.
“Today, education is highly interdisciplinary,” Rangan
says. “We understand that to know physics, then you need to
know how the eye perceives—biology—then electronics
and computer science.”
A number of educators and working engineers suggest that India’s
traditional experiential learning mode, in which students imbibe
knowledge from a guru, makes many students uncomfortable with the
virtual classroom. Educators at Amrita respond that virtual classes
are intended to complement, rather than supplant, conventional classrooms.
And the Amrita project, which has received high-level endorsement
from the Indian government and is slated to tap faculty from more
than a dozen U.S. engineering schools, appears to offer one strong
possibility for overcoming the severe shortage of teaching talent
Industry Invests in Education
India’s paucity of training resources is so acute that leading
employers like Wipro, Infosys and HCL have been compelled to invest
heavily in assisting universities and training institutes, going
well beyond the standard internships and campus recruiting seminars.
“It will take a while for universities themselves to scale
up,” says Wipro’s Pratik Kumar. “Until that time,
organizations will invest in helping them.” Corporations routinely
send their own staff to guest-teach and help professors stay current
by offering them training in fast-moving fields such as Java and
embedded systems. New hires can expect to keep studying throughout
their careers at Wipro, where starting this year all 65,000 employees
will have access to 2,000 E-learning courses covering technical
subjects and business skills, as well as domain areas such as insurance
and retail. The company has 129 in-house full-time faculty—a
university within its own walls.
Like its competitors, Wipro is also looking beyond engineering
majors. “If the engineering population is just 7 or 8 percent
of all grads, and Bachelors of Arts and Commerce is 64 percent,
can we afford to overlook that pie? We can’t,” declares
Kumar, who is executive vice president for human resources. About
a fifth of Wipro’s intake is science graduates who get up
to speed by taking IT courses on the job. Kumar says only a few
thousand Wiproites are non-Indian now, but that in the future, to
hedge risk as the company moves into higher-value-added areas of
the still-nascent business process sector, Wipro is looking to aggressively
hire not just in eastern Europe but also in Canada and Latin America.
Similar sentiments were expressed by two entrepreneurs, former
Stanford mechanical engineer and Indian Institute of Science professor
Krishnan Ramaswami, who is now chief technology officer for 3D Solid
Compression Ltd., and K.K. Venkatraman, the startup’s CEO
and an ex-Wiproite. “If people exhibit the right kind of skills,
we should be able to train them,” declares Venkatraman. The
startup recently took on a former welder who, as it turned out,
had a talent for designing 3-D models.
3D Solid Compression is one of a handful of startups produced by
the elite IIS, which also aspires to play the role of incubator,
à la Stanford. “Unlike 10 years ago, the atmosphere
is entirely conducive to starting a company,” says Venkatraman.
“A lot of people want to break out of the mold. People are
more willing to take risks now.”
On the outskirts of Bangalore, a former bank building is now occupied
by another IIS professor, Dr. K.V.S. Hari, and his startup, Esqube
Communication Solutions, which specializes in signal processing
technology. “In the past, when we started companies, we had
to use our spouses’ names,” he says, recalling the frustrating
roadblocks of the previous highly regulated era. But as of 2000,
reforms allow faculty to hold equity in their firms. At last, he
says, professors have the liberty and venture funding to start converting
their cutting-edge research into products.
“We’re now at a stage in tech education where the U.S.
was 40 years ago,” iiit-b’s Sadagopan comments. “But
the bet is high we’ll have a Silicon Valley in 15 or 20 years.”
While some Indians still grumble about slow reforms, the feverish
pace of change evident here makes Bangalore feel less like a slow-moving
elephant and more like a pachyderm stampede.
Lucille Craft is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who files regularly
for CBS News and PBS’s The Nightly Business Report.