The recent observations by Shri Narayana Murthy, founder and ex-CEO of Infosys Corporation has presented a welcome opportunity to force a debate on the issue on the issue of quality of Engineering education in our centres of excellence and also the quality of innovation in the Indian Engineering space. The contributions of Shri Murthy in the field of business, institution building and job creation are well recognised and also acknowledged by this author. As an entrepreneur from middle-class background who founded a global company, he has inspired a whole new generation in India to not just dream but also dream – higher and global. Speaking at the PAN-IIT summit in New York , among other things Murthy has voiced his displeasure at the deteriorating quality of IIT entrants and also presented his evaluation that close to 80% of them couldn’t go toe-to-toe with quality engineers from advanced nations. Shri Murthy has “downgraded” both the input – going into, and the output – coming out of the IIT’s.

Before addressing the input side of the problem we must candidly accept that a person who struggles with alphabets will also most likely struggle with prose and poetry aswell. Similarly a student whose training in basic Physics and Mathematics is poor is likely to carry this handicap into his engineering. This can only be addressed in our schools. If indeed India was producing top engineering talent for decades, why aren’t we the hub of innovation ? If by talented students Murthy means the prodigal whiz-kids,  he must know that India continues to produce numerous Olympiad quality students each year. Countries like Iran and the east-Europen nations too have consistently produced many such ultra-talented students. Why hasn’t that changed the scene ? Both these questions have the same answer, which is – Ecosystem matters !! The debate will be meaningful and relevant only if we fully accept this fact. There is one ecosystem that strengthens and guides a person of average capability to dream and achieve higher goals and fly like a “super-man” and there is another ecosystem that which transforms a similar person into a “sub-man” (a pygmie).

It is indeed a sign of our confidence that we have chosen to benchmark ourselves against the very best in the business. That should be the standard we must aspire for. But we must remember that institutions like Stanford, MIT have a history of more than 100 years. They have drawn the best talent from all across the world for more than 50 years now. They have functioned under a booming economy. These are institutes where every lab in every department has a legacy. Our institutes are nowhere close to them. It is expected of visionaries like Shri Murthy to point to, hi-lite and undescore the weaknesses in our system. Unfortunately, Murthy’s remarks fail to pass this test. Our weakness is NOT our students, but the system and the ecosystem. He has offered precious little in his speech which might be construed as solutions. The actual statements that we must critically reflect on, from his speech are the following :

1. “But their performance in IITs, at jobs or when they come for higher education in institutes in the US is not as good as it used to be “

2. Murthy said in order to produce good research at IITs, the Indian government has to be persuaded to create institutions that fund research projects. 

I will briefly quotes a few metics on innovation and R&D from this document, to point out the following – our engineers (working from India) have performed well, govt’s inefficient and diminishing role in R&D and finally that ecosystem indeed matters. Two benchmarks that are used here are the investment made by Govt ( Research labs & Public sector companes) and private sector ( domestic players and MNC’s) into R&D and the number of patents obtained by these instituions in return. Like every benchmark and statsistic this approach too has it’s limitations, but, is still useful in understanding the broad underlying trends and will help us diagnoise the disease better. Buisiness enterprises today account for 30% of the investment in R&D- up from 14% in 1991 ( Same figure for China is 71%) and the Govt for about 68%. In terms of number of patents awarded by the USPTO, the year 1997 stands as a break date from which the patents filed by Indians ( Public+Domestic+MNC) took off. Since 1991 the contribution of domestic sector, compriding of – Govt (CSIR) and domestic buisnesses, to the number of patents obtained has fallen from 71% to 39%. and those obtained by the MNC’s account now account for 61%. A run through the list of all (23 of them) domestic firms having US patents reveals that but for Tata Consultancy Service ( with 5 US Patents) all others are Pharmaceutical firms. Where as sectorally, IT-related patents account for over 33% of patents filed from India. So despite being an IT giant, it is the MNC’s who are using Indian engineers to innovate and not the domestic firms. These data points provides an indicator to conclude : a) that govt spending on research projects is inefficient and this route cannot be the way forward, b) MNC’s have outpaced the domestic buisnesses in terms of innovation. c) When provided with opportunities, desi engineers can and will perform.

This author’s respect for Shri Murthy still stands. This short-post was intended to rescue the debate from “sound-byte criticisms” of many and to say forcefully that Indian enginneers can learn and play the game as well as any. What we are missing is initiatives by domestic firms in the field of products, because that is what will eventually propel innovation and launch India to become a formidable knowledge economy. Finally, I would end the post by saying that we must hold both our centres of excellence, like the IIT’s and comments offered by our corporate leaders like Shri Murthy to the same level of criticism and scrutiny.

PS :  Numbers reported are for the year 2009

PPS: Ecosystem matters.

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Manohar Seetharam

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