India education
Students on campus at IIT Madras. Image Credit: Supplied

Amid ongoing transformations in higher education across the world, universities in India are strategically adapting to evolving industry dynamics, tech trends, and a push towards sustainability. From restructuring the curricula, assessment system, and course content to fostering innovation, research, and industry outreach, universities are proactively modifying their approaches to teaching and learning to ensure a greater relevance in this disruptive digital era.

India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has been a game changer in this transformative journey, laying the foundation for an education framework that is holistic, progressive and multidisciplinary. The policy sets the direction for a future that not only requires technological proficiency in graduates, but also emphasises global awareness and a commitment to sustainable practices as critical tools for success.

Curricular innovation

Most Indian universities now acknowledge that preparing students for 21st-century challenges requires breaking away from the traditional teaching and assessments models. Embracing a comprehensive approach to education, they are creating an ecosystem where students not only develop subject knowledge but also cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and a deep understanding of real-world applications. The paradigm shift is evident in the launch of new, interdisciplinary courses, cross-disciplinary research, flexible curricular frameworks, choice-based credit system and more opportunities for hands-on experiences woven into the academic structure.

Following the recommendations of NEP 2020, numerous disciplines in Indian higher education institutions (HEIs) are now undergoing the systematic implementation of thorough, multidisciplinary learning.

India’s premier engineering institute, Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) has started offering interdisciplinary programmes in cutting-edge areas such as data science, cyber-physical systems, and quantum computing. “These programmes have several industry-ready skills that are imparted as a part of the curriculum,” says Prof. Raghunathan Rengaswamy, Dean of Global Engagement, IIT Madras.

Research plays a critical role as India moves up the value chain in all areas, be it information technology or renewable energy. We are committed to fostering research capabilities in our students, otherwise India will only be a follower and not a leader in critical technologies.

- Prof. Raghunathan Rengaswamy, Dean of Global Engagement, IIT Madras

The education system is experiencing several advancements to address the curricular concerns and bridge the significant disconnect between course structures and the desired learning outcomes.

“Curricula for engineering programmes are regularly updated to include the latest advancements and technologies relevant to the industry. This ensures that students are exposed to cutting-edge concepts and are well-prepared for the challenges of the future workplace,” says Prof. Sanket Goel, Dean, Research and Innovation, BITS Pilani.

“Future engineers must be prepared by higher education with the knowledge and abilities necessary to handle complexity, unpredictability, and rapid changes,” he adds.

Curricula for engineering programmes are regularly updated to include the latest advancements and technologies relevant to the industry. This ensures that students are exposed to cutting-edge concepts and are well-prepared for the challenges of the future workplace.

- Prof. Sanket Goel, Dean, Research and Innovation, BITS Pilani

Meanwhile, IIT Jodhpur in the western Indian state of Rajasthan has undergone a thorough curriculum review and introduced specialised interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary programmes. In collaboration with All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) Jodhpur, IIT Jodhpur has also started three transdisciplinary, innovation-oriented joint programmes in medical technologies, aligned with the national objective of achieving self-reliance in medical equipment manufacturing.

Building bridges

Given the increasing skill demand in emerging roles across diverse industries, the establishment of a robust industry-academia partnership has now become imperative for higher education. Indian universities are actively engaging with businesses and research organisations to ensure that education extends beyond the classroom and aligns with the job market. These partnerships facilitate opportunities for more internships, co-op programmes, and collaborative research projects, providing students with real-world exposure.

“It is now expected from educators to minimise and address the rising gap between industry demands and educational outcomes. At BITS, an eight-month-long practice school programme – involving two industry internships – are imbibed into the curricula and all students get opportunities to practice what they are learning,” says Prof. Goel, adding, “There is also a growing emphasis on hands-on learning experiences, such as laboratory work and cooperative education programmes. These opportunities give students practical exposure to industry practices and help bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world applications.”

In response to increasing interconnectedness of businesses, HEIs are integrating an international or cross-cultural dimension in their education systems. This includes an exposure to global curricular standards, study abroad and student exchange initiatives, and participation in international research projects for knowledge exchange. These initiatives are designed to ensure that graduates are prepared to work successfully in a diverse professional environment.

