In pursuit of excellence

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Prof. Arun Nigavekar, University Grants Commission Chairman, (second from right) inaugurating a TIFAC-CORE at Arulmigu Kalasalingam College of Engineering in Srivilliputtur on August 31. (From left) E. Balagurusamy, Anna University Vice-chancellor, K. Venkatasubramanian, former member, Union Planning Commission, and T. Kalasalingam, chairman of the college. - K. GANESAN

Through Mission REACH, the Department of Science and Technology aims to bring out the best in the industry and the academia and help usher India into the club of developed nations by 2020.

WHAT is common between the removal of bitterness from the juice of the Kinnow Apple in Punjab and the development of an orthopaedic prostheses in Bangalore, or between a mobile pollution monitoring van in Surat and efforts to improve petroleum reservoir management in Dibrugarh? All of these represent the outcome of a single programme - Mission REACH (Relevance and Excellence in Achieving new heights in educational institutions) - launched four years ago by the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

This programme aims to bring about an architectural change in the system of higher technical education so as to remove the bottlenecks in turning out quality manpower to suit the requirements of different industries.

At the core of the Mission is the establishment of Centres of Relevance and Excellence (COREs) in institutions of higher education across the country in partnership with diverse industries. The programme envisages three key players in economic development - government, educational institutions and industry - joining hands to tap the country's vast manpower resources in a bid to make India a force to reckon with in the new millennium.

The TIFAC-Centres of Relevance and Excellence (TIFAC-CORE) will marshal substantial resources to achieve excellence in focussed areas of relevance to the Indian industry in the large, medium and small-scale sectors. All the stakeholders, including the educational institutions, are required to make equal financial contributions up-front as equity investment in these centres.

M.S. Vijayaraghavan, who initiated the Mission, describes it as "a unique experiment in higher technical education". He says: "In most programmes the funds flow in only one direction, that is, from the government. But in this programme the funds are available from the industry and the partnering institutions as well. Educational institutions such as the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology] and IIMs [Indian Institutes of Management] were created solely with government funds. May be, at that point of time the government was taking the lead, and rightfully so. But now the government investment in higher technical education is coming down. We are, therefore, encouraging industries to invest in programmes creating excellence."

Only in the last 10 or 15 years have the industries been making use of the expertise and excellence created in the IITs. It is not the case abroad, where the universities provided the seeds of many of the Fortune 500 companies. Indian industries continue to depend on foreign technology. Currently, if there is a market of any significance, the foreign vendor prefers to set up operations itself in the country rather than collaborate with an Indian partner. In order to survive, the Indian industries have to tie up with educational institutions as the industries in the West have done. Mission REACH provides industry with such an opportunity.

The Transformer Repair Unit at the TIFAC-CORE at Jabalpur Engineering College.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

According to Vijayaraghavan, large-scale industries have surplus money to invest in research and development (R&D) and attract a large number of Ph.Ds. One cannot expect the small-scale units to do so. Mission REACH is the only programme that addresses the requirements of all sectors. At one end of the spectrum is a TIFAC-CORE in Dibrugarh University, involving the Rs.50,000-crore Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and at the other end is the CORE in Sivakasi in partnership with fireworks manufacturers who are mostly in small and medium sectors. While the ONGC is looking for technology upgradation, the units in Sivakasi need skill upgradation with technicians and diploma-holders.

According to Deepak Bhatnagar, who heads Mission REACH, there are over 1,200 engineering colleges in the country and Mission REACH is a modest attempt to turn some of them into Centres of Relevance and Excellence in chosen areas as the nation cannot afford to set up IITs in every district. The target is to set up 80 to 100 TIFAC-COREs. So far, 18 centres have been set up. "It is only an experiment in involving industry in our efforts to make technical education relevant. It is for other stakeholders in higher technical education to replicate it. Since the TIFAC-COREs work on focussed areas, their impact would be extremely high," he points out.

There was also a need to re-orient higher education to the fast-changing requirements of industry. Dr. Bhatnagar recalls that up to the 1960s engineering education was based on the British syllabus, and each branch of engineering was almost like an island. But now, owing to technological advances, the requirements of industry are changing and technical education has become multi-disciplinary. For example, post-graduate programmes in mechanical engineering and electronics have been combined to form a course in mechatronics. Industries require engineers with multi-disciplinary skills. In the TIFAC-COREs, the curriculum is designed with inputs from the partnering industry. In a sense, the courses in TIFAC-COREs are "made to order" and "custom-built". About a dozen new courses have been designed in the last three years.

According to Neeraj Saxena, Mission Coordinator, this programme is founded on the belief that India is too big a country to boast of only a few elite institutions with centres of excellence. The Mission is totally objective-driven rather than resource-driven, which has been the approach so far and the shape of the CORE is left to the partnering academic institutions. "Ultimately, these centres are expected to be of the industry, by the industry and for the industry, each evolving into a mini-IIT," says Saxena.

The authority and the responsibility to implement projects at each TIFAC-CORE has been entrusted to a REACH Monitoring Committee (RMC). The committee functions as the Board of Directors. Represented by all the stakeholders, it is an autonomous unit, well within the partnering educational institution.

The existing TIFAC-COREs are located in small towns, addressing for the first time the vocational training requirements of the industries.

Plans are afoot to link electronically the centres through a good mix of ground and satellite-based connectivity. This would enable them to take up common programmes, tackle industrial problems and share physical and intellectual resources. It is expected to be a vibrant network with a huge reservoir of experts, state-of-the-art physical assets and large pool of researchers and students in multiple areas of industrial and societal relevance.

The Mission authorities feel encouraged by the degree of participation of the industries in the centres. In some of the centres the industries' involvement has increased after the activities actually took off. This indicates that the confidence level of industries in educational institutions has been increasing.

Some of the TIFAC-COREs that have been established cover a wide spectrum of industry including agro and industrial biotechnology, ergonomics and human factors engineering, environmental engineering, petroleum reservoir management, industrial safety, embedded systems, network engineering, medical electronics, collaborative product commerce, digital image processing and diabetic retinopathy.

Mission REACH is indeed an ambitious programme, which represents a revolutionary concept in the history of higher science and technical education in the country, designed to provide a much-needed industry-academia linkage. The centres are a vibrant testimony to what can be achieved if the government, academia and industry join hands in a mutually productive, value-based project. As R. Chidambaram, Chairman of TIFAC, observed at the TIFAC-COREs meet last year, India needs hundreds of such TIFAC-COREs, which develop not just human resource, but also customised technologies with their access to the intellectual and physical assets in the nationwide network. With its relevance and pursuit of excellence, Mission REACH has opened up an opportunity for the nation to achieve its vision of joining the ranks of developed countries by 2020.

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