P V Indiresan

Just leave the IITs alone

P.V.INDIRESAN | Updated on June 15, 2012

As in other institutions, the IIT admission procedure should include interviews

The Government, despite funding the IITs, should not decide whom the IITs will admit, or whom they will recruit to teach.

Is there a universal law of justice? There are people who are convinced that theirs is the universal law. Some of them are fanatic enough to kill to enforce their laws.

At a much simpler level, IIT Kanpur has decided to defy the directive of the IIT council about common admission tests for all institutions under the Central Government. Is that legal? I think it is legal, but the law can be changed.

Alternatively, the Government may get the board of governors to overturn the senate's view. Would that be just? That calls for making the critical distinction between what is legal and what is just. What is just may not be legal, and what is legal need not be just.

Whose iit?

The Government of India has probably exercised its property rights to enforce its own ideas of ‘just' admission. Then, the real issue is who owns the IITs.

Economists list men, material, money and management as the four factors of supply which determine what is produced and how well that is produced. It is a fact that the IITs would not have come up without the money from the government.

It is also a fact that the IITs would never have acquired the reputation they have but for the hard and intelligent work put in by the faculty. Then, who is the real proprietor — the person who gives the money or the one who made good use of that money?

The Government has said often — I have heard it myself — that it is because of the large funds provided by the government that the IITs are as great as they are. At the same time, the Technical Teachers' Training Institutes (now called National Institutes of Technical Teacher Training) have a per-student funding much in excess of what the IITs get.

By all accounts, those institutions do not enjoy the kind of reputation that the IITs do. Hence, it appears that however important money may be, it does not necessarily determine the quality and the reputation that institutions earn.

Material is of two kinds — buildings and equipment. In both cases, no doubt, money came, mostly, from the Government but the choice of buildings and of equipment was that of the faculty. Then, should we ascribe the value of material to the Government which gave the money, or to the faculty who spent it the way they have done?

In the case of management, both the Government and the faculty can claim a share. The Government can say that the IITs are what they are because of the ‘autonomy' that it let them have.

On the other hand, the faculty can claim that it is they who decided what should be constructed and bought, what should be taught, who will teach and to a large extent whom to teach. For the reputation that the IITs have, to whom should we accord credit — the Government or the faculty?

Crux of the debate

I recollect a Deputy Secretary of the Education Ministry claiming that the IITs are tightly controlled institutions. In a way they have been so ever since the Government introduced reservation in admissions. Nevertheless, I tend to think that no government and no amount of controls would have made the IITs what they are, but for the efforts put in by the faculty. Money is necessary, but is not the faculty important, probably more important?

That is the crux of the current debate. The faculty have not questioned the authority of the Government to decide how much money the IITs should get, but they want autonomy to decide whom they will admit.

Let me consider an analogy: a car has many parts — the engine, the gear train, the fuel tank, the steering wheel and so on. Which one is important? Can the fuel tank decide where the car should go or how fast it should go? No one will agree. I feel that the government is like the fuel tank, vital but cannot be the one who takes the decisions.

Charge rich more

I think that the IITs made a serious mistake when they let the Joint Entrance Examination decide who will be admitted. It was done with the best of intentions to protect the institutions from political interference. However, in the past week, I had come to the conclusion that the youth from rich and powerful families too have their own rights. Whether we like it or not, they will have enormous influence over how the economy will grow.

The former US President, Mr George Bush, was admitted to Yale not because he was brilliant, but because he was the son of another former US President.

Such youth need good education, particularly, good Indian education. Hence, I suggest that the IITs apply the Pareto criterion — reserve 20 per cent of seats for the very rich or powerful after charging them 80 per cent of the costs. The other 80 per cent should be selected on the basis of merit — as decided by the faculty — and get charged only 20 per cent of the costs. Alternatively, the Government, which has the responsibility to train the youth, pays for them. In any case, it is not correct to charge everyone, rich or poor, the same fees.

Ideally, the Government should not decide whom the IITs will admit, or whom they will recruit to teach. The IITs, too, should accept that they made a mistake when they ruled that students will be admitted purely on the basis of marks.

If the IIMs can have an interview after the CAT examination, if people for the central services are selected after an examination and an interview, if even a peon is selected after an interview, why should not each IIT have the same, independent system?

This is 331st in the Vision 2020 series. The last article appeared on June 2.

(The author is a former Director, IIT Madras. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in and indiresan@gmail.com)

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Published on June 15, 2012
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This article is closed for comments.
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