Industry-university partnership key to innovation, growth

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Almost 80% of Indian engineering graduates are not employable in the current knowledge-driven economy, according to a survey titled ‘National Employability Report — Engineers: Annual Report 2019’. It is based on a sample of more than 170,000 engineering students from over 750 engineering colleges. The survey also revealed that only 40% of engineering students do internships during their course, which is a problem given that engineering is an application-based field. In 2018-19, there were 3,241 universities/institutes offering undergraduate or postgraduate courses (15,87,097 seats) in the country. However, more than half the number of BE/B. Tech seats remained vacant. In the same year, around 200 colleges have applied for closure and a majority of these institutions witnessed less than 20% enrolment during the last three years. As regards placements, 52% of those who completed their UG and PG courses in engineering got placement. It is also a fact that only around 15% of engineering programmes offered in the country are accredited by the NBA. Academia and industry have been putting the onus of poor employability of graduates on the government. But, shifting the responsibility on each other will not solve any problem, and the system needs cooperation of all stakeholders.

Academia and industry have a collaborative relationship. Academia’s job is to produce graduates who are employed by the industry for their day-to-day operations and provide solutions to their problems. Research work carried out by universities leads to improved products and services, increasing the revenue of the industry. Unfortunately, in India, despite the emergence of some world-class institutions, the education system has fallen short of meeting the needs of the industries.

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As regards research carried out in universities, the importance of basic research in the educational institutions is being questioned across the world, especially in industrially developed countries. In those countries, university research is assessed for its contribution to innovation, and the extent to which it improves the competitiveness of industries. Moreover, universities have limited sources for revenue generation to create the infrastructure required for research work. Thus, funds for research institutions are provided by the state. However, the increasing burden of expenditure on social schemes run by the government has forced the university to look for new sponsors. To meet the gap in funding, since the 1970s, the US government has been promoting the alignment of the university and industrial research through specific funding programmes. The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides initial funding, with the expectation that the joint industry-university research centres will become self-supporting in five to 10 years. Industry-university partnership is a global trend now as it benefits both the partners. While the industry gains a better understanding of the science involved in the research work and gains in the market from the improved product or services, the university researchers can work on a sophisticated expensive instrument. In the long term, revenue generated by patenting innovation helps both partners. It also adds to their prestige.

The question is how to ensure more knowledge transfer from universities to their corporate partners and vice versa through an efficient mechanism. Therefore, Institute-Industry cooperation needs to be one of the visions for India’s higher engineering education reform. Since independence, beginning with the Sarkar Committee in 1945, several committees have been set up to suggest measures for the development of technical education in India. Consequent to the National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986, and after a review of the entire educational system, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) was made a statutory body through an Act of Parliament in December 1987. NPE also recommended the engineering curriculum should be prepared according to the needs of the industry, and it should be continuously updated. A review committee in 2002 under the chairmanship of Prof U.R.Rao, former Chairman of ISRO, to review and redefine AICTE’s role because of the emerging changes and to suggest steps for further improvement recommended:

  • The number of institutions and the intake of students should be controlled more rigorously.
  • The right type of salary should be paid to the employees.
  • The industry should also bear the cost of Technical Education.

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Further expansion of UG technical institutions should not be allowed and approvals for the new institution should be stopped for at least 5 years in states where the UG student intake exceeds the national average of 350 per million population. However, despite successive reforms, our engineering institutions are lagging on account of teacher recruitment, infrastructure constraints, faculty development, and quality research. The answer to many of these problems lies in the creation of an institutional mechanism to work on such aspects as curriculum development, qualification of faculty, method of teaching, research areas, and job assignment to students.

Does the New Education Policy 2020 provide an answer?

The New Education Policy (NEP) announced in July 2020 identifies lesser emphasis on research, and lack of research funding across disciplines as the major problems currently faced by the higher education system in India. Accordingly, knowledge creation and research are perceived as the fundamental principles of the higher education system critical for sustaining a large and vibrant economy. The Policy, therefore, envisages establishing a National Research Foundation (NRF) with the following primary activities as under:

  • to fund competitive, peer-reviewed grant proposals of all types and across all disciplines;
  • to seed, grow, and facilitate research at academic institutions;
  • to act as a liaison between researchers and relevant branches of government as well as industry,
  • to recognise outstanding research and progress.

