Newer IITs – Things to Ponder

The following article by me, was published by Deccan Chronincles on 21-Jul-2014.

“Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India” – these are the words of Jawaharlal Nehru during the first convocation of India’s first IIT, Kharagpur, in 1956. He made a very valid and vivid point – IITs represent India’s urges and future. Undoubtedly, they have been pillars of technical education in our country. We have the alumni of various IITs working, leading and heading in top companies in the world, and some influencing the society and the lives of the common man directly. Currently, we have 16 IITs in India of which 7 are known as ‘old’ IITs, and the rest ‘new’ ones established in or after 2008.

Deccan Chronicle_Article on More IITs_Arunanand T A_Kochi Edition_2014-07-21_

Article published by DC

Since the new NDA government came into existence at the centre, there have been so many speculations and articulations about setting up ‘newer’ IITs. Many believe that there’s a huge dearth in the technical academia in our country, which can only be solved by establishing new centres of excellence, and new IITs are the go. On a contrary note, some argue that this would be an immature move by the government who does not really understand what India wants, but only wants to take the political benefit of establishing new IITs. This discussion has been in the air for more than a month now. There have been much of confusion in the general public. Let’s have a close look at various pro and anti arguments in this context. This article does not vow to clear those confusions, but, perhaps, may leave you behind with some intensified confusions toward the end. Let’s debate:

Nay, you’re not talking about Kindergarten

Naming an institute an IIT will not get the ball rolling. A naked eye can see that the existing new IITs established post 2008 are still struggling. Most of them are even now running at temporary campuses. Many of them do not have hostels, proper laboratory facilities and other infrastructure. It’s reported that the vacancies in the sanctioned faculty strength range from 30% to 50% at new IITs, except at IIT Hyderabad. Young faculty members in some new IITs are even forced to take up the subjects they are not specialized in.

On another note, we had 20 NITs, and the previous government increased the number to 30. Most of them are still struggling, and there comes this new idea of setting up more centrally funded IITs, which is totally misplaced. While forming the state of Seemandhra, Government even used IIT as a political tribute. Such a situation is totally uncalled for, as IITs are never for political bargaining. Most of us still do not understand why the motto ‘an IIT per state!’. The state has nothing to do with an IIT, except for acquiring the land for the institute. There’s no state quota in admissions, nor does the state have any control over the IIT administration.

These eight new IITs are/were mentored by the old IITs, to achieve the initial momentum. As per the reply given to a question in the Lok Sabha, on August 9, 2013, by the then MoS for HRD Dr. Shashi Tharoor, the Faculty-Student Ratio in IITs stood an alarming 1:16.5 where it should be 1:10 (plight of NITs is not composing either; the ratio is 1:17.6 where it should be 1:12). The world leaders in technical education have better ratios viz. 1:5 in Stanford and 1:8 in MIT. This throws light to the deficiency in the required number of teachers. Given this, how are the old IITs supposed to mentor the new ones, when they are supposed to drive their own IITs and academic and research works over there? That way, the idea of the new Government at centre, of establishing one IIT per state would mean more work load and pressure on the existing IITs. This will undoubtedly affect the quality of the existing IITs at least for a few years.

IIT-R; Courtesy: Wikipedia

IIT-R; Courtesy: Wikipedia

14 states now have their IITs, UP having two, and Delhi have one. That makes the figure 16. With the split of Andhra Pradhesh, we have 29 states in place. When we say an IIT per state, that would thus mean 15 more! That’s definitely a huge number to worry about for a country like India. When India struggles to keep the GDP growth above 5%, and that its contribution to the education sector is less than 4%, this is totally a bad idea. Establishing a new IIT would cost not less than Rupees 1,750 – 2,000 crores in the current scenario to the central government, excluding the cost of land which is the responsibility of the State Government. Apart from the initial budget, the existing IITs fear that the total funding from the central government to the IITs every year in the budget be split into more institutions causing a serious deficit in the amount they are currently receiving. Also, starting the IITs without setting up the proper laboratory and hostel facilities could be another menace, which is happening now in the new ones. Many IITians are now opposing the idea of MHRD, not only because they are afraid of losing the ‘brand IIT’, but also for they have seen the pathetic plight of many new IITs. They roar that this may be attended to first, and then we can think of newer ones.

Even after six years of establishment, some of the new IITs struggle to get their own land in full from respective State Governments. An IIT requires contiguous land of 500 acres. Those who were able to acquire the land, landed up in another trouble – the locations of these IITs are so remote that well-qualified professors are not ready to be faculty members in these places. As dilution in the quality of professors is not appropriate, the faculty positions remain vacant. Remote locations do not appeal to many due to the lack of facilities – for the education of their kids, job opportunities for the spouses, lack of accessibility to the city, etc. Finding 500 acres of land in an ‘accessible’ location will be a headache to many of the states.

