In pursuit of excellence

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Professor Amitabha Ghosh, Director of IIT-Kharagpur, in an interview to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, spoke about various matters relating to his institution, particularly its strengths and weaknesses. Excerpts:

What makes the Indian Institutes of Technology, IIT-Kharagpur in particular, specially in terms of autonomy, freedom to experiment, facilities available, work culture and standards?

The uniqueness of IIT-Kharagpur is that it is the first of the IITs. It paved the way for the emergence of other IITs and showed them how to go about becoming the best institutes in the country. It started as a Central government institution in which various kinds of research work and experiments were carried out. Then it was realised that it must ultimately be an autonomous institution. And the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur Act, 1956, became the main foundation on which all the other IITs came up. It was IIT-Kharagpur that provided the basic concept of the infrastructure and the administrative structure for the other IITs.

One of the most important features of IIT-Kharagpur and the other IITs is that they are all autonomous bodies. Parliament has made them Institutes of National Importance that function directly under it. The IIT Council advises on the general policies common to all IITs; the Minister in charge of Higher Education is its ex-officio Chairman. But each IIT is independent and is governed by its board of governors. So, we have both academic and administrative autonomy. Being autonomous gives us a lot of freedom to experiment. But financially we cannot be autonomous. We depend heavily on government support, otherwise it would have been a commercial set-up. Since we want to ensure that each and every deserving candidate gets an opportunity to study here, and since we take it as a social commitment, the government will have to take care of the cost. IIT-Kharagpur can become financially independent from today itself, but then we will not be able to provide free or subsidised education to meritorious students. We function under a block grant scheme, in which we get a lump sum every year as non-planned grant and planned grant, which takes care of our salaries, pension bills, regular maintenance, electricity, library, medical reimbursement and a little bit of the operating grants for the departments. Everything is on a huge scale here. We pay Rs.4 crores a year towards electricity charges, buy books and journals worth around Rs.5.5 crores, our medical reimbursement comes to around Rs.1.5 crores. For developmental work, we get a small amount as planned grant. But 50 per cent of the institutes expenditure is generated from our research and development work, through sponsored projects, consultancy, technology transfer, and also by utilising our corpus, tuition fees and so on. Among the IITs, our earnings from industrial consultancy and sponsored projects are the highest. Last year we earned around Rs.25.5 crores, and this year our earnings may touch Rs.35 crores. Besides, we also have an institute revenue, which was around Rs.29 crores and is expected to be around the same this year too. So, we have enough resources to fund our own experiments and do not have to depend on government money.

Another important thing about the IITs is that the system is absolutely incorruptible. That is because all activities and decisions are undertaken jointly. It is always a collective decision. The work culture in the IITs is exemplary. The teachers who work here can easily go abroad and work at much higher salaries. But they are here not out of compulsion but choice. We also have an excellent supporting staff.

Regarding standards, since we have all the freedom to experiment and conduct research, our faculty is exposed to the best possible institutions of the world, they have the highest possible qualifications and get the best students. Nothing can prevent us from having the best possible standards.

What are the various educational programmes at the IIT-Kharagpur?

The IITs are academic institutes that give equal emphasis on teaching and research. We revised the undergraduate syllabus three years ago, and in 2000 we started a new programme - a kind of experiment, one can say. The Senate always conducts these kinds of experiments. In this revised syllabus the students are given the option of studying a minor subject. For example, now a student of electronics engineering can take up a minor in computer science. This way the spectrum of a student's capability widens, as the student acquires special knowledge in a different field.

Our education programme is one based on a continuous process of evaluation and interaction. Towards the end of the final year, the students have to undergo a thorough oral examination. We give a lot of importance to NCC (National Cadet Corps) training. In the first year it is compulsory and the grades received here are as important as those received in mathematics or physics.

I think another unique thing here is a system of recording all lectures in video form. This will be of help to a student in case he or she misses a lecture or has difficulty in understanding a topic. From this year onwards these recordings will be available to the students in their hostel rooms.

Are you happy with the facilities and infrastructure at IIT-Kharagpur, with reference to accommodation and research and teaching facilities?

