The IIT Story: Issues and Concerns

Print edition : February 14, 2003

The IITs have consistently performed as institutions of world-class excellence in an otherwise mediocre higher educational system. IIT products have fared brilliantly in advanced sectors of the global economy, but has India benefited anywhere near enough? An issues focus and a look at the future.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU could not have imagined that the `golden jubilee' of India's finest academic institution, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), which he was instrumental in founding, would be celebrated in the Silicon Valley. Through the IITs, India's first Prime Minister had hoped to create a highly educated technological force that would provide vital inputs for the massive dams, power plants and industrial ventures he wanted to build. It would help ensure that the country was self-reliant in the realm of science and technology. Nehru could not also have anticipated the tremendous global reach that `brand IIT' has come to acquire.

IIT Kharagpur, the first in the IIT system, was established in 1950 on the site of the Hijli Detention Camp.-PARTH SANYAL

On January 17 and 18, 2003, IIT alumni based in different continents, including a high profile cast from the world of technology and management, converged on northern California to mark the golden jubilee of IIT Kharagpur, the first in the IIT system. Delivering the keynote speech on the first day of the event, IIT50, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates described the IITs as "an incredible institution'' with a worldwide impact. He added that "the computer industry has benefited greatly from the tradition of the IITs.'' Speaking of "outrageous dreams about how computers will improve life twenty years from now,'' he predicted that the IIT would contribute "more than its share of this.'' United States Ambassador to India, Robert D.Blackwill, Stanford University President, John Hennessy, and superstar alumni were among the other speakers at IIT50. India's Minister for Human Resource Development, Murli Manohar Joshi, scheduled to be a keynote speaker on the second day, could not come and sent a message extolling the IITs.

An inscription at the IIT, containing an excerpt from Jawarlal Nehru's speech on the occassion of the institute's first convocation in 1956.-PARTH SANYAL

It is symbolic as well as ironic that the IITs' largest ever event was held in Silicon Valley, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the IIT system.

Actually, the golden jubilee of the first IIT had been observed in Kharagpur in 2001-2002. The alumni in the U.S., however, decided to celebrate IIT50 in a big way, hoping the event would further leverage the reputation of the institution.

A high-speed grinder machine at IIT Kharagpur.-PARTH SANYAL

There is little doubt that the IITs have been islands of undergraduate excellence, even when measured against the highest international standards, in an otherwise mediocre higher educational system. Their rigorous standards and state-of-the-art curriculum have moulded some of the best minds in India into some of the most prominent executives, managers, entrepreneurs and inventors in the world. Few undergraduate institutions anywhere can claim such staggering success for their graduates. However, the shortcomings of the IIT system the big migration of IIT graduates abroad, the severe under-representation of women, the Scheduled Castes (S.C.s) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.s), and the failure of a large number of IIT B.Tech. graduates to pursue careers in their areas of specialisation cannot be overlooked. The coming together of the seven IITs to celebrate IIT50 is an appropriate occasion for a balanced evaluation of the role these institutions have played in independent India.

I. Background of the IITs

The idea of the IITs took shape in 1946, when a 22-member official committee headed by N.R. Sarkar submitted a report on the development of higher technical institutions to the government. The Sarkar Committee recommended the creation of four higher technical institutions of international standard, one each in the north, south, east and west, modelled possibly along the lines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In May 1950, the first in the series was established in Kharagpur at the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, where the British had incarcerated political prisoners; the institution was named the "Indian Institute of Technology'' before its formal inauguration on August 18, 1951.

Nehru, an enthusiast and patron of science, was clear that science and technology had a prominent role to play in modernising India and meeting the needs of its growing population. He envisioned that the IIT system would over time "provide scientists and technologists of the highest calibre who would engage in research, design and development to help building the nation towards self-reliance in her technological needs." Addressing IIT Kharagpur' s first convocation in 1956, Nehru observed: "Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands this fine monument of India, representing India's urges, India's future in the making. This picture seems to be symbolic of changes that are coming to India."

An industrial robot at IIT Kharagpur. The IITs have better infrastructure than other engineering and technological institutions in the country.-PARTH SANYAL

Within a decade of the launch of the first IIT, four more were set up: IIT Bombay (1958), IIT Madras (1959), IIT Kanpur (1959), and IIT Delhi (1961). Decades later, the sixth IIT was established in Guwahati (1994). India's first technical institute, set up in 1847 and known as the Thomson College of Engineering and subsequently the University of Roorkee, was ordained as the seventh IIT in September 2001. During the early years, several of the IITs benefited in varying degrees from material assistance and academic cooperation from developed countries IIT Bombay from the Soviet Union, IIT Madras from Germany, IIT Kanpur from the United States, and IIT Delhi from the United Kingdom.

