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Go, walk hand-in-hand

The education system has reached a point where industry academia collaboration is no longer just a desirable thing, but an absolute imperative. And, it is the government that can play a key role in creating an environment for team work. The article has been written by Dr. Manish Gupta, Director, IBM Research - India, and Chief Technologist, IBM India/South Asia.

Industry-academia collaboration has been a much talked-about topic for a considerable time. There have been efforts, mostly at organization levels, to build a strong relationship between businesses and academic institutions in India. However, a truly sustainable model has so far been elusive. We have reached a point where industry-academia collaboration in this country is no longer just a desirable thing but an absolute imperative at all levels. This is needed to solve problems through disruptive innovation as well as to prepare students better for jobs.

Economic liberalisation, better use of technology, and a unique demographic dividend have spearheaded India's growth, which is expected to continue well into the next several decades. The growth has given rise to a plethora of interesting challenges that are unique to this country and solutions have to come from within. For example, the number of customers that Indian telecom companies cater to, is unheard of in other geographies, except for China. A company providing the IT infrastructure to such a telecom company, which in turn is offering services at really low prices to consumers, has to deal with challenges never seen before and develop innovative solutions.

The industry should be posing and academia should be acting some of these challenges as research problems for PhD students. Simply providing a higher stipend for postgraduate studies will not get the brightest minds in the country to be attracted to higher studies; we need to excite them with challenging problems.

Such a collaboration between industry and academia would lead to a win-win situation. Industry would benefit from the research capabilities and skills of faculty and students who would get better trained in the process, and academia will gain from exposure to real-world problems. We have to create a few impressive success stories of research collaboration between industry and academia, and then build that into our culture to make it sustainable.

The government can play a key role in creating an environment for collaboration. There are several challenges we face as a nation. How do we provide financial services to people at the bottom of the pyramid who do not have a bank account but do have a mobile phone Likewise, how can we leverage technology as a powerful enabler for offering other services in a cost-effective manner to the masses How do we build models not only for weather prediction, but also to predict the impact of extreme weather events on vital services so that storms do not kill thousands of people in coastal regions or heavy rains do not bring our cities, including the national capital, to their knees with overflowing drains and completely jammed traffic. Many of these problems require sustained research investment, which are best facilitated by government working closely with academia and industry to develop solutions that are commercially viable.

Another key transformation we are observing in India is its clear movement towards becoming a services-based economy. Traditionally, India has been heavily dependent on agriculture and to some degree, manufacturing. While manufacturing is a well-established sector with standards and well defined methodologies for design of products, service offerings are often put together in an adhoc manner. Academic institutions can work together to establish service science as a stream of education and pave the way for a systematic study of services and their efficient implementation.

More broadly, Industry and academia can work together in developing advanced curricula. According to a recent report from NASSCOM, more than 75 percent of engineers graduating from colleges every year in India are not employable. It is not that the students are not capable, but they lack the necessary skill set. While the overall standard of education in the country needs a major push, industry can be a key contributor in this regard. By working closely with academic bodies and helping them develop a curriculum that meets market requirements, it can help the nation grow. We face enormous challenges as a nation, and with these challenges comes an incredible opportunity for us to innovate and show leadership to the world. It is time for academia and industry to come together and work for the betterment of this country.

-- The Times of India, September, 2010

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