The New National Education Policy, approved by the cabinet on last Wednesday (29/7/2020), is a landmark in envisioning future of the Indian education. This step is more significant given the fact that current policies were framed about 35 years ago and the world has substantially changed since then. The present policy with a different outlook towards all levels and aspects of education entails significant departure from the past. Focus on multidisciplinary approach in contrast to specialised discipline-specific academic programmes and institutions is the key recommendation of the new education policy regarding higher education. The policy has indicated that engineering education should “also aim to be offered within multidisciplinary education institutions and programmes and have a renewed focus on opportunities to engage deeply with other disciplines”. This is a far reaching recommendation which requires revisiting the whole philosophy with which institutions like IITs were established in the independent India.
Sir Nalini Ranjan Sarkar committee, set up in 1945, recommended that at least four Higher Technical Institutes on the lines of famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.A. be established in the Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern regions of the country. Post-Independence, it was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who pioneered establishing of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to provide the nation with trained technical personnel of international class, who would act as leaders in technology for the newly born independent India. Over last 70 years, IITs have established a unique identity in terms of excellence in engineering education, research and innovation. With 23 IITs all across the country, these institutes are contributing highly valued manpower for the engineering profession, producing top-class engineering scientists and distinguished innovators including an array of Unicorn start-up’s. This was possible because IITs (with almost no exception, although each IIT has its own autonomy) provide broad science based engineering education, where humanities and social sciences also form a significant component – multi-disciplinarity being talked about in the new policy today, has been an intrinsic feature of IIT education, despite being a pure technology institution. However, it is also very important for institutions to contextualize themselves periodically with reference to the changing world. If we consider the philosophy of MIT today, which was the model for IITs, it clearly states that “the institute is committed towards generating, disseminating and preserving knowledge and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s greater challenges”. This is a commitment to knowledge in general and not focussed only in the domain of technology. On the other hand, vision statement of IIT Jodhpur is the following: The Institute - promotes technology thought and action, and prepares needed technical human resources to meet the technology challenges of the nation. It is clear that despite broad based education imparted by IIT Jodhpur, its vision remained technology centric. It has to possibly change. Proposed national education policy is prompting IIT’s to think differently and take specific initiatives, although in action IITs have delivered broad-based engineering education for a very long time.
Globally multi-disciplinary multi-dimensional education is becoming need of the hour. Any engineering project today requires knowledge from multiple fields. An automobile has more computers in it than what we find in the hostel room of a Computer Science undergraduate. Production of a movie requires more technology than artistic talents. An artist uses technical knowledge for unique creative expressions. Economic theory gets built upon machine learning principle. The brain science validates hypothesis about neural processes through computational models. Any diagnostic investigation requires sophisticated instrumentation. Data science is providing new insights in social science. We are discovering new drug molecules using computational processes. The emerging field of human immunomics is enabling development of artificial intelligence tools to speed up development of vaccines for a wide range of diseases. Increasing food production requires technology interventions along multiple fronts. If we really want to work for mitigating challenges posed by global problems like pandemics or meet sustainable development goals (SDG’s) we need multi-modal multi-disciplinary approach. This is not possible, if IITs do not transform themselves into institutes with broader vision and perspectives.
The policy document has provided examples of multi-disciplinary universities in India from the past. It referred to ancient Indian literary works such as Banabhatta’s Kadambari which described a good education as knowledge of the 64 Kalaas or arts. These “64 ‘arts’ were not only subjects, such as singing and painting, but also ‘scientific ’fields, such as chemistry and mathematics, ‘vocational ’ fields such as carpentry and clothes-making, ‘professional ’fields, such as medicine and engineering, as well as ‘soft skills’ such as communication, discussion, and debate”. This notion of a ‘knowledge of many arts’ in modern times is often called the ‘liberal arts’. A liberal arts education offers an expansive intellectual basis in all kinds of humanistic inquiry. It is a vital foundation for both individual’s growth and the well-being of our society. A commitment to the liberal arts, should possibly become part of IIT’s mission for meeting need of the changing time. Although, it is not that liberal arts education has been ignored in IIT ecosystem, there remains ample scope to amplify their contributions. In the process of redesigning curriculum in its second decade, IIT Jodhpur has made different aspects of liberal arts as core component of UG curriculum. As part of B.Tech programme students need to take courses in the area of Humanities and Social Sciences amounting to 10% and can take up to 35% of the total credit requirements for their B.Tech degrees, which can include a minor in the area of humanities and social sciences. In addition, students can take courses in performing arts or fine arts as part of their graduation requirement. Professional ethics is also a core component of their curriculum. However, there has been a significant lack of interplay between technology and liberal arts in integrated academic programmes of IITs.
