04 Feb 2021 18:01 IST

'With software hiring big, students opt for subjects relevant to it'

Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras

We should be glad for all the well-paying jobs that we are able to create, says IITM Dir Bhaskar Ramamurthi

The year 2020 was one of the most challenging across sectors. It was no exception for IIT Madras. “2020 was all about discovery of our resilience," says Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras, in an interview wherein he discussed various issues at length. Excerpts:

How was the year gone by, for IIT Madras?

We started taking classes completely online as soon as the lockdown was imposed. Initially, about 40 per cent of students had stated that they could not join the classes. Subsequently, we ensured that everybody was able to attend online classes, either live or through downloaded lectures, barring a handful, which cases too have now been resolved.

Research came almost to a complete halt during the initial days of the lockdown, especially experimental work. Today, close to 1,000 research scholars are back on campus. The Institute has come to a situation where I would say research is pretty much back on track.

What are the lessons taught by the pandemic?

We will retain many of the learnings that we have got from this experience, particularly our resilience. As far as IIT Madras goes, that has been the story — the discovery of our resilience. We started without knowing where we were going once everything was in lockdown in India. Now, almost everyone is attending classes online. Internships and placements have gone online completely and being conducted smoothly. I do think that we have learned a lot, we are going to do a lot more things in a blended way, combining online methodologies with face-to-face and doing things better.

What is the industry looking for from today’s young graduates?

An undergraduate degree is for education, not for training. In the process of providing a rounded education, one can impart knowledge and skills relevant to the current demand. However, the purpose of education is to produce thinking individuals who can thereafter learn on their own during their entire lifetime, through both formal and informal means.

For this, how is the syllabus fine-tuned to meet the industry’s requirements?

The syllabus must be upgraded every few years such that fundamental concepts in engineering are taught in the context of current technologies rather than outdated ones (even if the outdated technology was a marvel in its time and embodied some concepts very well). For this, those teaching the subjects must also abstract the fundamental concepts and teach them in the context of current technologies without confining themselves to what they learnt as students.

In addition, electives should be offered on the latest topics and technologies. These can be a combination of skills and techniques, and possibly some emerging new concepts whose long-term impact will become known only with time. Electives, by nature, will follow a Darwinian path — some will live long and even become core subjects, while others will wither away.

What about placements for your students in industry?

The entire process of placements went completely online for Phase I, as did this year’s internship drive. This is the first time that IIT Madras has gone completely online for placements and internships. As many as 182 offers were made to IIT Madras students this academic year (as on November 28, 2020) as against 170 during the entire 2019-20 academic year. The big recruiters of this year’s first session include Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Bajaj Auto, ISRO, Alphonso and Qualcomm.

How many go for employment from each batch and how many opt for higher studies?

Our estimate is that only about 10 per cent of the graduating class goes straight away for higher studies. The rest go for employment, though our information is that a significant fraction of the latter do go on for higher studies, particularly in management, after a couple of years.

The software industry sucks up a huge amount of talent from engineering schools, from all kinds of disciplines, and then re-trains them for its job requirements. Is this detrimental to the future of some disciplines?

I would think not. India produces more than enough engineers in all disciplines, and we should be glad for all the employment, particularly the well-paying type, that we are able to create. Besides, increasingly, everything we use and make has software in it, and more and more of it. There is a difference in the pay structure in different industry verticals, and the software industry is at the higher end of the scale. This does end up sucking talent into the software industry, but there is nothing one can do in educational institutions to address this.

It is a matter for society to address — after all such imbalances are commonplace in society — agriculture vs industry being the one that comes to mind first.

It must also be said that with the software industry absorbing such large numbers, and the industry also being the lead aspiration of the students, the curricula as well as the interest of the students veer towards subjects relevant to the software industry and away from core subjects in the various disciplines.

This leads to a situation where even those who take up employment in their respective core disciplines are found wanting in their level of understanding of their fields. These structural issues are difficult to address.

Institutional autonomy will help in this regard, as institutions can provide the solid grounding for those (fewer) students who are interested in the core engineering disciplines and wish to take up employment in them despite the lower compensation, while providing a more flexible curriculum to others who wish to go to the software industry or into management later.