The Indian Institutes of Technology were founded almost five decades ago with the objective of providing technological leadership to a new and resurgent India, driven by Jawaharlal Nehru’s deep commitment to science-led development.

Whether they provided technological leadership to India or not remains debatable given the large numbers of their (under)graduate students who have migrated abroad or shifted to non-technical careers.

India has deviated substantially from the Nehruvian vision. The undergraduate education at IIT and the academic culture inside the institutes are being reshaped to an unprecedented degree by factors that operate at points of entry and exit — the former related to the joint entrance examination (JEE), and the latter arising from placement patterns dominated by non-technical jobs.

Early start

The core challenge at the entrance level has to do with the overt and subtle effects of coaching factories. Children are often enrolled for four to five years of coaching, starting as early as middle school. The result is much greater burnout, loss of creativity, and eventual loss of interest in science and technical subject matter, though coaching helps overcome the multiple deficiencies of school teaching in India to some degree.

However, the negatives become apparent when students enter high school, and succeeding in competitive examinations becomes an all-consuming goal. At one level, the sheer volume of work leaves little time for other interests and the joys of a normal adolescent life. The regimentation of solving large ‘banks’ of problems leaves little room for creativity or curiosity.

Students become adept at learning how to answer questions but are at a loss on how to ask questions — especially ones that matter. The intense, competitive pressure creates an atmosphere ripe for generating severe anxieties, and often a deep sense of inadequacy and humiliation. To be sure, this hyper-competitive experience is not different from the ordeal that students in several other Asian countries undergo. Once they enter the IITs, many students desire to rediscover normalcy in some sense.

The initial question students confront is why and what should they learn. First, unlike in the past, almost everyone plans to take a job and not go to graduate school. Second, the jobs they aspire to are in finance, consulting, software, and more generally, ‘managerial’ positions. These jobs rarely have any subject-related technical content but their pay packages are substantially higher than for technical jobs. There are far fewer openings for core technical jobs.

Jobs and advice

Most job offers come from business analytics firms and finance companies where the role is to crunch numbers on spreadsheets. While companies in these service sectors are usually satisfied with their IIT recruits, students, especially ones with middling academic records, are happy to do this, and usually enrol in an MBA programme later on. They have a certain facility with maths (which IIT-JEE selects for), are tech-savvy, and fairly quiescent as long as the job pays well.

Out of the small number of students who end up taking core jobs in their technical branch, most are often embittered about the lower paying — and lower status — technical jobs. From a student’s perspective, there is little point in mastering technical material relating to, say, mechanical, chemical, or civil engineering, or even physics or chemistry.

As students make their way through the first year, they run into that great fount of established wisdom: seniors. They rapidly pick up tips on what kind of jobs pay best, the general irrelevance of scientific and technical material, how to traverse the academic system with minimal effort and the importance of participating in all kinds of personality development activities (the crowning glory being a ‘student festival’ manager).

The “greed is good” mantra that students pick up while dreaming about pay packages also comes loaded with ‘legendary’ tales about how an alumnus made so much money in his first job or which startup was sold for how many millions to a bigger software company. These legends merely serve as a rationalisation for shirking academic work and using unfair means. As a result, students in their second year are writing business plans or planning to do some project or short course in business school while developing a disdain for learning technical subjects and basic fundamental science material such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

Underwhelming institutions

In the end, only those few students who have, relatively speaking, not been affected by this discourse retain the ability to continue building their technical knowledge. Sadly, poor teaching and lacklustre faculty have also contributed to this apathy.

Viewed from the outside, the IITs have managed to retain a glow because every graduating student finds a placement; students rarely remain unemployed. However, that says more about the quality of the rest of Indian higher education than the IITs. The reality is that these institutions are producing engineers, using large amounts of public money, who rarely use the knowledge acquired in their IIT education.

One could argue that a large number of students graduating with engineering degrees in the US also end up in non-technical fields, prized more for their analytical skills than domain knowledge. However, unlike US institutions, the IITs have shown very little will and the means to tackle student disinterest and faculty apathy, and quell the entire academic malpractices syndrome.

India’s policymakers need to ask some hard questions. If the IITs are to regain an ambience that generates a zest and excitement for learning and knowledge creation, how many science and engineering graduates does India need in the classical engineering disciplines? Can a more interdisciplinary restructuring of the undergraduate programme reignite interest in academic work?

Over the long term, the questions are even harder: How does the country drastically overhaul primary and secondary education, given that what happens upstream is bound to affect the flow downstream? How does India build a more dynamic manufacturing sector that will facilitate better use of the immense technical talent the IITs were set up to provide?

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. The writer is a professor of chemical engineering at IIT-Bombay and a Summer 2014 CASI visiting scholar