P V Indiresan

Why IITs are not world-class

P. V. Indiresan | Updated on June 09, 2011

With few of the bright students willing to take up research careers, the IITs are starved of talent. - Photo:R Shivaji Rao   -  The Hindu

Mr Jairam Ramesh is right in asserting that the IITs do not measure up to global standards. The reasons for this are: lack of industry involvement, inadequate funds and infrastructure for research and stifling bureaucratic control.

There is a story about Bernard Shaw attending a cocktail party. He looked at the crowd and remarked to himself: Here are a bunch of well-to-do upper class persons who have come evidently to enjoy themselves. Why, then, are they so grumpy? Look at the chap in front of me, can you find a grumpier person? Then, he realised he was looking at himself in a mirror.

The Union Environment Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh's criticism of the IITs reminds me of this story. Let us consider the environment in our country for which Mr Ramesh is in charge. Can we find, anywhere in our country, a clean street without garbage strewn around? Is there one place which offers quality water? Is the Central Secretariat, or even the Ministry of Environment really clean and up to “world standards”?

NO INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT

However, let us confine ourselves to the Minister's remark that the IITs and their faculty are not world-class, though their students are. In the developed countries, engineering research is done mostly in association with industry. Industries support both basic and applied research through large grants and constant interaction with faculty. But virtually no Indian industry offers that kind of support to Indian institutions.

Some MNCs do offer a measure of support for research in the IITs. But there are problems here as well. I have heard a major laboratory of an MNC complaining that its offer for collaborative research was rejected by one of our most prestigious educational institutions. In another instance, an MNC actually located its laboratory inside an IIT, but ran into so much hostility that it moved out.

Therefore, there are few Indian industries that are willing to fund research, and few educational institutions that are willing to welcome them. Evidently, there are not many among the IIT faculty who are willing to take up the responsibility of conducting research to the exacting standards of industry. It must also be said that many MNCs (and practically no Indian industry) are hesitant to trust Indian scholars with really challenging problems.

RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE

Yet, the IITs do conduct most of the research that is done in science and engineering in the country. In the Indian National Academy of Engineering, (an exclusive club of top engineers) the IITs hold sway – virtually 90-95 per cent of the academic membership is from the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science.

Thus, the IITs are undoubtedly the most prestigious engineering institutions in the country. If proof is needed, we have to look at the hundreds of thousands of school children who slog for years to gain admission to the IITs.

However, ardour for admission is not the same as zest for engineering. Most IIT students seek only management careers and not in engineering. If they want to do research in engineering, they prefer to go abroad. However, some of them do return to teach in the IITs. On the other hand, practically no one is willing to take up doctoral work in India. With few or none of our bright students willing to take up research careers, the IITs are starved of talent. American universities have always had a number of teaching assistants and research assistants. The IITs have no teaching assistants and few research assistants to assist them. Further, the IITs used to have a student-faculty ratio of 6:1; now that figure has more than doubled.

Class sizes were restricted to 45; now some of them are large as 200. With heavy teaching loads, no teaching assistants, very few research scholars and next to no support from industry, the IIT faculty have little opportunity to excel.

GOVERNMENT ATTITUDE

Our rules and regulations do not help either. The IITs have freedom only to do what the government wants. The IITs cannot pay research scholars well enough to be competitive with what businesses offer. Hence, students and parents are interested only in managerial positions in industry and rarely consider research as an alternative.

It is also a fact that the government's attitude to research is negative. Not long ago, virtually every telephone exchange in the country was of local C-DoT design. Systematically, the state, as a matter of policy, has driven out C-DoT and other similar institutions.

The Space and Atomic Energy departments are so obsessed with security that they do not collaborate with educational institutions in their research. I know of at least one case where a research laboratory took a project proposal from an IIT, copied it and submitted it as its own.

Money too is a problem. The United States spends over 50 times more on research than what we do. It offers useful incentives, too. I know of a proposal which was returned for modification from the National Science Foundation of USA because not enough had been asked for travel.

The NSF argued that research is useful only when it is widely circulated and discussed – that required the researcher to travel. Such a view is unthinkable in our country.

Handling an educational institution is like handling a bird: Hold it too tight, it chokes; hold it loose it flies away. Bureaucratic control over the IITs is such that they choke.

That is why the Minister is correct; the IITs are not world-class research institutions. However, he is not correct in asserting that the students are world-class. The JEE has become so trainable that it puts out more mug-pots than brilliant minds. Even those who, like the Minister, are good, opt out of research. Hence, his statement is a half-truth.

That reminds me of Gandhiji who said “a half-truth is worse than a lie; therefore, I call it a lie and a half”.

Published on June 04, 2011

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