In a world where excellent content is often available on the internet and machine translation will soon make content available in the native language, the preponderance of English, as well as the Anglosphere model of universities, can both be under siege.
There have long been concerns about a few issues related to education in India: The poor quality of the humanities curriculum and the fear that English will become an albatross rather than a catalyst. On average, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is assumed to be doing well in the country, and this is a source of pride.
Therefore, it was surprising to see the results of the Kerala State Entrance Exams and the adoption of Engineering. According to KEAM statistics, less than 10 students across Kerala have opted for civil engineering. But more than 5,000 rushed into IT and more than 2,500 into electronics. There were relatively few outlets for Mechanical, Electrical (Power) and so on: only in the hundreds each (India time, November 12, 2021, “2 engg branches get less than 10 applicants each”).
It is, one might say, the free market to work, as there are more job opportunities nowadays for computer science graduates. However, this is an extremely skewed result: doesn’t India as a country need a large number of civil engineers to help build infrastructure, which is a priority: roads, railways, ports, power stations, bridges, etc.
You could ask the same question about other traditional branches of engineering. India clearly needs engineers in mechanical, chemical, aerospace and electrical engineering. The country already lacks technical skills in some areas. For example, where are the materials scientists (nanotechnology is a hot multidisciplinary field)?
It is not clear whether Kerala’s results are replicated across the country, but it is evident that an entire generation of engineers is “missing”. One problem is that a standard career path for engineers is to go straight to business school and come out as an investment banker, or management consultant, or other positions where their engineering background is. is irrelevant, and the nation’s subsidy (maybe Rs 50 lakh) in them is wasted.
It is true that engineering is cyclical, and disciplines have their ups and downs. An example is aerospace engineering in the United States: after NASA sharply reduced its investments in space exploration, this discipline took a hit; some engineers lost their jobs and in Seattle (Boeing territory) were found driving taxis for a living.
But computers and electronics have retained their appeal. When I was a student electronics was in demand; later, computing took its place. The world runs on semiconductor chips and software; therefore, at first glance, Indian students who choose them should give India a competitive advantage.
But the reality is different: India is a non-present in electronic capacity; yes, there are design skills for semiconductors, but without a single noteworthy manufacturing facility, critical manufacturing capability is lacking; multinationals that now use Indian captive centers for chip design can easily move to other countries, such as Eastern Europe, either for geopolitical reasons or for cost reasons. There is no grip with the design positions.
On the software side, sad to say, there has been virtually no intellectual property generated in India for Indian companies; the vast majority of effort has been devoted to software services, not products. That may change with the emergence of a new generation of startups, especially those that rely on the JAM trinity and the availability of inexpensive bandwidth. But the point is, software service jobs have created no long-term value for the economy.
Thus, it should be noted that unlike Silicon Valley, where the first pioneers left a solid base for new innovations, the IT majors in India have practically no R&D, despite the wealth of many employees and shareholders. In this context, it should be noted that Silicon Valley is now losing its preeminence while digital nomads settle elsewhere: Miami, Austin, Singapore… The competitive advantage can be evanescent.
Is there anything India can offer its STEM graduates that creates a long-term incentive for them to stay? Otherwise, they will move to other areas: for example, the demand for business courses has exploded. Presumably, these will lead to jobs in the financial sector.
And it comes at a time when the “awakened” mentality, created and nurtured by American academics, is also coming to India, where it will find fertile ground, as the dominant narrative in Indian academia is even further to the left. I have personally learned to be silent in cafeteria conversations over lunch for fear of being lynched.
It is a problem even in Indian business schools. Worse yet, even the most reputable universities in the humanities and social sciences seem more capable of producing thoughtless consumers of propaganda than of producing world-class research. It is a huge failure of the system.
The effect of the simple introduction of a few human sciences courses in the IITs has been particularly negative. The ghost of Trofim Lysenko hangs over them. India’s NEP 2020 is a misguided effort to transform India’s monolithic STEM schools into what are called “universities” in the West. There is a good chance that they will turn into citadels of “awakened” instead.
Wokeness has turned American universities into strongholds of intolerance, targeted attacks on certain groups, group thinking, safe spaces, and general stultification. It used to be that an undergraduate degree from the United States was worth anything, but not anymore: for the money they ask, American universities offer little value.
It is as a revolt against this that Niall Ferguson, historian (and incidentally an apologist for imperialism), wrote about the new University of Austin that he is helping to co-found. The objective is to bring back to the human sciences their original objective, supposedly the pursuit of truth.
It sounds good, but there could be greater forces at play. The traditional university may be on the way out. Going back to the example of Kerala, a number of departments can close for lack of students; some engineering schools have already closed. It’s happened in business schools before. The age of on-campus internships may be over.
In a world where excellent content is available to everyone everywhere, often for free, on the Internet, and where I hope machine translation will soon make content available in the native language (in real time), the preponderance of English, as well as the Anglosphere model of universities, can both be under siege.
Can India propose an alternative model and take a leapfrog? As Dharampal’s work shows, traditional knowledge systems formed well-balanced citizens long ago.
The writer has been a conservative columnist for over 25 years. Its academic interest is innovation. The opinions expressed are personal.