May 26, 2020
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Where Has The Da Vinci Spirit Flown?

The IITs, our top engineering colleges, are facing questions of quality, identity, autonomy.

Where Has The Da Vinci Spirit Flown?
Martin Louis
Where Has The Da Vinci Spirit Flown?
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Seeping Saffron?

  • August 2014 UGC asks IITs to align degrees for recognition by UGC
  • Oct-Nov 2014 HRD forw­ards an RSS activist’s letter protesting against tamasic food at IITs
  • November 2014 IIT Delhi removes non-veg food from menu, saying it couldn’t find suitable supplier
  • December 2014 IIT Delhi director R.K. Shevgaonkar resigns after HRD questions MoU between IIT-D and Mauritius Research Council.
  • January 2015 IIT Bombay invites BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to Mood Indigo. Swamy describes Manmohan Singh as ‘circus lion’ and Sonia Gandhi as ‘vishkanya’.
  • March 2015 Anil Kakodkar resigns as chairman of the board of IIT Bombay over HRD ministry’s casual approach to selection of directors
  • May 2015 HRD ministry forwards an anonymous complaint to IIT Madras about a pamphlet distri­bu­ted by a student group with allegedly objectionable statements about Hindus. The management bans the group but relents in the wake of protests that it was curbing free speech on the campus.

***

At the New York launch of a coffee-table book on the IITs, Reebok founder Paul Fireman recalled how, way back in the 1970s, Infosys, a little known company then, helped a struggling Reebok set up an inventory management system in France. That was in 2003, when Brand IIT was shining like never before, especially in the United States. The next year, a US senator proposed that IIT graduates should be immediately offered green cards. And two years later, the New York Times said that clearing the IIT-JEE was tougher than getting into Harvard.

A decade down the line, IITs seem to inspire much less awe. Writing in the Japan Times in May 2015, Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation & Disarmament at the Australian National University, drew attention to the fact that Delhi University offered the only Indian presence in a subject-wise ranking of the top 50 universities globally. The QS World University rankings, which draws responses from 85,000 academics and 42,000 business executives, judged universities across 36 disciplines in. DU appeared on the list for development studies. None of the IITs figured on the list. Thakur’s own university was ranked among the top 50 in 23 disciplines and among the top 10 in four disciplines. Chinese institutions were listed 50 times against one from India. “How exactly is India going to compete with China in the future?” he wondered.

Disappointment with the IITs and criticism of them have grown over the past few years—the headlines, the debates on TV, and reports on the decline in the number of IITians on the boards of top companies say it all. Information furnished under the RTI revealed that only two per cent of ISRO’s engineers—considered our star boffins—are from the IITs. More recently, there have been other controversies. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of IIT Bombay’s board of governors, resigned over alleged interference by the Union HRD ministry, sharpening the focus on the erosion of institutional autonomy. Other most avoidable spats (see box) have vitiated the atmosphere on campus. More tact and wisdom will be required to steer them in the future.

At a panel discussion held last year at IIT Madras, speakers articulated some of these concerns. Babu Vishwanathan, advisor (training and placement), admitted that feedback from companies suggested that new recruits from IITs were not technically as good as earlier. K. Ananth Krishnan, then chief technical officer at TCS, was reported to have said that his company, which hired from 300 campuses across the country, hired from the IITs only for research jobs—that is, postgrads and doctoral students rather than the fresh BTechs who are believed to be the cream.

According to most IITians, of course, the criticism is misplaced and unfair. Bhaskar Ramamurty, director of IIT Madras, told Outlook that there is no empirical evidence to suggest the employability of IIT graduates has suffered in recent years. Prof H.K. Verma from IIT Kanpur says that the institute is at the vanguard of cutting-edge research and students have done very well for themselves. Writing in the Times of India, Srivatsa Krishna, a bureaucrat and a former IITian, claimed that 54 per cent of the top 500 companies in India have at least one IIT alumnus on their board of directors. He also claimed that it was unfair to compare the IIT with MIT, adding for good measure that, till 2000, IIT Madras had a measly budget of Rs 35 crore (it has since gone up to Rs 200 crore).

However, the bulk of the criticism seems to be directed at the seemingly growing trend of IIT graduates opting for non-technical careers like finance, investment banking, consulting, administrative and managerial jobs. The alleged disdain of IIT students for technical subjects and their alleged obsession with pay packages is, of course, a related diagnosis. An IIT Kanpur director once observed acidly that the moment a student is admitted to an IIT, his soul migrates to the US; his body follows four years later, once he has graduated. Above all, IITs are being accused of not doing enough research and not doing enough to improve lives and systems within the country.

It is in this backdrop that the decision to set up 11 new IITs in 2008 is being questioned. But opinion is divided, with some sections within the IITs welcoming the move. They hope the new IITs will meet expectations and also fulfil the demand for more IIT graduates. Any technical institution, they point out, takes several decades to establish itself and it would be uncharitable to write off the new IITs (more are on the anvil, according to budget statements made by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley). The opposite viewpoint is that the existing IITs needed to be strengthened first.

One expert suggests that the newer IITs should not ape the older institutions. Instead, they should clear a new path by offering hands-on technical education.

It is a rainy afternoon on the last day of the Degree Design Show at IIT Bombay. The beautiful campus has visitors who admire the designs, which are often meant to make a positive contribution to human lives. The graduate students painstakingly explain the motive and execution of functional helmets, maps, bikes, boats, animation films and so on. There have been huge year-on-year changes at the institution, says Prof Supratim Biswas, of the computer sciences department, one of the most coveted subjects on campus. “At IIT Bombay itself, there has been a 27 per cent increase in the number of graduate students and more than 100 per cent rise in the number of PhD scholars. In some courses, more than 200 students attend one class,” he says. “All IITs are facing faculty shortage. However, there is no compromise on course content and a lot of flexibility in terms of courses has been introduced since 2007.”