NEP has defined a university as a multidisciplinary institution that will focus on research and innovation by setting up start-up incubation centres; technology development centres; centres in frontier areas of research; and through greater industry-academic linkages. The government has decided that the NRF will be governed independently of the government by a rotating board of governors consisting of the very best researchers and innovators across fields, keeping it at a safe distance from bureaucracy.

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Global success stories and Indian initiatives

Before 1980, the US government followed the policy of retaining the ownership of all patents granted to universities arising out of research funded by the federal government. This policy hurt the process of technology transfer since many federal bodies were reluctant to shift ownership of the patents to research organizations or industries. With the enactment of the Bayh–Dole Act in December 1980, the universities were permitted to retain the ownership of the patents and earn money by licensing or selling the rights. Before the Act, commercialisation rates of public-funded research were less than 5% as private companies were not prepared to put in their money in R&D activities for lack of incentives. After 1980, a 10-fold increase in the number of universities actively engaging in patenting their research was observed. It is also true that there has been criticism of the policy since the emphasis on patenting and commercialisation has shifted university research towards applied research and away from basic research.

Israel has achieved some truly remarkable results in research and innovation. It has no specific legislation regulating the transfer of knowledge from the universities to the industry. Nevertheless, the Israeli government influences technology transfers by offering incentives and subsidies through dedicated programs. The Israel Tech Transfer Organization (ITTN) serves as the umbrella organisation for Israel’s technology transfer companies. All Israeli research universities have technology transfer offices which act as an intermediary between universities and the private sector. Just an example, the Weizmann Institute’s TT office, Yeda, Israel’s first university TT unit, has been ranked the third-most profitable in the world. No wonder, Israel ranks tenth in the world for the number of patent applications filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

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In India, The Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill 2008, popularly called the Indian “Bayh-Dole” Bill, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2009 and was aimed at motivating researchers by giving them incentives, in the income generated by the technology transfer and commercialisation of the research conducted by them. As per the provisions proposed in the Bill, the scientist shall be paid a minimum of 30% of net royalties received from the commercialisation of the IP generated. However, despite having some attractive features, the experts felt that the bill lacks feasibility. The Bill stands referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests.

  • The National IPR policy of 2016 is another step to encourage innovation and creativity through its focus on the promotion and protection of IPR and lists out several objectives including:
  • Establishing facilitative mechanisms that can build an atmosphere where creativity and innovation are encouraged in public and private sectors, R&D centers, industry, and academia, leading to the generation of protectable IP.
  • Creating an industry-academia interface for encouraging cross-fertilisation of ideas and IPR-driven research and innovation.
  • Promote collaborative IP generation and commercialization efforts between R&D institutions, Industry, Academia, and Funding Agencies.

To meet the objectives of the Policy, it proposes to introduce IPRs as part of the academic curriculum in educational institutions, especially universities, law, and technical institutions. The awareness about the IP system has a significant role in facilitating the process of commercialisation of technology developed. Nations across the world both developing and advanced nations are taking legislative steps to ensure the protection of IP rights since the industry will pursue R&D to develop new technologies only when they are assured of their IP protection. However, NEP unveiled four years after the IP Policy, does not explicitly highlights intellectual property or its importance, though it talks about closer collaborations between industry and higher education institutions to drive innovation and research.

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The way forward

Engineering education needs to prepare engineers with the skills and know-how needed to face and excel in the fast-changing technological paradigm globally. The society will appraise their performance the way they provide technical solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges. In the Indian context, the ‘employability’ of graduates depends on their technical knowledge, practical experience, and soft skills. Thus, the syllabuses have to be made in line with the changing needs of the industry to ensure that the skills taught to the students have real-time demand A change in the curricula and syllabi is required, to make it current, forward-looking, and dynamic. Society in general and the industry, in particular, could be benefitted if specialists in universities combine with industry experts to solve complex scientific problems in the development of products useful to society. Accordingly, two sets of suggestions, one for improving the curriculum of engineering courses and another for promoting collaborative research are being put forward:

Engineering curriculum

Undoubtedly, the first and foremost task is to upgrade and update the curriculum, and the participation of industries is a must in the task. There is not much convergence between the needs of the industries and the syllabus. Unlike medical colleges that are always attached to a hospital, most of the Engineering Colleges are without any attached industry. Affiliation of engineering colleges with industry has to be worked out and, only the government can make it happen through a suitable mechanism.

