Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Linking Higher Education with Industry

Distinguished Vice Chancellor Dr.Abdul Khader,
Shri. P.K.Mohamed, Managing Director, Western India Plywoods,
Shri. K.P.Kamaluddin, Chief General Manager,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Plywood is the most mundane of materials that we use in our daily living today. We take it for granted and do not pause even for a moment to ponder about the technology, which has gone into its development. We owe it to Shri.A.K.Kaderkutty, a visionary industrialist, who developed it to ensure “cent percent utilization” of wood, which he realized, would be a scarce resource even in green Kerala. Shri. A.K.Kaderkutty moved from the normal timber industry he inherited to The Western India Plywoods to meet the demands of the twentieth century and beyond. It was as much a breakthrough at that time as other major industrial innovations of today. In paying our respects to this visionary industrialist, agriculturist and educationist, we ought to recognize his outstanding contributions. I feel that the work in this factory is nothing but painting with plywood, adding life and colour to modern living.

The Kannur University and the Western Plywoods have done me a great honor by inviting me to deliver the AK Kaderkutty Oration this year. It is a distinction to appear on the same page as Shri. AK Kaderkutty on the elegant invitation card.

When we considered the topic for the memorial lecture today, it appeared logical to talk of linking higher education with industry because Shri.Kaderkutty made a significant contribution to both education and industry and saw the essential link between the two. It also happened to be one of the priority areas in my own work in defining and designing what I call “Higher Education 2.0”, a new generation of education that will enable the young people to meet the challenges and to use the opportunities of the twenty-first century.
In a blueprint presented to the Government of Kerala in 2012, I identified six areas for urgent attention, namely, infrastructure, use of technology, teachers training, research, autonomy and internationalization to reduce the gap between our higher education and what has come to be called world class education. I stressed at that time that linking higher education with industry is essential to make this possible.

The Higher Education Council constituted a Committee on industry-Academia Linkages with representatives of the Industry and the academic world under the Chairmanship of Prof.S.Rajeev, Director, Asian Business School. The report of this Committee, submitted in December 2012 is the guiding document for our endeavors in this area. At the national level, the Narayana Murthy Commission concluded that at least half of the total outlay for higher education should come from the private sector to meet the shortfall in investment in the higher education sector.

The purpose of education has been defined in many ways, but all of them contain an element of employability or competitiveness. Of course, there are some who believe that linking education with employability is an apology for anti-intellectualism and erosion of academic freedom, as higher education should be about improving minds and not about training graduates for jobs. With globalization, competitiveness has assumed major proportions. "The primary role of higher education is increasingly to transform students by enhancing their knowledge, skills, attitude and abilities, while simultaneously empowering them", said Lee Harvey.The huge mismatch between what is being taught in schools, colleges and universities and the skills and behavior which businesses and organizations are looking for makes the graduates feel that their education is largely irrelevant to their careers. Linking higher education with industry is the way to remove this anomaly. Breaking the barriers between the industry and the universities is an urgent, but difficult task, but this has been accomplished in developed economies.

Today, the only link between the industry and the universities in India is the campus recruitment of graduates. They then declare the graduates unemployable and proceed to invest heavily in training programmes. First and foremost, industry must involve itself in planning the curricula in the universities right from undergraduate level, having established the requirements of the nature of graduates they will need in five or six years. Any investment they can make to fulfill their requirements at the academic level will be much less than the expenses they have to incur in training. Such “tailored graduates” will get employment readily and fit the requirements of the industry.

The most direct and efficient way industry can help education is by making investments in private educational institutions. This could range from purely private universities to the PPP model, which has been part of the educational scene in Kerala for a long time. Self-financing institutions, introduced recently turned Kerala from an engineer deficit state to an engineer surplus state, pushing some of them even to close down. Sadly, Kerala does not permit private universities even when such universities flourish in the rest of India, even in our closest neighbourhood.

The chronic inadequacy of research in our universities is a malady that the industry must correct. With the rise of a global knowledge economy, it is imperative to transform the role of research in the universities to suit the needs of the industries. This has been proved difficult even in countries with a well-developed tradition of research in the universities. The discovery driven culture of the universities does not always match with the innovation driven environment of the industries. Greater integration of the two branches of research is essential to harmonize the needs of both. Silicon Valley is a dramatic example of companies and universities working in tandem to create the information revolution across the globe. I recently met Dr.Thomas Kailath, a Professor in Stanford University, who triggered several start-ups with his students and became a respected guru in the Universities as well as in the companies. New technologies at a breakneck speed transformed the industries, while modernizing the role of the universities.

