S Sadagopan, who is considered to be one of India’s foremost academicians in the IT sector, retired recently as the founding director of the International Institute of Information and Technology – Bengaluru (IIIT-B), after a 22-year stint. Besides teaching, Prof Sadagopan has worked closely with the government on various committees including the National Language Policy Expert Committee, Chief Minister’s Vision Group on IT, Karnataka, Karnataka Higher Education Council (2015) Karnataka Knowledge Commission and chaired the Karnataka e-Government Task Force Committee. He talks to Shruthi H M Sastry about technology education in Karnataka and more. Excerpts:
You’ve been part of the IIIT-B since its inception more than two decades ago. What was your experience establishing such an exclusive institute and its relevance to society?
Back then, information technology was primarily viewed as computer science. There were questions on whether an exclusive IT institute was an overkill. We realized that IT will soon impact every part of human endeavour beginning with manufacturing, retail, health, education, hospitality, etc. So, we looked at the socioeconomic aspects of IT and its impact on governance, something even the IITs didn’t focus on. Nonetheless, it was an advantage to be located in Bengaluru. It was a time when startups were booming and they needed IT. We were at the right time and place.
What was the turning point for establishing relevance and gaining public acceptance?
We had to begin by gaining our students’ acceptance and it would happen only if they got jobs and other opportunities. Two of our students started a startup way back in 2001, which is doing well to this day, after twenty years. Another student went to University of California, Berkely, a top global university, which meant there were opportunities to pursue. About one third of the first batch of 136 M Tech students were hired by GE, a top recruiter. Add to this, we also had good faculty members who joined us with previous work experience in premier institutes across the world. The institute also got opportunities to work on government projects such as K-SWAN and Khajane. We got acknowledged by the government. Moreover, in 1999 when we were born, Bengaluru, India and IT were the buzzwords. All of them aligned to help IIIT-B grow.
Karnataka has 234 engineering colleges and 299 polytechnics, majority being unaided. Most often, their quality is a concern. How should the government address this issue?
The general problem is that the government-fixed fee cap is inadequate. Either the colleges end up underpaying the faculty or they admit too many students to make up for it, affecting the quality. While insisting on transparency, the government should stop micromanaging colleges. It has to also control the output from colleges by assessing students’ performance in VTU exams and later in entrance exams such as the GATE.
Over the years, the VTU has run into many controversies. Has VTU outlived its time?
The VTU needs to rediscover itself. Instead of hand-holding colleges, it has to enable affiliated institutions to become independent. The VTU guarantees students to colleges, they in turn conduct exams. There’s no incentive for better performance. Each college should identify its core competence so that they can produce students who will emerge as leaders in that area. This way, the good colleges will survive and others can be merged.
The state government’s skill development programmes are yet to see an impact. What should be the government’s approach to skilling?
Many skill training outfits are fly-by-night operators only interested in pocketing government funds. Government should identify a few committed institutions and individuals to drive the effort. It should also focus on deep skilling. Merely distributing learning material won’t help.
The pandemic has forced higher education institutions to conduct classes online. Will this have a long-term impact?
Online classes are only about the lecture. Learning involves interacting with fellow students, life on campus, access to libraries, sports, art and culture. This is important to create professionals who have empathy. While no institution will have the luxury of denying an online existence henceforth, their brick and mortar campuses will continue to exist. The ratio will have to be decided by each individual institution.
The Karnataka Knowledge Commission, of which you were a part earlier, has shut shop. What’s the role of such non-pedagogic bodies?
These bodies enable thinking at the inter-institutional, state or national-level. At KKC, we came up with initiatives such as Kanaja, Cauvery museum and efforts to rejuvenate the Madiwala lake in Bengaluru. We took up research that needed the format of a think tank. The KKC didn’t execute any project by itself, but government departments took them up. The Commission was an intermediary between citizens and government departments. This is a powerful model and there’s always a need for such bodies.
The Karnataka government has come up with an IT Policy for 2020-2025 with goals such as generating 60 lakh jobs during this period and expanding the IT sector beyond Bengaluru. How can the government ensure that these goals are met?
Many of these announcements are made but are not followed up with budget allocation annually. The government has to ensure funds. It also needs to set up a task force to make sure that these plans are executed and do not remain on paper.
How do you envision the role of institutes such as the IIITs in the future of technology education?
Post-Covid, there will likely be a fundamental shift in the way the industry operates. People are likely to have the opportunity to continue working from home for most part. This means that people can work out of smaller towns which are a couple of hours away from metros. Such an employment model may have the solution to many problems such as pollution, global warming and health. In this context, it is important for institutions to study the next generation of urbanisation. The IIITs should start looking to study the future of humanity powered by technology.