The quality of teaching cannot improve without enhancing the quality of the teachers themselves. Therefore, the focus of reform should be on faculty development. Many engineering colleges are running on temporary teaching staff, and often fresh graduates are given teaching assignments. Universities need to invest in faculty training and do a regular assessment to measure the effects of such training. There is a good option for doing it online through the government’s SWAYAM portal.

It is not just the higher pay which will attract good teachers to these Institutes because good teachers with an excellent academic background will prefer an institution with good infrastructure for doing research and teaching.

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A good way for students to understand and learn the working of the industry is for them to spend six months or even one year on the shop floor as interns in industry. Students can get exposure to new areas like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, data science, 3-D printing, etc, during their stay in the industry, especially because these new technologies are not part of courses in all institutes.

Along with the technical skills, industries require graduates with managerial skills too, like interpersonal skills, leadership quality, good communication skills, creative thinking, multi-tasking, quick decision-making, and like. Guest faculty from industry can supplement in development of such skills in the budding engineers.

The education system and the curriculum need to prepare students to become job creators and not just job seekers. There is an element of risk, but the entire process of becoming an entrepreneur ensures that students learn the latest industry skills, knowledge, and experience, which makes them highly employable graduates, even if they do not succeed in their commercial venture. Thus, the curriculum must include DPR preparation and its implementation, Entrepreneurship cell, and incubation centre.

The Government must provide a platform for presenting the views of the private sector, and ensure their participatory role in the development of technical education in the country. For instance, during consultations for policy formulation, organizations such as the FICCI, CII, NASSCOM, and other corporate bodies, must be invited.

Even the faculty members need to visit and interact with industries to get acquainted with contemporary technology to further transfer the know-how to the students.

Well established industrial groups may be encouraged and should be preferred for setting up technical institutes in the vicinity of their industrial plant making it easy for engineering students to do internships during their course, and will facilitate a two-way flow of ideas between faculty members and the industry on common issues.

These ideas should be high on the agenda of those engaged in higher education policy-making to improve the skill level of engineering graduates to meet the expectations of fast globalizing industries in India.

Research and Innovation

In India, while the corporate/private sector spends about 30%, the Govt spends about 70% of the total R&D spent. In developed countries, spending on R&D by the private sector is much more. There is a need for enhanced R&D spends by the corporate sector, to reach a global average of 2.1% from current spending of 0.7 % of GDP. The Corporate sector can contribute significantly to building a strong research community by way of sponsoring projects to universities, offering R&D fellowships and creating research chairs, etc. On its part, the government needs to incentivize such investment and provide a mechanism to make it happen.

The commercial prospect of an innovative product or service is what industry generally looks for, as it is an assurance of high profits. However, the industry has already been reluctant to explore the commercial viability of inventions made in university labs. True, the probability of market success of a standalone university innovation is always low. To overcome this drawback, industry, and university sit together and decide on focussed research under joint funding with the government.

The partnership between universities and industry for R & D has not evolved in India, for lack of suitable forums and platforms to facilitate this. Identification of a problem or goal by industry and aligning the same with university researchers thinking is the first step before it is addressed by a joint research team. It is expected that the National Research Foundation (NRF) proposed under the NEP will meet the requirement for the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

A structural arrangement for sharing of earnings from royalty etc from technology and transfer commercialization of the research conducted by them will go a long way in motivating researchers to take up applied research beneficial for the society. The university may also gain not only in terms of financial revenue from such successful research conducted for industrial application, additional earnings may also help in attracting good talent for teaching faculty which otherwise are poached by industry offering higher perks.

Last but not the least, such innovations also have the potential to address many economic problems being faced by the country like trade deficit, employment generation, reduced dependency on imports, and also strengthen national security.

(Krishna Kumar Sinha is an industrial and FDI policy expert based in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)

Krishna Kumar Sinha

Krishna Kumar Sinha is an industrial policy and FDI expert based in New Delhi. His last assignment was as an industrial adviser in the department of industrial policy and promotion, DIPP, currently known as DPIIT, under the ministry of commerce and industry of the government of India.