IIT Bombay has mentored IIT Gandhinagar and IIT Indore and it will also look after IIT Goa, when it comes up next year. Apart from nagging issues of infrastructure, such as operating out of campuses of other colleges—in stark contrast to the five established IITs, which have sprawling, att­ractive campuses—there are other, perhaps more serious, concerns about quality of research and graduates affecting the brand that is IIT. “Earlier, no one would ask which IIT, once you said you are an IIT graduate. Now, if I look at a resume, I may ask which IIT did you go to? So in that sense, yes, there is dilution of the brand,” says Jayashree Kanther, an alumnus of IIT Bombay and isb Hyderabad, who is now vice-president (investments) at a Malaysian sovereign fund. “Students would prefer any branch in the older IITs rather than a computer science course in the new IITs. Same would be the case with faculty. I think it is a step in the right direction, but it should have been more gradual,” she says.

Students attending masters or PhD programmes abroad, a common trend for many IITians, are divided on whether universities abroad make any distinction. “I don’t think the faculty makes any distinction but students’ perceptions are different for older and newer IITs,” says a graduate of the 2014 batch of IIT Bombay, currently in the US.  Since a large number of IITians are working abroad in various capacities and are often instrumental in organising funds or just providing the right guidance to fresh graduates, their perception matters. Prof Ravi Sinha, dean, alumni and corporate relations at IIT Bombay, says, “They view the expansion with a sense of neutrality. As long as you match resources with expansion, it is fine. What constitutes the brand—outstanding quality of output, outstanding quality of students, who receive quality teaching in the fundamentals, quality of work output, global peers and contribution to society—that is how IITs fulfil the nation’s needs in science and technology. It has the essen­tials of a global player and there is no compromise on that.” He too admits that the severe faculty crunch is a worry for older IITs and an even bigger worry for the new ones. There is no denying that the country needs many more institutions of higher learning that offer good quality education to more than just a fraction of our brightest students.

“This should not be an education system for a select few. But the manner in which it is being done leaves a lot to be desired. Faculty and students come later, at least they should have the brick-and-mortar stuff in place,” says Prof Prakash Gopalan, an IIT faculty who is on leave and currently vice-chancellor of Thapar University in Delhi. “One plants a mango seed knowing that you will get fruits to eat after seven or eight years. A gestation period has to be allowed. Hence the urgency is difficult to comprehend. The five IITs and iisc were started keeping quality in mind. If the new ones compromise initially, then it will be difficult to realise that quality later,” he says.

Many experts worry about the diversion of engineering talent from the IITs into fields such as finance and management. The best end up in suits, not lab-coats.

Be that as it may, it is not that everything that the old IITs do is great and everything that happens outside of it is substandard. “IITs have good students, faculty and infrastructure. IIT is recognised as a brand globally and more so in the United States. However, many have done equally well without getting an IIT education. We can see that from some of the global leaders of Indian origin. So we do need to discuss what outcome we expect from IITs,” says Prof Prabhat Ranjan, a former IITian and an executive director, TIFAC, Delhi. “Now, the new approach is hands-on education, on outcome-based and res­earch-led education. If you see the rankings, the old IITs are way ahead of others in the race. Other reputed colleges bunch around the middle and the newer IITs are behind them. Rather than aping the old IITs, which will not be easy, the new IITs should see their competition and adopt the new approach,” says Prof Gopalan.

Adds Prof Ranjan, “Today, the need is for interdisciplinary work, and one cannot divide them into pure science vs app­lied science. We need to focus on problem-solving driven by real needs or curiosity-driven needs. Lack of value addition in many of the products for which India commands a major world marketshare is a problem. We are not focusing our R&D effort on areas of our strength but rather where our researchers think it would give them more global recognition. IITs are no exception to this and we need to bring about a major change in this. Unfortunately, most of the engineers coming out of IIT move out of the engineering field, in which get their deg­ree. This is leading to India’s poor performance in manufacturing and hardware-based innovation.”

The debate about IIT engineers leaving the field of training for the IIM-led management route has been going on for years. However, the increase in entrepreneurial endeavours by IIT graduates is being noticed. “The institute teaches you the fundamentals. They can be applied in any field. Chetan Bhagat once told me he uses the theories he learnt at IIT while writing his novels,” says Prof Biswas, in a lighter vein. This is exactly what Rahul Yadav, an IITian and founder of housing.com told Outlook recently.

Then there are those who feel that references to IIT diminish as you add other feathers to your cap. “Although respect for the IIT graduate is always there, but that aspect comes up less and less in conversation as years go by. I have also noticed that IITians are often hired for management roles and not engineering roles, which are taken by engineers from other colleges. Personally, I feel the quality would go down because of more numbers because earlier the IITs would select those at the top, so they are the best when they pass out. Also, one needs to examine the dropout rates,” says Rahul Chopade, an IIT-ISB management professional.  Despite valid concerns, there is no dearth of students vying for IIT seats, in any of the campuses. There are many who see the upside of this expansion. Like Venuka Durani Goyal, a young scientist at IIT Bombay, who grew up on the campus thanks to her father being on the faculty. As luck would have it, since her husband is based in Indore, she would like to work as a faculty at IIT Indore and not IIT Bombay. “I think it is providing opportunities not just to more students but also for more women in the sciences. I am a very well-qualified person and there are many like me who would end up either taking a break or taking a lesser job because of their geographical location. The more the number of IITs and institutes of this nature, the better it is. Yes, these institutions will take time to establish themselves, but over a period of time, it will be beneficial for all.”


By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber & Bula Devi with inputs from Uttam Sengupta

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