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Target is 3,000 Ph.D.s in ICT

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Does Kerala have the gumption to take a good share of the doctorates planned by 2020 nationally? G. MAHADEVAN speaks to academics and industry leaders.

breaking the technological barrier: Students proudly show the cheap made-in-India Akash tablet during its launch in Delhi. Will an all-conquering operating system be the next big thing from the Indian IT stable? Only original research can make such dreams a reality. Photo: PTI
breaking the technological barrier: Students proudly show the cheap made-in-India Akash tablet during its launch in Delhi. Will an all-conquering operating system be the next big thing from the Indian IT stable? Only original research can make such dreams a reality. Photo: PTI

The target is at least 3,000 doctoral degrees in information and communication technology (ICT) in India by 2020. Driving the research will be centres of excellence in institutions of higher learning.

The draft Information Technology (IT) Policy document, recently released by Union Minister for Communications and IT Kapil Sibal, has this in mind for the nation's future. Can it be achieved? What portion of these doctoral ventures should Kerala aim at? What are the steps that should precede the production of these high-quality doctoral degrees?

Academics and industry insiders who spoke to The Hindu-EducationPlus unanimously insisting that more than the number of doctoral degrees it is the quality of research leading to them that will make or break India's future in the IT arena. They agree that a recasting of the higher education system in Kerala is a precondition for producing such Ph.D.s.

Though Kerala's universities face no dearth of research scholars, quality research seems to be in perennial shortage. Many academics want a change in the way research in the universities is administered.

Achuthsankar S. Nair, Director of the Inter-university Centre for Bioinformatics of the University of Kerala, points out that in Kerala, it is tough to sign up for a Ph.D. programme, but easy to get a doctoral degree. If nothing else, he asks, should it not be the other way round?

Knowledge required

“We must be worried about the quantity, quality, and relevance of knowledge generated by Ph.D. research. Run-of-the-mill research will generate degrees, not knowledge,” he says in an e-mail.

G. Vijayaraghavan, founder Chief Executive Officer of Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and member of the Kerala State Planning Board, goes so far as to say that the quality of doctoral degrees coming out of Kerala's universities is “terrible.”

He says Kerala needs a new model in the research sector. Academia should be incentivised to work for patents and produce papers in refereed, world-class journals. More autonomous institutions of excellence should come up, with a robust quality assurance programme.

Though Kerala often pays lip service to “industry-institution collaboration,” very little of such interaction, if at all, is visible in the State. Many in the IT industry feel that if working professionals are to be encouraged to add value to their knowledge by going in for a doctoral degree, universities need to be far more flexible with their laws on who gets admission to the doctoral programmes.

“A working professional cannot afford to undergo lengthy course work as part of his research,” Mr. Vijayaraghavan says. “There should be alternatives.”

Moreover, an industry-institution collaboration should give space for research on “clear-and-present” problems in the industry.

Syed Ibrahim, chief executive officer of the Technopark-based Palnar Transmedia, wonders why the Kerala State IT mission cannot propose a scholarship scheme for students to pursue Master's and Ph.D. programmes in computer science.

“The proposed scholarship scheme should give incentives to IT professionals with good industry experience to pursue their Master's and doctoral programmes. The students who are eligible under the scheme should be able to pursue their final part of the doctoral program in an IT company,” he says.

Mr. Ibrahim, who is the Director of Goethe Zentrum in Thiruvananthapuram, says he reckons that tweaking the higher education system alone will not solve the problem of quality research in Kerala. The education system in Germany can be taken as a good model for deciding careers for students based on their capabilities. “[In the German system] the categorisation of students with different skills and subject inclinations takes place at the high school level itself. This ensures that only the “really interested students” with high scores get into the universities rather than allowing everyone to get admission.”

On the industry-university collaboration front, Kerala needs to bring in top-notch innovation experts, such as the Fraunhofer Institut and the Max Planck Institut, to help research scholars here explore new possibilities of technological collaboration.

“Please note that the Max Planck Institut recently started a full-fledged centre in Bangalore,” he says. A task force can be set up under the Kerala State IT Mission to spearhead such initiatives.

Murali Gopal, senior vice-president of the IT firm UST Global, says in an e-mail that Kerala needs to aim for 10 percent of the all-India IT export target of $200 billion by 2020. That will be Rs.1-lakh crore in today's exchange rates. Today, Kerala's IT exports amount to about Rs.1,000 crore. If this is to increase manifold by 2020, five lakh people need to be employed in IT companies in the State and 50 lakh square feet of commercial (IT-friendly) office space should be built.

Quality problems

However, to meet the target, Kerala needs to address quality problems of its IT manpower within the next three years.

“This is where the role of the doctorates becomes extremely important. We need extremely high-quality research into (a) the reality of the quality of today's IT manpower, (b) the current and future needs of the IT industry (c) the solution to the quality problem and (d) capabilities in future information technology areas. The Kerala government needs to facilitate 300 Ph.D.s (10 per cent of the national target) at least to cover these areas,” Mr. Gopal says.

Education cannot be “pushed,” he says. Rather it needs to be “pulled” by people capable of doing so. He points out that there is no incentive today to induce an intelligent student to aspire for a doctoral degree. “To create the ‘pull,' the government can create highly powerful positions in its IT department or advisory bodies (maybe the IT Mission can be restructured as a very powerful body) and link the qualification for these positions to Ph.D. in specific areas mentioned above. These positions should be extremely highly compensated — even more than industry compensation. A large part of the compensation should be incentive linked … ” he suggests.

As a parallel, move the government can give specific educational institutions, such as the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, or the National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode, the mandate to create the environment for the doctoral research. The government should mandate the industry to cooperate with doctoral students in those institutions, he says.

The government can also facilitate the creation of a “larger eco-system of industry and academia” along the lines of the Silicon Valley in the U.S. “The universities in this area produced so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who set up businesses in the vicinity of these universities, drawing from them the intellectual energies for these ventures,” he says.

Show the investment

A. Jayakrishnan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala, has a slightly different take on the issue. He pointed out that Indian IT companies invest very little in research and development. “The overwhelming number of jobs in the Indian software industry is low-end jobs for which an undergraduate degree in any discipline is more than an adequate qualification.”

The IT companies, Dr. Jayakrishnan says, needs to invest at least 5-8 per cent of their total sales in research and development if they are to have to any meaningful research.

“The Indian software industry will take many years to even accept that high-level R&D is necessary for the survival of a company as long as they are happy doing business process outsourcing and making reasonable profit. This is simply the reason that we have no Steve Jobs here,” he says.

The Vice-Chancellor is a strong votary of giving autonomy to institutions such as the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, so that they can be transformed into centres of excellence in research and training in, say, 10 years.

Mr. Gopal, however, feels that IT companies need holders of doctoral degrees in areas such as “advanced technology research and innovation,” continuing education — “skilling” and “re-skilling” of employees — within organisations, mentoring of “intrapreneurs” (entrepreneurs within a company) and for “driving a vibrant link between Kerala and the advanced IT markets worldwide to ensure IT industry in Kerala remains relevant.”

In short, Kerala can aim for a piece of the “doctoral pie” if it recasts its research culture in universities, incentivises quality, puts in place structures for meaningful collaboration between universities and world-class institutions, and ensures that government and industry funds are available for all this. Will it?


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