President of India Launches Historic Indo-U.S. University Network
2005-12-23 11:51:56

The Government of India and universities from the United States and
India have inaugurated an ambitious E-learning collaboration to enhance
science and engineering education at Indian universities and to boost
the supply of world-class engineers available for corporate and academic
research in both countries.

The President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, participated in the
network's launch this month, giving the inaugural lecture via satellite
from New Delhi to students at a dozen far-flung Indian college campuses.
The interactive seminar - on India's research challenges - came one day
after nearly two dozen U.S. universities joined with several Indian
institutions in the Indo-U.S. Inter-University Collaborative Network in
Higher Education and Research.

"If we start today it takes ten years to train a good quality teacher,
but we need to improve Indian education now," said VS Ramamurthy,
Secretary of India's Department of Science and Technology, which is
co-sponsoring the initiative with the Indian Space Research Organization
(ISRO). "We are very happy that leading institutions from the United
States see the benefit in this collaboration, because if you bring in a
certain uniformity of training across the globe, it helps everyone."

"Many of us in higher education depend critically for research and
innovation on bright young minds," said Ramesh Rao, director of the
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) division of the California
Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).
"It behooves us to reach out proactively and nurture this talent pool."

Boosting engineering education in India - especially at second- and
third-tier universities - would groom a more tech-savvy workforce for
American R&D operations in India and around the world, so three
U.S.-based companies have already committed funding to the program.
QUALCOMM, Microsoft and Cadence Design Systems will pay for U.S.
professors who volunteer to spend part of their sabbaticals teaching at
the e-learning facility in Coimbatore of Mata Amritanandamayi Center's
Amrita University, the founding Indian university in the network.

Their lectures will initially be beamed to Amrita's three other campuses
(in Amritapuri, Bangalore, and Kochi) and other universities over
Edusat, the country's first satellite devoted exclusively to educational
programming. Organizers hope the lectures will eventually reach
classrooms on 100 campuses across India, but the initial rollout
involves 15 universities, including the three Indian Institutes of
Technology (in Kanpur, Chennai and Mumbai) and most of the second-tier
National Institutes of Technology located in each Indian state.

Many of those universities have been unable to attract or retain
world-class faculty, and therefore are limited in their ability to turn
out candidates for top jobs in engineering, computer science,
biotechnology and other fields.

"One of the biggest drawbacks of information technology [IT] has been
that it has taken away some of the best people from the teaching
profession in Indian universities," explained Amrita vice chancellor
Venkat Rangan, chief architect of the Indo-U.S. initiative. "So the
thought came to us: how can we use IT in the form of high-speed
connectivity, multimedia and interactivity to overcome the drawbacks of IT?"

The original memorandum of understanding was signed last July in
Washington, D.C. during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's state
visit to the United States. Initial signatories included the University
of California Office of the President, UCSD, UC Berkeley, Calit2 and its
sister institute CITRIS, as well as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Case
Western, and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In December, 15 more American universities joined the initiative,
including Harvard, Princeton and Yale, most of which were represented at
the formal launch in New Delhi. Other U.S. university partners include
Purdue, Georgia Tech, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of
Washington, University of Texas-Austin, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
University of North Dakota, University of Maryland, University of
Michigan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as UCLA
and UC Santa Cruz.

Indian and U.S. educators agreed to broaden the scope of cooperation to
include research, and they held a roundtable discussion in New Delhi -
chaired by Rajagopala Chidambaram, principal scientific advisor to the
Government of India - to discuss potential areas of research
collaboration. "Today most of the low-hanging fruit in research is gone,
and many problems are global problems that require interdisciplinary and
international teams," said Amrita's Rangan. "These are global challenges
for scientists and engineers from all over the world."

"Since we are a research engineering school, I cannot imagine teaching
without research," said Frieder Seible, dean of UCSD's Jacobs School of
Engineering. "It's too early to announce specific research projects, but
there are certainly areas where it is natural to work with India."
Seible cited his own field of structure engineering, including
infrastructure sensors and sensor networks to mitigate man-made and
natural disasters, as well as the entire IT-driven area.