To harmonize research in the two sectors, we need funding to be provided by the industries and regulations to be developed by the universities to channelize research into productive innovation without losing the fundamental need for creating new knowledge in basic research. This is the reason why there should be greater autonomy for educational institutions. In a state where the word, “autonomy” is a red rag, this is no easy task. Our research has taken the form of information gathering rather than creation of knowledge and developing products and processes for the industry.

A beginning could be made by encouraging industries to prepare a list of projects that students could take on at the beginning of every academic year. Senior students should also apply for support from companies to fund specific areas of research that the companies require. In other words, the universities should develop an ecosystem, which encourages and rewards industry collaboration. For this, we need new teacher recruitment and training strategies, leadership development and the integration of collaborative technologies. A beginning has been made in Kerala with a programme for encouraging student entrepreneurship, but the industry is not yet involved in this programme. The talent crunch in the industries and the money crunch in the universities can be addressed with a collaborative approach to research.

Skills development is another area in which the industry must have a primary role. Industry will remain uninterested in this area as long as skills development remains like a hobby. It must go beyond the ritual of imparting some skills that the students never use after graduation. Skills development should be planned like the compulsory military training that certain countries have, which actually turn young people into soldiers ready for battle before they go out into the world. A year or two of skills development should be made compulsory and the students should be attached to the relevant industries at the cost of the industries. This would be more productive than establishing training institutions, which will remain irrelevant to the actual needs of the industry.

There is no dearth of creative recommendations for education industry linkages either in the report of the Narayana Murthy Committee on Corporate Sector Participation in Higher Education or the report of the S.Rajeev Committee on Industry-Academia Linkages commissioned by the Higher Education Council. Three main recommendations of the Narayana Murthy Committee are worth reiteration.
1.   Create enabling conditions to make the higher education system robust and useful to attract investments.
2.   Improve the quality of higher education by focusing on research and faculty development with corporate sector participation
3.   Engage the corporate sector to invest in existing institutions, set up new institutions and develop new technology clusters.    

The S.Rajeev Committee lists a number of measures such as incentivizing faculty by grants and rewards, rotating industry people into academia, rotating faculty into industry, industry outreach programmes, student training support, industry inputs in curriculum training, student mentoring, setting up of Regional Incubation Centres, new Knowledge Clusters and bridging the digital divide. Practical steps such as mandatory industry internships, skills programme with credit, setting up of community colleges and regular interaction between students and company workers have been suggested. We simply have to find people to pick and choose from this large menu and proceed to order the dishes that suit their palates best.

Let me conclude by outlining some of the challenges we face in linking higher education with industry in Kerala. Kerala has very little private manufacturing industry to speak of, and therefore, no culture of such linkage exists. The knowledge industries that have developed in recent years have been designed with their own research and training programmes independent of the universities. None of the industry representatives on the S. Rajeev Committee has shown any enthusiasm so far to carry the recommendations forward. The cultural divide between the industry and the universities remain deep and there is no strategic, operational and transactional partnership between them. The industry has a wide choice among graduates to be recruited and they do not consider worth their while to invest in education. It thinks that it is for the Government to produce graduates for them. The lack of autonomy of educational institutions is a big constraint in their adopting a flexible, inventive action programme to work with the industry. Trust is lacking in the industry over issues such as intellectual property, which it fears, will fall into the hands of the competitors. Both sides are uncertain about the benefits of collaboration and they find no time or energy to do exploratory work. Disparity in the kind of output each seeks is another constraint. Business wants saleable products to be developed very quickly, while the university professors want research outputs and publications to enrich their academic experience. Small industries may be interested in commissioning universities, but the universities tend to look down upon them.

The biggest advantage of linking higher education with industry is that the education sector will get additional resources, while the industries will benefit from innovation. But a long time strategy is necessary to bring these bashful entities together. The linkage is an essential ingredient for securing excellence in higher education and the sooner it is established the better it will be for both higher education and industry. The celebrated industrialist, Henry Ford, stated: "Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress and working together is success."

Thank you.

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