Grind in STEM in India chisels global Tech leaders

It is important for young students to undergo exposure to a variety of preselected topics instead of selecting courses based more on curiosity or a fad. This makes Indian college education more complete.   

By Basab Dasgupta

When I was a student, the dream of undergraduate studies in the USA seemed unachievable for most Indians.  The high cost of tuition, and living expenses along with language and cultural barriers were considered too severe to overcome at a tender age. Applying for graduate studies to institutions offering some type of financial assistance in addition to free tuition was the way to go.

I have always been very satisfied with my undergraduate education in India. That satisfaction has now turned into pride and a feeling of being blessed. I am pleasantly surprised by the recent trend whereby a series of first-generation Indian Americans with undergraduate education in India is being offered topmost leadership roles in several major high technology companies.

It started with Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe System), followed by Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft). Then Sundar Pichai became the CEO of Google/Alphabet. IBM followed suit by naming Arvind Krishna as their CEO.  Most recently, a young engineer named Parag Agrawal has become the CEO of Twitter.

It is a testimonial to the soundness of undergraduate education in India. This strength was already known from the professional accomplishments of Indian immigrants in other areas such as medicine, economics, business and traditional science subjects. However, they reached the upper management echelon only after a long experience in their respective careers.

Examples are Pradeep Khosla (Chancellor of University of California – San Diego), Neeli Bendapudi (who will become the President of the Pennsylvania State University in 2022) in academia and Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo from 2005-2018), Ajay Banga (CEO of MasterCard from 2010 to 2020) in the business world. The recent trend in the technology sector suggests that something else might be in play.

I would like to emphasize at the outset that undergraduate education in India is definitely on par with that in this country and even better in some respects. The curriculum in India consists of a specific set of subjects within a particular major area that each student must take. In the US, although there are a few mandatory “core courses” for all students, they have a rather wide range of courses available to choose from in order to complete the degree requirements.

In my opinion, it is important for young students in their late teens to undergo exposure to a variety of preselected topics instead of them selecting courses based more on curiosity or a fad or recommendations from someone. This makes Indian college education more complete.

Secondly, the system in India emphasizes reading textbooks and memorizing whereas the American educational philosophy is to encourage independent thinking and writing based on hands-on experience.  The ability to memorize is not a bad skill. It is good to know all the key theories and their derivations by heart because it enhances a fundamental understanding of the logic involved. The US system emphasizes problem-solving whether one grasps the basic ideas or not.

Students definitely spend longer hours in classrooms in India – typically five or even six days a week and five or six periods every day which runs back-to-back with an hour-long break in between for lunch. It keeps them focused on their studies. The typical course load for an undergraduate student in the USA is eighteen credit hours which translates into eighteen-hour per week with plenty of idle time between classes.

There are more opportunities for extra-curricular activities in the US, especially in various sports.  However, all these extra-curricular activities in American colleges provide various distractions which often force the students to sacrifice their main goal.  Some of these distractions can lead to rather dangerous and sometimes tragic consequences.

Qualifications and drive for becoming leaders of technology companies come from three additional contributing factors. First and foremost is the strong emphasis on mathematical skills in Indian education which is now further aided by the availability of computers. At the same time, the educational system in the US has been suffering from a continuous decline in math teaching.

It started with the “common-core” philosophy in high school curricula during the Obama administration, designed to bring socialistic equity in the learning process. The country never recovered from the resulting mediocrity. This has widened the gap between the students who attend colleges in the US versus the ones who get undergraduate education in India in their math competency which also affects their commands of all STEM subjects.  I believe that even the Indian American students who go to undergraduate colleges in the USA do not reach their full potential in math.

Secondly, Indian American students are relatively more fluent in English compared to Asian, South American, and Eastern European students.  In addition to their fluency in English, they are better at interpersonal interactions with others, especially Caucasian people. This strength has been gradually increasing in recent decades, thanks to the major recruitment efforts of Indian IT engineers by tech companies in this country, the influence of social media, and more recognition of the Indian culture in general.

There is another subtle but important reason. College education in India opens one’s eyes to the political world. I remember that my attendance at Presidency College in Kolkata during the Naxalbari movement awakened me to the world of politics and related social issues.

Coming from such an environment, the absence of vigorous political discussions and debates on the campuses in this country surprised me. While ideological passion could be disruptive, I feel that the American undergraduate students are shockingly naïve when it comes to the question of how they would like to see their country governed.

Familiarity with politics might be giving Indian employees an edge in “climbing up the ladder”. They know how to manage people, how to negotiate diplomatically, and how to effectively campaign for a cause. Do not think that promotions to higher ranks simply fall on one’s lap.  One has to show a drive for it and actively lobby for it.

Many in India wonder why India herself has not been able to develop such technology leaders with Indian students who did not come abroad.  The reason is that one also needs graduate education to advance to higher ranks. The educational situation is completely reversed in graduate school.

In this aspect, the American universities are superior because of the availability of all kinds of modern scientific equipment, professional journals and books in the library, opportunities to interact with various faculty members and fellow students, encouragement to attend conferences and present papers there and so on. In addition, the sheer number of schools of higher learning throughout the country is quite impressive.

The Indian system is definitely limited in most of these aspects. Even the professors themselves find it difficult to keep up with the latest developments on any given research topic thus hindering their abilities to properly guide their doctoral students on an appropriate path.

One can get the best of both worlds by having undergraduate education in India and doing graduate studies in the USA. This is true even for the children born and raised here. College education in India would be financially attractive and will keep them away from undesirable external influences.

Indian universities can especially emphasize their low-cost offerings in medical education, similar to medical schools in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, and other areas like mathematics and IT-related subjects.

In all, I believe that the undergraduate education system in India is an asset that the country can leverage in gaining various advantages. Increased income from tuition can fund improvements in both qualities of professors and the infrastructure of the colleges. Enrollment of foreign students could lead way to various avenues of foreign investments and cultural exchanges. We, the Indian Americans should definitely consider sending our children to India for their undergraduate studies.

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