In recent times, responding to the demands of cutting edge technology, many IITs have started a process to broaden their gamut of educational and research activities. Multi-disciplinary research initiatives have become significant component of the research agenda of IIT’s. IIT Jodhpur is no exception. This has happened organically. At IIT Jodhpur, we have created seven interdisciplinary research groups – Smart Healthcare, Digital Humanities, IOT and Applications, Space Technology, Quantum Information Processing, Robotics and Mobility and Science of Intelligence reflecting common research interests of faculty members from diverse disciplines – humanities, engineering, biological, physical, chemical and mathematical sciences. These groups have initiated multi-disciplinary research and academic programmes. Smart Healthcare group has collaborated with AIIMS, Jodhpur to initiate joint Masters and PhD programme in Medical Technology with focus on innovation. This is an example of creating trans-disciplinary clusters, as envisaged in the new policy document, where institutions from diverse domain can come together to create new programmes to meet the need of the time. MSc and PhD programmes in Digital Humanities are expected to enhance interplay between humanities and engineering sciences. IIT Jodhpur is making conscious effort to enable multi-faceted growth in biological sciences. A research centre for rare diseases and an animal house for experimental study is on the anvil. IITJ will be possibly among very few IITs to have animal house facility.
Our undergraduate programmes in different engineering disciplines, driven by technology foresight, have been designed with a multi-disciplinary perspective. Emerging scientific concepts and new technologies, like internet of things, AI, Cyber-physical System, Materials Science, Quantum Information Processing, have been made part of engineering curriculum to enable graduating students to deal with future challenges. IITJ also offers students a unique possibility of graduating with a degree in Engineering Science in which a student can design his program, under supervision of a faculty mentor, integrating courses from different disciplines to build up his or her own unique capability matrix. IITJ has set up a centre on – Technology Foresight and Policy to have clear vision about the future of technology and strategy and become a think tank for all policy matters. Academic activities of this centre will add a new context to the academic ecosystem of IIT Jodhpur. A new School of Management and Entrepreneurship has brought in a distinct culture of business school at IIT Jodhpur.
New education policy also emphasizes the need for India to take a lead “ in preparing professionals in cutting-edge areas that are fast gaining prominence, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3-D machining, big data analysis, and machine learning”. These technology domains will substantially impact industry in all areas of engineering in the next few years. IITs have already taken initiatives in this direction. IIT Jodhpur is setting up a School of AI and Data Science which will have a number of focussed centres of excellence working on multi-disciplinary applications of AI and Data Sciences. We propose to set up CoE’s in the areas of Mathematical and Computational Economics, Smart Infrastructure, AI+Ayush and others which can execute projects for meeting national needs. With the support of DST we are setting up Technology Innovation Hub in the area of Computer Vision, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. This hub will address applications in diverse domains like plant phenomics, aqua-culture, public health, radio-genomics, educational technology, smart manufacturing, digital heritage. Some of these technology domains (smart manufacturing and digital heritage) will also support advancement of 3D printing technology. This initiative for multi-disciplinary technology development in different IITs and academic institutions will require strong support from National Research foundation for taking forward the agenda of inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary academic and research initiatives which has been so passionately advocated in the policy document. This support can only transform IIT’s into multi-disciplinary institutes of higher learning involved in teaching but with emphasis in research.
It is clear from this discussion, that IIT’s, including IIT Jodhpur, have already taken steps which are aligned with the new education policy. National education policy 2020 can definitely help in accelerating these initiatives. New future for IIT’s will be constructed through careful integration of multiple disciplines which can generate new solutions for problems faced by the humanity. Policy makers must enable IIT’s to follow this new path of multi-disciplinary growth through appropriate support. Inter-disciplinary and multidisciplinary research programmes can enable propagation of this culture of problem solving involving knowledge from all possible domains. Further, support for a new School of Liberal Arts in IITs which can house varied disciplines of humanities and social sciences including performing and fine arts under one umbrella, can provide a fillip to multi-disciplinary academic pursuits in these areas with integration of science and technology. This will also provide impetus to IIT’s mission of producing professionals with multi-dimensional personalities who can play critical roles in nation building, nurture the new culture of innovation and make India self-reliant. Success of the national policy for higher education, to a great extent, is therefore, dependent upon plan of the government for funding the initiatives promoted by this policy.
Department of Computer Science and Engineering