A straight-forward clear-thinking man, Prof. Rajeev Ahuja, Director of IIT Ropar, tells Education Post’s Tanay Kumar that there are simple ways to fill the widening gap between and the industry and academics and economical and viable ways to make academia more innovation driven.
You were teaching Computational Materials Science at Sweden’s Uppsala University. Not much is known about this course. Please tell us about it.
When one can design something not just in the laboratory but also on the computer, it’s called computational materials—science which deals with experiments on the computer. It is based on the model of “ab initio,” which is a Latin term meaning “from the beginning.”
The study of Computational Materials Science helps in several fields of engineering. It helps you find out how much and what proportion of mixing is needed to enhance the performance of materials.
You’ve taught for more than 30 years in Sweden and you have been a regular visitor to many universities in the US. What’s the difference in approach at universities in the two regions?
Europe is more focused on innovation, while the US works across domains as it has sufficient resources, both human and material. The US is more industry and application driven.
A very good thing I found in Europe is that they make sure to keep their basic science education very strong—it’s the pathway to innovation.
What’s your take on India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020?
Clearly, India feels it needs to strengthen its manufacturing industry at a very rapid scale. To achieve this, it needs a massive number of skilled workers. And because of the provisions in the NEP, we are bound to see Indian universities churning out abundant highly skilled professionals.
The NEP’s Academic Bank of Credits (ABC) and multidisciplinary study provisions are also very progressive. If after two years of studying engineering students realize engineering isn’t for them, they can switch to a non-engineering program, and their two years of engineering study goes into their ABC. It would take away the burden of feeling they wasted two years of their lives. Because no form of education can ever be a waste, it can only help.
Compared to foreign universities, where do you think Indian universities lag?
Research. India should have emphasized on research a long time ago. We were only teaching the course, but not updating it according to the research going on in the world. No matter what the academic course, the study of futuristic technologies is a necessity that cannot be ignored.
We need to keep updating our curriculum according to global practices, because ultimately those practices will reach India sooner or later.
Indian universities should have also been equipped with proper infrastructure years ago. Many engineering colleges still don’t have proper laboratories. A vast majority of mechanical engineering students have never seen machines that are used in the industry, leave aside knowing how to operate them. No wonder companies keep engineering graduates as trainees for at least a year before deciding to hire them or not. Engineering universities need to be audited.
Everyone is talking about the industry-academia gap in Indian universities. What’s the way to bridge this gap?
The problem in India is that universities are not even helping students interact with industry professionals. These interactions are necessary and are very frequent in universities in Europe, North America, South Korea and even China.
It’s not rocket science. Every university should have an “industry day” at the campus each semester. Invite people from the industry to visit your campus and interact with your students, with your faculty. We do it at IIT Ropar. It helps knowing what’s needed to be learned, what’s needed to be taught, what the industry wants.
If you had to, what advice would you give to non-IIT engineering institutes in India?
The fundamental mandate behind installing IITs after India’s independence from the British was science-based engineering. Engineering which does not stand on the foundation of science is no engineering. This is the key difference between IITs and other institutions.
There are a few universities in India that are more than 100 years old, but they still don’t produce the kind of engineers IITs produce. The answer, as I said, is science-based engineering education, which is lacking in those other universities.
Science and technology aren’t two separate things. Science is the basis of technology. Say, you want to develop a fast-charging, long-lasting battery. Both chemistry and materials science will have to come into play. The battery is a technology, whose foundation is a combination of materials science and chemistry. The VLSI chip—it is a technology. But semiconductor physics, a prominent arm of science, is its foundation.
Why do you think most Nobel Laureates are from Europe and America? It’s because of their education that puts an emphasis on basic science and innovation.
Having said that, any engineering course at any engineering college will ultimately bear fruit if it is backed by basic science.