Of relevance and excellence

Print edition : October 08, 2004

VINO JOHN

Interview with Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology.

It has been four years since the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), launched Mission REACH to achieve new heights in education through a network of Centres of Relevance and Excellence (CORE). How successful has the Mission been and what is its future? Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy, DST Secretary, spoke to B.S. Padmanabhan on the philosophy underlying the Mission, the impact it has made so far, the growing interest evinced in it by educational institutions and industries alike, and the bright future it promises for aspiring technologists and prospective entrepreneurs. Excerpts from the interview:

What was the context in which Mission REACH was launched?

Generally there is a feeling among students and the public that the kind of training one receives during education is not tuned to the requirements of industry. Industry also shares the perception that the students they get are not ready to work immediately, and need pre-job training to bring them to a level suitable to begin work immediately. There is also a feeling that the kind of training they get is not the best, or comparable to the best institutions both in India and abroad. The Mission was basically aimed at establishing linkages between educational institutions and industry to ensure that the educational institutions provide the right kind of training and at the best possible level. In the Mission, you will find two terms, "relevance" and "excellence". Relevance comes from the fact that we want to give training that would enable them to get into the industry as quickly as possible and excellence implies that whatever training they get, is the best possible.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), which is charged with the task of improving the quality of higher education, and institutions such as the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are already engaged in this. What is the rationale for DST getting into this field through TIFAC?

A low-cost glove box in wood, manufactured by the TIFAC-CORE in Sivakasi.-

If you look at any of the programmes of DST, you will find that we basically demonstrate a certain concept and once it is established and accepted as a successful demonstration, its replication is taken over by other Ministries. Whether it is technology development or education at the highest level, this is the general philosophy adopted. It is the same philosophy that we are adopting in this Mission. We are not competing with the Education Ministry. Definitely, education is the mandate of the HRD Ministry and institutions like the UGC and the AICTE. Education at the highest level is not possible without associated research in those areas in the very same institution. In specific areas of technology, where education has to be at the highest level, clearly it is our mandate to improve the research infrastructure in those institutions. That is the rationale for our getting into this field. I am sure that in a few years' time, when our model is assessed to be successful, it would be taken over by the other Ministries and we would gradually withdraw from it.

What is your assessment of the progress of Mission REACH?

The programme has been extremely successful so far. We have 18 institutions offering specialised training in cutting-edge technologies. Take, for example, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, which is famous for its fireworks industry. One of the serious concerns of the fireworks industry is safety. No educational institution to my knowledge offers this as a specialised course in its curricula and there is no reason why it should not be so. Mepco Shelnk College of Engineering in Sivakasi offered to take this up and today offers courses at graduate and post-graduate levels focussing on safety in the fireworks industry. It also offers packages for skilled workers at the middle and lower levels. It has a mobile van that goes from factory to factory, educating the workers on safety aspects. This is something that did not exist earlier in the country. Hopefully, this will serve as a model for other areas in the country. The concept underlying the Mission has caught on. The fact that it is not looked upon as a government programme but as one owned by the industry adds value to the Mission.

The Mission's objective is to create nearly 100 COREs. So far, only 18 Centres have been established. When do you think the target of 100 would be achieved?

The start-up is always slow because we would try to look for mid-course correction. In a typical government programme, evaluation is done after five years. This Mission is now four years old and we will be evaluating its progress at the end of five years. Certainly, we will not be in a position to reach the target of 100 institutions within five years. But 18 is a good number and we may add another 10 or so in the next year. We will then make an assessment of the programme and try to bring more partners into the venture. It is heartening to note that unlike in the early years, when we had to work hard to convince industry to put in even a small amount like Rs.10 or 20 lakhs, today they are coming forward with crores of rupees as investment, because they have seen the value of such an effort. So, the programme is picking up now and I am sure more and more institutions will join.

A low-cost glove box in wood enables workers to make aluminium-based explosives without deposits covering their bodies.-PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Programmes funded by the government usually come to an end when the funding period ends. In the light of this experience, how do you visualise the future of this programme?

It is precisely for this reason that we insisted upon industry participation in this programme. Since the industries have invested, they have the opportunity to mould the programme according to their requirements, and they have seen the results. If the government withdraws at the end of the initial funding period, the industries would probably not want the programme to stop as their own money has gone into it. Since the industries have seen the results of the programme, we expect more industries to start contributing to it. We have also been discussing what will happen after the three years of funding. Should we withdraw totally or after evaluation raise it to the next level of investment, not as a partnership, but for upgradation of the programme in terms of infrastructure and other facilities? It is necessary that the industry should make a matching contribution. If the industry is willing to make the additional investment, it means that the programme has been successful and is fulfilling its mandate.

Based on the four years of experience, do you feel the need for any change in strategy?

One of the lessons we have learnt is that the location-specificity is extremely important. You cannot replicate what has been successful in one institution in another without understanding the needs in that region and the core strength of that institution.

Another thing we have noted is that some of the government-run institutions are not able to take part in the programme. The reason is that government procedures do not allow the management of such institutions to give us a financial commitment up-front. They have to go through a time-consuming process. Consequently, you will find that this programme has been successful in privately funded institutions and has not taken root in government institutions. We would not like to miss out that segment because government institutions form the majority of educational institutions in the country and more so in some States, where private investment in education has not taken place in a big way. So we are trying to find out how we can re-tune the programme so that more and more government institutions, which are enthusiastic and where the faculty is interested, can participate in it. One recent success story is the Delhi College of Engineering, which has joined the programme. Certainly, it is possible for government institutions to join the programme but we should make things easy for them to do so. This programme offers training, which is not only appropriate for one to get into the industry but also encourages entrepreneurship among the students. We are therefore encouraging the institutions to go in for options that would provide students the opportunity to start their own enterprise or to get into the industry.

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