IT education policy: Lost in catching up

IT education policy: Lost in catching up

The IT industry in India has always counted on the ready availability of a substantial talent pool, sourced largely from the country’s engineering colleges, as a key ingredient of its impressive performance over the past couple of decades. The industry grew from an aggregate revenue of less than $2 billion in 1996-97 to almost $150 billion in 2014-15, as per the NASSCOM reports.

In the process, India has become a strong brand in the offshore IT services sector which has contributed to increased productivity and sustained competitiveness of the industry despite rising costs and the emergence of new and low-cost alternatives.

While many Indian IT firms have successfully transitioned to higher-value software services business, including an increasing contribution in the architecture and design of solutions, the software products segment continues to be their Achilles heel. Distance from product markets, concentrated largely in North America and Europe, and limited domestic consumption have often been cited as contributing factors. But, with India and China emerging as key consumption markets for IT products in the last few years, Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka–on the eve of the 34th AGM in June 2015–called the “shutting out our own ability to think, to be creative and to innovate” that appears a more likely reason preventing the leap.

This realisation among industry leaders should ring alarm bells within the country’s higher education system. During the years of double-digit growth in the revenues of the IT industry, engineering colleges mushroomed across the country offering courses in computer science and electronics, considered more suited for an employment in IT companies. Questions have been raised about the quality of education imparted in many of these new, and old, colleges, and the limited employability of their graduates which is now leading to closure of colleges and programmes. It also shows up in the plateauing of enrolments in engineering and technology courses during the last few years.

Focus on placements
Ironically, it is the singular focus on placements which many colleges have adopted for survival that has limited their ability to look beyond immediate requirements of a job market dominated by large IT service firms. Barring a few “elite” institutions, which typically do not cater to these bulk recruiting firms anyway, a large part of the country’s education system has only been playing the role of catch up in terms of filling up job vacancies created in such firms every year, most of which, as Sikka says, involves “doing what we are told.”

Helping students develop the ability to think critically is an important goal that education should strive to achieve. Succumbing to placement pressures, many course designs neglect learning components that contribute to developing critical problem solving abilities, in favour of a largely superficial introduction to the in-demand programming languages which themselves keep changing at a rapid pace.

Innovation in the IT product development space has often come about when knowledge that existed in fields as diverse as computer science and sociology or psychology was successfully combined. It has also come by when technology designs have been more sensitive to user capacities and socio-economic contexts.

The way forward is inter-disciplinary course designs using pedagogical approaches that encourage students to think about problem contexts and solution approaches, transcending disciplinary and departmental boundaries, involving more collaborations, not only between the academia and the industry, but more so among academic institutes and centres with different disciplinary affiliations and areas of expertise. The possibilities that open up when theoretical frameworks and practices from diverse academic disciplines are brought together not only have a potential to make product concepts richer but are also better grounded in contextual realities – improving chances of longer-term sustenance and financial viability.

The NASSCOM Strategic Review 2015 offers hope. According to the review, product-engineering solutions is the fastest growing export revenue segment. A rapidly growing product and startup ecosystem is also being created in the country through digital disruptions. While these trends reinforce the need for transitioning to an inter-disciplinary approach, it is time the country’s IT education system seizes the opportunity to transform itself and shift gears from playing catch up to becoming an equal partner in leading the change that has eluded the Indian IT industry so far.

(The writer teaches at Centre for IT and Public Policy, IIIT, Bengaluru)