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Cambridge, Stanford, MIT help economies. Now NEP will shape experiment we started at DU

Google uses Stanford brain, Apple Siri uses Cambridge and Houston University adds $6 billion to its city’s economy. Why are India’s knowledge systems lagging behind?

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For the past 15 years, I have been consistently monitoring the annual revenue figures of Google as well as a clutch of India’s top IT services companies. They tell us a compelling story of the power of knowledge in a nation’s economic progress. Can India’s universities help its economy?

For instance, I have observed that Google as well as India’s IT firms have been quite profitable all these years. However, even a cursory glance at the revenue figures for these firms tells us a deeper story. Google has been steadfastly generating far more revenue than each of India’s IT firms and the gap has been widening year after year. In the latest set of data that I have accessed, Google’s annual revenue has crossed $181 billion whereas India’s largest IT firm has barely crossed $22 billion. In fact, the combined annual revenue of the top three Indian IT firms is way behind Google.

Here is another stark contrast. Google, as of now, has about 1,39,000 employees whereas India’s largest IT company employs more than three times that number. The reasons behind this contrast between are not far to seek. Google runs on a single mathematics-based idea merged with good logic and coding, all of which have connections to Stanford University. In 2013, a well-researched survey had estimated that the total economic worth of the geographical region around Stanford, which owed its economic activity to the university, was valued at $3 trillion. As far as we can tell, India’s IT firms do not seem to be linked to any knowledge-based idea or a university system. The Stanford story is just as true of MIT or Caltech. Lest we also create the impression that only the higher-end Ivy League institutions have such stories to tell, we need to think again.

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Knowledge systems helping economy

The University of Illinois system contributed economic activity of more than $17 billion this past year, and the University of Houston has remarkably affected the economy of the city of Houston. In recent years, it has provided a plethora of research-based solutions to the real world and in 2020, impacted the economy of the city of Houston by more than $6 billion. We must keep in mind that this is a state university unlike the Ivy League institutions and it fulfils several obligations mandated by the state of Texas that the private universities in the US do not even have to worry about.

This story of the direct and powerful economic impact of university systems is repeated in several other nations. Take, for example, the United Kingdom. The fastest growing economic region in all of the UK around the city of Cambridge, where the famed university is situated. The highly acclaimed AI-powered personal assistant known as Siri—developed by Apple—owes much to ideas from Cambridge University. In similar fashion, one of the most profitable drugs in recent times—the anti rheumatoid Humira—owes its existence to ideas from Cambridge University.

The point that I am trying to make is that knowledge systems play a critical role in powering the economy of a nation on a long-term and sustainable basis. This role of knowledge systems is not a modern or recent phenomenon. In ancient times, Indian maritime trade was greatly enhanced by the use of highly accurate navigational ideas that were based on trigonometric tables and devices such as the rapalgai. This helped Indian ships sail the high seas with accuracy.

In fact, it is now well acknowledged that the sea route to Africa from India was well known to Indians from centuries before the time of Vasco da Gama. His own journey to India was entirely due to the services of an Indian navigator called Kanha who was picked up by him in Africa and used the rapalgai. Vasco da Gama records the use of this instrument by Indians. The knowledge systems of India had also perfected the manufacture of steel of the highest quality that has come to be known as the wootz steel. This steel was much in demand in Rome and other places because of the high quality of swords that were crafted from it. India earned much wealth by its export largely through the sea route. Pliny, the ancient Roman historian, records woefully that much Roman gold was being lost to India through the import of steel and spices. The moot point that needs to be underscored is that knowledge systems have consistently helped drive economic prosperity and growth whenever and wherever they have been harnessed for real-world applications.

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What worked for India

It is in this context that I wish to point out the inadequacies of the current knowledge scene in India. Indian university systems are significantly removed from the needs and challenges of the real world. Their curricula and particularly the pedagogies that accompany learning fail to inspire or motivate our youth. A major part of the efforts and energies of undergraduate systems is wasted in rote learning by staggeringly large numbers of students through blackboard-driven teaching. Even in those realms where much depends on learning by experimentation, there are no challenges or surprises for the learner.

However, India now has a chance to make amends and harness knowledge systems for economic growth in real-time. I make this assertion on the strengths and learnings stemming from the far-reaching results of the experiments in education that we ran at Delhi University during the years 2010-15. As is well known and acknowledged now, the features of the four-year undergraduate programme — better known as the FYUP — now constitute the backbone of the much-acclaimed National Education Policy (NEP). The NEP has very adeptly laid the pathways for our universities and colleges to blend knowledge and learning with the challenges and needs of society and our nation. In other words, the NEP puts knowledge into action. As an illustration, during the time that we devised and implemented the ideas and features of the FYUP at Delhi University, much knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity was engendered by undergraduates. The trick that helped us succeed lay in granting academic credit to entrepreneurial ideas and activities and in providing support systems for carrying out their practical aspects. This called for not just reorienting the curriculum; much effort was put into getting faculty to think beyond the blackboard. This is best exemplified by the data and mathematics-based startup that three second-year undergraduates set up in 2013 and which has now received multimillion-dollar funding in the US. At the time of writing, there are several million dollars worth of startups by students that are moving ahead, and were created during the FYUP era. Alas, they have been largely orphaned in institutional terms, but have survived the ordeals of the repeal of the FYUP.

The last point that I wish to make is that policymakers and the political establishment have a tendency to view education policies as not rewarding economically in real-time. Our experiences at Delhi University tell a totally different and fruitful story. It is my firm belief that India has a chance to vault ahead economically in the next five years if the ideas of the NEP are put in place in an appropriate and timely manner.

The author is Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University, Distinguished Professor, SGT University, Gurugram and Adjunct Professor Of Mathematics, University of Houston. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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