Embracing a global outlook, BITS Pilani has partnered with a few international universities to offer joint programmes. “Our students get the opportunities to pursue internships and thesis with overseas organisations,” points out Prof. Goel.

As part of their internationalisation efforts, HEIs are also exploring opportunities beyond their shores and opening campuses abroad, a strategic move that allows them to extend their global reach and enhance their footprint in key economies around the world. For example, IIT Madras has launched an international campus in Zanzibar last year, offering programmes like a four-year BS in Data Science and AI and a two-year Master of Technology in Data Science and AI. Similarly, the launch of the IIT Delhi-Abu Dhabi campus signifies a significant step in India’s efforts to internationalise higher education.

Focus on continuous education

In the face of ongoing disruptions across sectors, continuous skill development has emerged as a viable path forward. Indian HEIs have embraced the responsibility of incorporating a culture of lifelong learning into their transformative education framework, ensuring that students and professionals alike can stay ahead of industry trends throughout their careers.

BITS Pilani offers the Work Integrated Learning Programmes (WILP), blending learning with the actual work environment, for professionals in the engineering and technology fields. “These programmes allow participants to improve their academic qualifications without having to take a break from their careers. These are developed in collaboration with leading companies from various industries to meet their specific learning and development needs,” says Prof. Goel.

Solution-oriented research

Furthermore, the focus on creating more opportunities for research, innovation and entrepreneurship underscores a commitment of the Indian education system to align with global standards. Universities are encouraging cutting-edge research to not only empower students with valuable knowledge and experiences but also provide solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.

“Research plays a critical role as India moves up the value chain in all areas, be it information technology or renewable energy. We are committed to fostering research capabilities in our students, otherwise India will only be a follower and not a leader in critical technologies,” says Prof. Rengaswamy from IIT Madras.

Established last year through a unique collaboration among the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Indian Knowledge Systems Division, Ministry of Education, IIM Sambalpur, IIT Kharagpur, and IIT Bhubaneswar, the Odisha Research Centre (ORC) has a specific focus on fostering multidisciplinary research. Its mandate spans diverse domains, including art, culture, archaeology, tradition, literature, business, industry, science, technology, healthcare, and future technologies. The centre is also dedicated to addressing critical issues such as smart cities, climate change, environmental protection, sustainable development, semiconductors, rare earth, and advanced minerals.

Like most global education hubs, research in HEIs has always played a crucial role in advancing India’s knowledge economy forward.

“Graduates who actively engage in research during their academic journeys bring vital problem-solving skills to the workplace, and support businesses in staying competitive and at the forefront of innovation,” says Prof Goel from BITS Pilani, which has recently launched a range of programmes to advance its research potential. This includes Cross-Disciplinary Research Framework (CDRF); Student Programme for Advancing Research, Knowledge, and Entrepreneurship (Sparkle); Innovation Programme for Solving Societal and Business Problems (Solve); and PhD Drive featuring deep-tech research, innovation, value generation and entrepreneurship.

This emphasis on research not only elevates the academic landscape but also positions higher education institutions as active contributors in addressing complex challenges on a global scale.

In a unique initiative, IIT Madras has recently launched an e-mobility simulation lab in collaboration with American information technology company, Altair, to advance research within the electric vehicle domain and accelerate adoption of sustainable transportation solutions. Meanwhile, IIT-Delhi Abu Dhabi has introduced a master’s programme in Energy Transition and Sustainability (ETS) at its temporary home Zayed University (ZU), which aligns with the overarching goals of the UAE National Energy Strategy 2050 and seeks to empower graduates with the knowledge and expertise required to implement sustainable approaches and solutions.

A raft of transformative initiatives undertaken in the past few years reflects India’s commitment to position itself as a frontrunner in offering a resilient and future-ready higher education system. Embracing the challenges of a disruptive world, India is now well on track to drive an environment where educational institutions continually adapt curricula, integrate technology, and cultivate a growth mindset among students, ensuring graduates are prepared for a dynamic future.