Millennium Post

AN INNOVATION SUPERPOWER

To become an ambitious superpower excelling in science, innovation and discoveries – our education system demands a complete rejig

AN INNOVATION SUPERPOWER

In 1996, two friends – an American and a Russian – collaborated for a project in computer software designing while pursuing their PhD at Stanford University, USA.

They chose their area of enquiry as 'search', which was a common phenomenon by then; yet, it was here where the drive of doing something new with existing resources arose in these students. While most other organisations focussed on connections through pages (with respect to search), the two Stanford students focussed on undertaking search through the linkage of keywords. The project ultimately blossomed into an idea which became the bedrock of a conglomerate known as Alphabet, the parent company of Google. These two students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are now among the richest people in the world.

Coincidentally, Google today is being managed by Sundar Pichai who has acquired most of his education, including an undergraduate degree, from India. Not only Pichai – another most valuable firm, Microsoft, whose market valuation is hovering around trillion dollars, is also being managed by an Indian, Satya Nadella, who too completed most of his education here.

Despite several people of Indian origin heading top multinational companies, there is a pervasive critique of how our educational institutions have failed to mould leaders who can run successful enterprises with resounding ideas. As India dreams to become a five-trillion-economy by 2024, top echelons running our country now realise the importance of ushering policy measures that will rethink the existing education policy. It is now being cognized that we must move beyond successful implementation of already tested ideas and allow students to take risks and develop new ideas.

Realising the relevance of opportunities and challenges in pressing for innovation, NITI Aayog came up with Atal Tinkering Labs. Financed by Government of India, around 3,000 educational institutions, mostly operated by the government, have been incorporated into it. The labs have been provided with faculties of Artificial Intelligence, 3-D printing, robotics and even space technology. There are over 60,000 students across standards sixth to twelfth that have access to these labs. According to official data, there are already 600 patents that have been applied for by students on new innovations conducted by them. The central government may have set an ambitious target of spurring a new culture of innovation among students. In an era that is going to be dominated by the knowledge economy, even the government has realised the importance of creating new businesses with previously unthought ideas, technology and business models.

Even as India is among the few countries that have made notable strides in building and nurturing startups, over the years, corresponding challenges and difficulties have also multiplied. According to an Oxfam study, there is a greater likelihood of only one out of ten startups succeeding. Under Atal Innovation Scheme there are plans to create 40 per cent such startups that are not only restricted to digital technology but also venture into health, education and green energy. It is important to note that experiments and research are not as actively practised in our educational institutions as would be desirable.

But now, breaking tradition, a number of esteemed educational institutions in the country are coming up with breakthrough inventions. At the recent TechEx exhibition forum held at IIT-Delhi, several inventions carrying the power to significantly alter future were on display. IIT-Delhi exhibited an artificial skin that could treat artificial burns. In fact, it consisted of polymer that ensured resistance against marks and scars. IIT-Gandhinagar exhibited an automatic aerosol fire extinguisher which can sense the outbreak of fire by monitoring temperature or gas. Once it crosses the threshold, the aerosol-based fire is triggered, thus extinguishing fire. Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, on the other hand, came up with painless needles. These are some of the numbered innovations being conducted – challenges remain in the scale of such discoveries, which are still not as proliferate as desired.

Taking cognizance of these many challenges, the Centre announced that over one million startups will be created for the discoveries that are emerging in our educational institutions. To ensure that there is enough capital for innovations and experiments, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has already announced an exorbitant sum of Rs 1 lakh crore that will be spent on higher education in three years from 2019 to 2022. Further, announcements have promised investment towards teachers and mentors and, if necessary, the most reputed teachers of the world will be invited to Indian universities to impart knowledge.

Criticised primarily for bureaucratising education policies in universities, the central government has also taken a step towards making IIMs completely independent. This would vest power in the management to not only appoint its own board but also fix the institution's own syllabus and curriculum. The central government has also accelerated the process of listing our country's universities among the top universities of the world. For this, the government is also ensuring that private universities are considered and recognised among the best.

Despite ambitious motives, scepticism prevails on how the government continues to tackle higher education. Most critics have highlighted that the Centre is succumbing to World Trade Organisation (WTO) – rather than subsidising education and making it available to all, it is corporatising education, making it more expensive and restricting it to only a handful. Debates and protests have continued while the government has failed to find direction in truly reforming higher education.

Higher education for long has been a tool for securing better employment prospects rather than being a tool for intellectual development or for pursuing excellence in innovation. Unemployment among the youth today is fast resulting in our demographic dividend converting into a demographic liability. Amid this, higher education is again being perceived as a money-making machine where degrees are seen as assured golden steps toward achieving better prospects of individual growth only. This has resulted in greater demand and more expensive educational degrees.

Now, rather than focusing only on educational degrees, a shift is emerging towards developing skills among the youth and improving employment prospects. Most universities are now also providing degrees on vocational courses. Haryana, among the most deprived in educational excellence, in its state budget, has allocated a sizeable amount to universities that are opened specifically for developing skills.

Further, several difficulties continue to paralyse primary education where the initial stages of learning are imparted among students. Despite a parliamentary law on Right to Education (RTE), there have been complaints that top private educational institutions tend to deny admission to the financially weak and to those from among the urban poor.

If private institutions are blamed for elitism, government educational institutions have been critiqued for succumbing to the challenge of developing even basic standards of imparting quality education. The massive improvement that Delhi government has brought in its public schools along with the laudable academic results in Kendriya Vidyalayas show that public institutions, with correct guidance and leadership, can well compete with private schools.

In July 2018, Delhi government added a new element to its schools. Realising the stress and pressure that students and teachers endure, a separate course on happiness was introduced. Students and teachers were encouraged to move beyond the world of theoretical learning and an impetus was given to extracurricular activities like sports, music and creative skills.

The success of the happiness curriculum in Delhi schools can provide one solution to the many problems that are today plaguing school students. For long, the Indian education system has focussed on an examination-driven model where written exams and success in subjects like Mathematics and Science is forced upon students. It is ultimately a combination of marks that decides a student's admission to top universities – and, with every passing year, the staggering cut-offs across colleges in the country prove the futility of this very disturbing trend that is manufacturing professionals without any improvement in faculties of thought and creativity.

National Education Policy (NEP), 2019, aims to reduce the syllabus and make our education system less examination-centric. It has been suggested in the formal draft that rather than imparting knowledge only through books, creative skills of the youth should be enhanced.

In 1965, former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the term Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan (hail the soldier, hail the farmer). As the nation has progressed over the years, two new terms have been coined: Jai Vigyaan, Jai Anusandhaan (hail science, hail research).

A sincere attempt towards this end can allow India to become an encompassing innovation superpower.

Piyush Ohrie

Piyush Ohrie

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