Indian Education and Innovation Culture

20 Oct 2021

Opinion: Sanjib Pohit and Jaideep Ghosh

In the latest Global Innovation India India’s rank is 46. The good news is that she has climbed 2 spots over the previous year’s standing and the performance is labelled as above expectations against the yardstick of the level of development. The bad news is that Asian countries like Malaysia Vietnam Thailand or the newly formed East European countries like Bulgaria Estonia Slovenia and Hungary scored above India. Not surprisingly it is often mentioned that Indian entrepreneurs lack innovation culture and they have not been able to produce copious innovation in technology vis-à-vis their counterparts in other countries. Indian entrepreneurs are well-known for their culture of strict adherence to and alignment with accepted standards and conventional practices. However one often hears that Indian firms are less inclined to exercising their minds with unconventional out-of-the-box ideas to try novel experiments. At a micro level nevertheless Indian entrepreneurs function effectively in implementing quick fixes commonly called “jugaad” which serve as low-cost innovative workarounds or solutions to problems.

Independently motivated inventors and entrepreneurs sometimes make major inventions or breakthrough innovations. By contrast organizations are known to make innovations incrementally by adding features and functionalities to a basic entity. Each individual step in this process is crucial in itself and together they have a cumulative force. If the individuals participating in such innovative ventures possess sufficient educational training domain knowledge and work experience then the contemplated innovations may have a fairly predictable rate of success. To this end large business organizations such as Procter & Gamble Microsoft Intel Lucent Google Boeing and a number of others maintain distributed R&D divisions where engineers scientists mathematicians statisticians economists and software developers work together in globally dispersed teams to give birth to innovative products and services.

An important question arises in this regard as to whether the current system of education in the country is responsible for the dearth of technological innovation in the Indian industry. It is widely believed that higher education is a sine qua non for the advanced knowledge required to make major technological breakthroughs or to come up with innovative solutions to important technological problems. The engineering and technological education offered in most colleges and universities in India is only adequate to meet the needs of incremental innovations that are commonly carried out in product and service development projects. Moreover many Indian firms in the IT sector with their low-cost technical workforce work on outsourced contracts with foreign firms that dictate the terms and conditions of innovation in their products or services for their domestic or the international market. Unfortunately there are only a limited number of Indian firms that undertake large-scale R&D work for the development of novel products and services involving collaboration among experts in multiple disciplines. This is indeed one of the primary reasons why there has been less success in the domain of incremental innovation in India.

In the area of breakthrough innovation India has performed rather poorly. Curriculum-based education in engineering and technological fields offered in most Indian colleges and universities lacks a sound footing in innovation. Students who acquire a large corpus of formal knowledge are trained to think in rather conventional ways which impede unorthodox approaches that stem from intrinsic creative urges of individuals. From a theoretical angle the formal education received in Indian colleges and universities is by and large on a par with that offered in many advanced Western countries. But many of these institutes’ labs are not well equipped. Moreover the apprentice system that is common in European countries (Germany for example) is missing in the Indian educational system. Thus movement from bookish educational course work to the practical world of production takes place only when students join the job market. As a result students are not trained during the undergraduate for out-of-the-box thinking based on actual work experience. In sum there is a critical need for radical changes to instill creative thinking into the minds of the Indian students.

Most of the Indian Technical Institutes (ITIs) function with outdated instruments and stale course work. The knowledge gained from attending those institutes are of limited use in the modern world. While the government is spending a considerable sum of money in skilling people by these ITIs the proper skilling is only possible if their course work and instruments are upgraded. This would need heavy investments. The question is who will foot the bill? Currently the economy is down and the private as well as the government are short of funds for training the workforce.

In India fundamental research which is a key factor for breakthrough innovation is funded primarily by the state. It follows a much hierarchical top-down approach that does not facilitate the kind of free thinking that is absolutely essential for making innovations. In addition it requires rigorous training during higher studies that is largely missing from the Indian educational system.

Professor Sanjib Pohit National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) Professor Jaideep Ghosh Shiv Nadar University (SNU)

The authors are Professors at National Council of Applied Economic Research and Shiv Nadir University respectively. Views are personal.

Published in:  The Economics Society SRCC, 20 Oct 2021