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Premier Technical Institutes: What sets apart a leader from a manager

Tapan Misra

The proof of the pudding is in the eating

American economist Prof. Joseph Eugene Stiglitz shared Nobel Prize in 2001 for contributing to the theory of information assymetric in developing new markets. For example, let us examine role of second hand car market in developing car industry. The owner of an old car believes that he has maintained his car best and his car deserves high price. On the contrary, the prospective buyer assumes that the owner of the old car, wants to sell the car because he must have used the car very roughly and the car deserves a low price. Both seller and buyer have contradictory expectations and the car is not sold. In most of the houses, garage space is reserved for single car. So new car is not procured as the owner cannot not get rid of his old possession.

The fallacy is: both seller and prospective buyer are car drivers only, with no technical expertise in assessing the car quality and the deal could not get materialised as the cost expected by both sides are based on presumption, not on technical information.

Here comes original car manufacturer. He offers an exchange programme, new car in exchange for an old car. A discount is offered against the old car. Usually the discount is lower than the assessed cost of the old car. Owner is still happy. He has full belief on technical expertise of the representative of the car manufacturer and is convinced the price offered is reasonable. The old car is given a face lift and offered, along with a limited warranty, at a higher price than the real assessed value. Again the gullible buyer buys the refurbished car with a conviction that the seller is an expert and hence the price is right.

So the car manufacturer could convert one dead deal to two successful deals and everybody is happy. This was possible because of assymetry of information between experts, appointed by the car manufacturer, and the buyer-seller duo for old car. In essence, the car manufacturer became guarantor for the deal, at least apparently.

Premier technical institutes act as a guarantor of student quality for the recruiters. They raise the bar of entrance test pretty high, so that high school students, usually bright and trained in structured way of analysis, can cross the bar.

The recruiter, who come for recruitment knows that job description will have no match with curriculum. And also, the recruiting people are managers who have drifted over a period, more and more from academics. Recruiter may not be in a position to assess technical acumen of the student beyond a shallow depth. What they want is generally a bright mind, with structured thinking ability and reasonable attitude. The required technical capability can be learnt on job. And a more or less comfortable grading, ensures that the student has not gone astray. So entry into the prestigious institution is more or less enough guarantee for a comfortable job in Industry.

In general, the boys and girls have put so much effort in entering the premier institutions in the first place, they are already a tired lot and general environment of easy recruitment process is no incentive for detailed study and serious attendance in classroom lectures. But there are exceptions too and they are also of good proportion. The students are usually bright and most of them do shine in their later academic or professional careers because of their inherent intelligence. However, there is lesser and lesser importance of attending classes except during class tests and institutes are also gradually trying to dispense with mandatory attendance requirement. There is growing belief that internet can replace both teacher and book.

As a corrolllary, teachers are also not getting enough incentives for teaching. Getting comfortable grades is important. The subjects or teachers, who can fetch good grading are in high demand. Similar is the popularity of the subjects that have a good market potential. The net result is education is becoming skewed.

The greatest casualty is learning in totality. Getting into the soul of the subject has become less important than solving problems and getting grades. This is reflected in the fact that questioning by students is becoming scarce.

I suspect teaching has also become formal and is lacking personal touch. How you teach is more important than what you teach. I suspect that hiatus between practical experience and pedagogy is increasing, complicating the problem further. Engineering students are not exposed to practical applications. So subjects are becoming more and more skeletal in appearance focusing more on dry principles, equations and problems. Practical experiences on part of teachers, would have added to the health of learning. It may be a good idea to have periodic exchange of teachers and professional engineers in role reversals. For this purpose, academic institutions and industry should aim to work in cohesion.

The above understanding I gathered, from my decade long experience in heading recruitment interviews, setting question papers and conducting massive recruitment exercises with an all India perspective. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Being a recruiter, you get an idea of the nature of technical education being imparted, specially from the point of view of an industry that values learning more than education. We are more serious about how you approach a problem. We believe, right approach will lead to right result but not vice versa.

I also experienced, a silent gender skew is evolving. Typically, the boys to girls ratio of successful candidates in written examinations, is around 70:30, following prevailing gender ratio in technical education. What is surprising is that 50% girls cross interview threshold against 35-40% for boys. Our interviews normally look for originality in approaches.

We debated this outcome. We came to the conclusion, this assymetry may perhaps be due to assymmetry of educational opportunities for boys and girls.

In Indian families, parents spend more on getting private coaching for boys and also on getting them educated in costly far away boarding schools, sometimes going beyond their financial capability. Girls from hinterland, are generally deprived of coaching studies and are also educated nearby, at inexpensive schools. But this skewed attitude of Indian society has become a boon in disguise for girls. Girls are likely to retain originality. Boys are getting prepared as sacrificial offerings to the goddess of rote learning.

As Director, PRL, I had to face Honourable MP, Ms. Renuka Chowdhury as redoubtable Chairperson of Parliamentary Committee, reviewing activities of PRL. She asked about my idea of the difficulties faced by girls during recruitment process. I narrated my experience. I said I am more concerned about boys. As parents, we are spending more and more on private tuition for our boys and correspondingly we are destroying their originality and hence, employability.

Another surprising observation that products of certain private engineering colleges are becoming high performers in professional life. I can hazard a guess:

These colleges are quite strict on attendance in classes. It reinforces my belief, attendance in classes is important for both education and learning.

Also the students of these colleges are generally those who did not prepare well for competitive examinations for prestigious colleges. So when they entered colleges, they are no longer a tired lot and retain the zeal for learning.

Many of these colleges employ retired Professors from well known colleges. These retired professors are no longer in the rat race for promotions. They have many decades of experience in spotting weakness in the students and strengthening them. They came for teaching after retirement, because they love their profession and hence their teaching takes different dimension. I get reassurance for my conviction that how you teach, is more important aspect of teacher’s profession.

Another surprising observation I have. Students from colleges with relaxed examination schedules and opportunities for pursuing various hobbies (like debate, theatre, photography, student activities, cultural programmes etc.), apart from curriculum and more importantly, boasting crowded dhabas, tea-snack corners, tend to produce students with leadership materials. When we teach academics, we should also provide ample spaces for developing interpersonal skills and imparting empathy. This approach goes a long way in making engineers more humane in dealing with colleagues, subordinates, bosses, customers, and in their personal and social lives. Technical expertise with humane attitude, sets apart a leader from a manager.

The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. He has devoted long years with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and has made valuable contribution in field of space research and exploration. After serving as Director Space Application Centre, he is now Advisor at the ISRO Headquarters.


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