Regarding accommodation for student, by and large I am unhappy. The quality of accommodation needs to be improved. The new hostels that are coming up are quite good, but the quality of construction of the old ones is not that good. We are trying to improve that by renovation.

The research and teaching facilities are excellent and the new complex will have the most modern facilities available in the country. And when that becomes operational in July 2002, IIT-Kharagpur can justifiably be proud of being a truly modern academic complex.

Regarding local infrastructure such as roads, our campus covers an area of 1,800 acres (720 hectares) and we have 55 km of road inside the campus. In the past three years we have widened the roads and changed the lighting system. Our communication infrastructure has really improved. We also have computerised railway and air reservation counters inside the campus.

How can industry and IIT-Kharagpur work more closely in the future?

I feel Indian industry has enjoyed a very protected market so far. So the urge to develop new things in order to get an edge in the market has not really been felt. There is a sense of complacency here. The main difficulty we face in interacting with industry is that even though industry is interested in technology development, it does not want to take any risk. So, if industry matures as a result of globalisation and feels the need to invest money in real research, it will definitely feel the need for taking the intellectual help of the IITs.

Our major clients for research institutions and government departments such as the Defence Department, the Department of Space, the Department of Atomic Energy, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited and Bharat Electronics Ltd. These organisations and departments have given us enormous support and have used our help in their respective fields. Outside India organisations such as National Semiconductors, Intel, Motorola and Sun Micro Systems are our clients. But I am yet to see major funding from the private industry in India. We do get consultancy work, but here again a substantial part of that comes from public sector units.

What is IIT-Kharagpur doing in the field of intellectual property rights?

We have perhaps done the maximum in this field. Every year we host an event in which we hold workshops on intellectual property rights and also patent clinics. This is attended by experts, legal firms and government representatives. We have a series of lectures in which sometimes even the students participate. Faculty members who have research work worth patenting submit their application for it at the patent clinic. In this way, we have been encouraging the faculty to get patent applications made for their work. And this is happening at IIT-Kharagpur in a major way.

What are the main problems that the institute is facing?

The problem we face is quite a serious one. We are assured of excellent undergraduate students. But we cannot say that in the case of the faculty. Unless we get academically brilliant young persons to join the IITs as teachers, it will become dangerous. We will be forced to recruit mediocre people as teachers, who, once they interact with brilliant students, will not be able to get respect. Now, how can we ensure the quality of teachers? It is not the salary. People do not come to the teaching profession for money. They come for academic activity. What is worrying is the lack of interest among the students to come for post-graduation here. A good teacher will only be happy if he gets good students for research. That is declining. And if goes on, good teachers will be forced to leave this place and go to other colleges, mostly abroad, where they can be assured of quality doctoral scholars. In the next 10 years, a large number of professors here will retire. If we do not find suitable replacements, I foresee a lot of problems.

So how do you make brilliant young minds stay behind rather than teach abroad?

By providing them good quality PhD scholars. West Bengal has many good institutions, such as Calcutta University, the Jadavpur University BE College. But gradually these have become 100 per cent Bengali institutions. With that they have lost their visibility and eminence on the national scene. Now, let us put this in the global perspective. If the institutes in this country remain only Indian in character, they will have no presence in the international scenario. So the only way we can salvage the situation is by institutions like the IITs acquiring a global character. Once that happens we will get brilliant postgraduate students, from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand. A tradition has developed in the whole world that good students directly write to universities, get admission and assistance and join. Here, rather than allowing good foreign students to get assistance, we are charging them a tuition fee of around $12,000 a year. This has to change.

How can IIT-Kharagpur maintain its pre-eminence among all institutes in the country?

Some of the areas in which we can be considered the best among the IITs are advanced manufacturing, design of very large-scale integrated circuits, photonics, material science, cryogenic engineering and rubber technology. In certain other fields, such as publication of journals, patent application, revenue earning through industrial consultancy and sponsored research, we are much ahead of others. I also think that we are far advanced in providing facilities to students. Our institute can be considered unique in areas such as geophysics, agriculture, food engineering, rural development, naval architecture and the new school of medical science and technology. In some of the other areas we are on a par with other IITs, and in some other, which I would not like to mention, we have to improve. But in many fields we are the best.

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