Our research output from IITs is not at par with what it was envisaged to be. We are still not a competitor in the global arena. Not even a single Indian institute could figure in the global top 200 list, which is a pointer to how bad things are. The financial support being given to our ME and PhD students are very low compared to the global standards, which has adverse effects on the quality of research output. Many of the students prefer their research abroad due to this factor and the lack of facilities. Dr. C N R Rao, the Bharat Ratna awardee, has many times pointed this out and is said to be against the idea of establishing huge number of IITs at once (he was the scientific advisor to the ex-PM). Most of the directors of IITs are of the view that importance should be given to infra and research product enhancement first, before landing up political decisions like this. Reportedly most of the MHRD officials are also against the idea of an IIT per state.

Job offers for the students from new IITs is another point of thought. It can be seen that some of the NITs still perform better than many of the new IITs in this respect. Also, the government should actively indulge in creating more opportunities for the research graduates in the country, either own their own or through encouraging the private sector.

Given all these, it would not be a bad idea to postpone the plan of setting up new IITs. Instead, the seats and infrastructures in the existing ones may be increased so as to give opportunity for more number of students. Nobody questions the need for more number of institutes of excellence; but the question is on the hour of need – whether we need it now? Let there be an expert committee on this and decide whether it is ideal to have more now, rather than going behind political populism. How can you think of giving birth to kids, when you can’t feed the ones you already have!?


The Antithesis

Now let’s have a look at the positive and gleeful part of the idea. Though there are more haters than the lovers of the whole idea of new IITs, there are some relevant and significant points the supporters may make.

The major idea behind the opposition from IITians could be their fear of loss of the ‘golden chain.’ They do not believe in sharing the ‘cream status’ with much more people. But it’s indubitable that the amount of talent who could never be in an IIT is always high. IITs have the worst entry ratio of 2% in the world, when even the Ivy League colleges have more than 6%. This indicates that the students in the IITs are cream of the nation, with some of the still good cream left outside. We cannot always say that congestion implies best quality. Further, it’s a matter of joy for India that around 40% of its population is less than 18 years of age. That’s a huge asset we have, contributing to the human resource capital. But at the same time, we are responsible for making their future shine, giving them enough opportunities to study at the right altitudes. IIT is one of those opportunities. It’s a crime denying quality education to our present and future generations. It’s high time we scaled up our frontline technical academia.

Another mud-throwing at the decision is by saying that a poor country like India cannot afford 15 IITs more. It’s true that this would mean a huge financial impact on the country’s economy, but there’s no gain without pain. Stating about poverty while setting up IITs is as good as, or as bad as, talking about slums while India sent a Mars Orbiter Mission – senseless! We’re looking forward to inclusive, pervasive and gradual growth.

Comparing IITs with Stanford, Harvard and MIT would be too suicidal an attempt. It would be equal to comparing ISRO with NASA. We must not but agree that we are far behind. But we’re trying hard to cope with. We’ve talent, and we’ve shown it to the world. Remember the US Congress passing a resolution acknowledging the contributions of IITians made, in 2005. We have them all around the world, showcasing the best talents in the planet. We need more.

One cannot say that an IIT would mean nothing to the state it is in. Though there might not be direct opportunities for the students of that state, IITs will definitely be an asset to them. Summer schools, training programmes, Government aided projects, consultancy to the state Government, courses and training for faculty members of other colleges in the state, encouraging entrepreneurial culture in the state, etc. could be some of those benefits.

IIT-KGP; Courtesy: Wikipedia

IIT-KGP; Courtesy: Wikipedia

Talking about the Faculty-Student ratio, we definitely need to improve. But that cannot happen in a day. On contrary to much of the belief, new IITs have better ratios, though they do not have filled in all the sanctioned posts of faculty members. This is because the number of students in the campus is also not in its full strength. For example, IIT Ropar has the ratio kept at 1:10. They recruit as and when required. IIT Hyderabad has close to cent per cent faculty positions filled in.

Hence, it is too early to be skeptical about more IITs. Number of NITs in place does not matter to the number of IITs. They are established to serve different purposes, vision and mission. Hence that comparison would be absurd. Allow the IITs to grow themselves like the decades old ones. Rome was not built in a day. We have history, where Roorkee (2001) and Guwahati (1994) picked it up so fast. And the IIT-H from the recent ones is also a good example. Old is Gold need not always be true, if it is not about wine.

However, there are certain golden rules we can put forward. Though the acquisition of land is the duty of the state Government, the Centre must oversee that the land being issued is apt. Not only the length and breadth of the land matter, but also their longitude and latitude. It would not be a bad idea to think whether we should start all the proposed IITs at once, or at certain phases.

It seems Ms. Smriti Irani has a lot to brood over before she says the final word!