"There was a strong sentiment that we cannot do teaching without having
a concurrent research component, so this was a refinement of the earlier
engagement," added UCSD computer science and engineering professor
Rajesh Gupta, who will chair one of four standing committees of
Indo-U.S. scientists. "We boiled it down to four separate groups,
including the one I'm leading on embedded systems, where we identified
focus areas, including automotive software, automotive embedded systems
and nanotechnology." The other standing committees will explore research
collaboration on disaster warning and management technologies, IT
services, among other areas.

UC officials, led by Calit2's Rao and UC Director of International
Strategy Development Gretchen Kalonji, also held discussions on possible
funding of joint research projects by India's Technology Information
Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), whose charter is to promote
industry-university collaborative research. "India is a strategic
partner for the future of the 10-campus UC system," said Kalonji, who
toured all four Amrita campuses in southern India, "and the
distance-learning platform is a powerful one." TIFAC may also fund top
Indian graduate students on 18-month research fellowships on UC campuses.

U.S. universities clearly believe that helping to improve engineering
education in India could result in more Indian candidates choosing U.S.
campuses to do their Ph.D. "Many of our best students are from India,
and we look forward to inviting more students from India to our College
of Engineering," said Rosalyn Pertzborn, director of University of
Wisconsin-Madison's Office of Space Education.

American educators hope the initiative will also lead to opportunities
for American students to study in India. Joseph Mook of the State
University of New York at Buffalo is also chairman of the Global
Engineering Education Exchange. "As chairman my job is to encourage U.S.
students to go abroad," he said. "This is a great cultural opportunity."

"I feel it is a rediscovery of the past, to some extent," observed
Arabinda Mitra, executive director of the Indo-U.S. Science and
Technology Forum. "In the 1970s there was a major program called the
Satellite Instruction Television Experiment between NASA and ISRO, which
brought distance education to the nooks and corners of this country at a
time when the term IT was not yet even coined. I'm glad that almost
forty years later, this is being rediscovered."

The launch of the Indo-U.S. network coincided with a visit by Microsoft
chairman and founder Bill Gates to India, where he announced plans to
invest $1.7 billion in R&D. As one of the three U.S. companies funding
the university initiative, Microsoft sees improved engineering education
as essential to its plan to increase its Indian workforce from 4,000 to
7,000 - including many engineers for its R&D facility in Bangalore.

"Part of India's great success in the IT sector comes from the fantastic
investment that the government has made over decades in institutions
like the Indian Institutes of Technology," Gates told a meeting of the
Confederation of Indian Industry attended by the U.S. university
representatives. "India only has six or seven million seats at its
universities, and it will need 20 to 25 million, so I think this is a
great opportunity to rethink the idea of a university."

"Today the university combines many elements - great lectures, study
groups, students in the lab - and the lecture piece should be broken
off," added Gates, who was making his fourth visit to India in the past
few years. "The very best lectures from India or the U.S. or Britain
will be available in streaming video, so students can consume that
wherever they want and don't have to go do that all together in one place."

"Teaching and research may be very different ten years from now," agreed
Stella Pang, associate dean of graduate education at the University of
Michigan. "It's important to consider that the campus where we educate
will not be limited to the physical campus where we are located."

University officials hope to raise further private funding for the
initiative from corporations in the U.S. and India. On May 31, 2006,
Calit2 and UCSD's Jacobs School will host a one-day "Indo-U.S. Summit on
Education, Science and Technology for Society" in San Diego.

"We expect CEOs from major Indian and American technology companies as
well as officials from governmental and non-governmental organizations,"
said Calit2 division director Ramesh Rao. "Our goal is to explore new
avenues for Indo-U.S. collaboration on education and research programs
designed to improve science and engineering talent for corporations and
universities in both countries."