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‘IITs need a vibrant system involving academia and industry’

T. E. Raja Simhan
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Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT-Madras.
Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT-Madras.

We need to create a good eco-system for more Ph.Ds and research work to come out of our institute.

Bhaskar Ramamurthi graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, in 1980 with a B.Tech in Electronics Engineering.

He would not have dreamt then that three decades later he would be the Director of the institute.

After his doctorate from the University of California, he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories, US. In 1986, he returned to IIT Madras as a faculty at the Department of Electrical Engineering.

He became a Dean of the department before taking over as director of the institute in September 2011.

The soft spoken Ramamurthi says that in the last few years the IITs have transformed themselves from being strong undergraduate-focused institutions to now focusing more on post-graduate education such as Ph.Ds and research.

“If we are a pure undergraduate institution, we are dead. We need to create a good eco-system for more Ph.Ds and research work to come out of our institute.

This is going to a big challenge going forward,” he said in an interview to Business Line. Excerpts:

IITs churn out so many engineering graduates. But, what do you think the IITs are missing out on?

A vibrant eco-system involving academia, industry and various stakeholders is not there.

In the US or Germany, you do not work in a university but in an eco-system. It is beginning to happen here, but will take some time.

When will it happen?

We are getting there. For example, if you walk in to IIT Madras during the day, there will be research work going on in any of the departments. That was not the case a few years ago.

A number of faculty go abroad and many come to our campus for doing research.

This creates the right collaborative ambience. Research is very interactive and people need to meet frequently. Increasingly, there is sophistication in research as well as in the conversation with external entities.

We work with government agencies such as the Atomic Energy department, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and also with companies such as Boeing.

Government agencies are going after challenging work and taking risks. Faculty who can deliver have a lot of opportunities.

Will private institutions also move more in to research?

Companies feel comfortable dealing with IITs than private institutions.

Globally, around 80 per cent of the research is funded by the Government.

The Indian Government should also sponsor private institutions in a big way.

Today, a faculty from a Princeton University in the US will join IIT Madras at whatever salary we give; even, if a private institute offers him double the salary, he will not go there.

This is because his worries are where will he get research students, from where will he get the grants, and how to deal with issues such as branding and research.

We need to get out of this and private institutes should do more research.

What is IIT Madras’ direction in the next five years?

There was no clarity or direction in the previous directors’ period, though the number of PhDs doubled. There was no acknowledged clarity even in the Government as what the IITs want to do.

Everything happened on its own. But now with the Kakodkar’s committee recommendations, the Government has set a clear direction on research, industry collaboration and technology development.

We want to now set up an advanced centre for manufacturing.

We are identifying a cluster of faculty of 15-20 and will deliver strong value to the industry and to the national effort.

All of this will happen with the help of Ph.D students and researchers. This is where we are heading.

What is the annual student intake now?

IIT Madras takes around 8,000 with less than 50 per cent for undergraduate programmes.

The rest is for dual degree, masters and PhDs. While the number is stable, Ph.Ds may grow to around to 2,500 from around 1,800. We may not grow anywhere else.

What is the student faculty ratio?

Our sanctioned student-faculty ratio is 1:10. For 8,000 students, we should have 800 faculty but we have around 540 and add another 20 at the end of the current recruitment cycle. Once we get to around 650, we will be very comfortable.

The IITs have never had the sanctioned strength. We are not struggling today, but having 650 will give much more flexibility for faculty who can go on leave or on a sabbatical.

Is getting faculty a challenge?

I had a grim view of it in 1998-99 when large-scale retirement took place; things are different now. Out of the 540 faculty we have now, 375 were recruited in the last ten years with half of them from abroad.

The rest are Ph.Ds but had their post-doctoral experience elsewhere and some have worked in the industry. So, the exposure is very good.

Will there be increased reverse migration of talent joining IITs?

I won’t say in large numbers, but yes, a fraction of them may come back and it is enough for us.

Earlier we were aggressive in recruitment and used to take little more chances if somebody was promising even we were not 100 per cent sure.

Now, we are very careful. Any doubt, we do not take that person.

We have become very choosy not only with candidates but also on the sector. Annually, we have been adding 35 faculty and are confident of adding at least 20 every year over the next 10 years even while being very choosy.

What about churn rate of faculty?

It is very little. India is not that great a place for moving, whether it is in the Government or private sector, from one place to another since it depends on issues such as family and schools.

India is not like the US where one can move easily. Most places do not see much churn, particularly in the Government sector. Where will faculty go? To another IIT?

There is no big advantage in that. Of course, going abroad is a different matter, but not many do that.

Why don’t we create many entrepreneurs out of IITs as MIT does?

While the eco-system is just developing, there is a cultural issue too. The interest among students to turn entrepreneurs is phenomenal but parents dissuade them from this.

I had situations where an entrepreneur told me that I had spoiled his life as nobody was marrying him as he did not have a fixed salary.

This is a cultural issue we need to handle. The ecosystem has to be holistic.

raja.simhan@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 7, 2013)
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