A Central statute, the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act, 1956, declared the IIT to be "an institute of national importance.'' The Institutes of Technology Act, 1961, which created a unique framework for the funding, administration and academic development of the IITs as privileged institutions, confers a high degree of autonomy on the system and protects it from extra-academic pressures. A 1963 amendment Act has provided for the further expansion of the IIT family.

The first batch at Kharagpur comprised 224 students, taught by 42 teachers. In 2002, 1,69,563 high school students appeared for the screening test of the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and 3,878 (approximately 2.3 per cent of the candidates who appeared for the screening test) were offered admission to various undergraduate courses in the participating institutes.

II. Institutes of excellence

The IITs have been a success story in managing to reconcile two goals: (a) the pursuit of quality and excellence, and (b) being accessible to young people from all over India. A limitation on accessibility has been the gross under-representation of women, especially at the B.Tech. level, and the weak presence of students drawn from severely disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds.

Professor Amitabha Ghosh, Director, IIT Kharagpur.-PARTH SANYAL

The IITs have long had a reputation of being among the very best engineering institutions in the world. In a ranking of Asia's best Science and Technology institutions by Asiaweek in 2000, five IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kanpur and Kharagpur) were ranked in the top eight.

The astounding international success of IIT alumni suggests that there are very few institutions that can rival the IIT system in the calibre of graduates produced. The honour roll of those who have received their first degrees from the IITs is long and includes some of the most influential entrepreneurs, executives and managers in the world. Nandan Nilekeni, Infosys Managing Director; Rajat Gupta, Managing Director of McKinsey & Company; venture capitalist Kanwal Rekhi, founder of Excelan; Vinod Khosla, partner in Kleiner Perkins and co-founder of Sun Microsystems; Gururaj Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks; Victor Menezes, Senior Vice-Chairman of Citigroup; Rakesh Gangwal, former CEO of U.S. Airways; Venky Harinarayan and Rakesh Mathur, co-founders of Junglee.com; Vinod Gupta, founder and chairman of InfoUSA; Rono Dutta, President of United Airlines; Arun Sarin, who is set to be the Chief Executive Officer of Vodafone in June 2003; M.S. Banga, Chairman, Hindustan Lever; and 2002 Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey are all IIT undergraduate products. As though this were not enough, Infosys founder, former Chairman and current Chief Mentor, N.R. Narayanamurthy, received his post-graduate training at IIT Kanpur.

Tremendous career success in the U.S. is testament to the fact that the IIT graduate is a highly competitive product in the global marketplace. A study by University of California (Berkeley) Professor Anna Lee Saxenian indicates that approximately 10 per cent of all start-ups in Silicon Valley between 1995 and 1998 were by Indians, most of whom had come from the IIT system. It has been suggested that the IITs have, perhaps, produced more millionaires per capita than any other undergraduate academic institution in the world. It is not surprising that most of the IITs' successful alumni credit their alma mater with playing a foundational or leading role in their achievements. The U.S. television network CBS recently featured the IITs in its widely watched news programme, 60 Minutes, as "the most important university you've never heard of.'' The show's co-host, Leslie Stahl, suggested: "Put Harvard, MIT and Princeton together and you begin to get an idea of the status of this school in India." The idea of IIT as an institution of excellence has long been embedded in the consciousness of India's educated classes. The quality of student input into the IITs is the single most important determinant of their rate of success and is perhaps unequalled anywhere. The IITs are a magnet for the brightest young men, largely hailing from middle class sections of society.

Through a rigorous selection process, an exacting workload and spartan living conditions, the IITs require a monastic discipline of its undergraduate students.

Students at the institute's language laboratory. The quality of undergraduate student input into the IITs is the single most important determinant of their rate of success and is perhaps unparalleled anywhere.-K. GAJENDRAN

Students in the final years of high school have to go through an extraordinarily arduous training regimen to have any chance of making it into an IIT. The JEE is probably the most demanding undergraduate entrance exam in the world. In 2002, in comparison with the 2.3 per cent of applicants who won admission to the IITs, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which are among the most selective undergraduate institutions in the U.S., admitted 10.5 per cent and 16.2 per cent of their undergraduate applicants.

The JEE is a two-step process. A three-hour screening test in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics is used as a first filter and those who successfully clear this first hurdle appear for the main examination. The main exam consists of three gruelling papers in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, each two hours in duration. In 2002, 28,265 of the 169,563 students who appeared for the screening test (16.67 per cent) qualified for the main examination. As has already been mentioned, 3,878 were finally offered admission to undergraduate courses. In a marvel of organisation, the tests are conducted year after year without the slightest hassle in various centres round the country.

The heavy demand for IIT admissions has spawned a number of institutes and tutorials offering coaching for the JEE. One preparatory school, the Ramiah Institute in Hyderabad, which claims an extraordinarily high rate of success in sending students to the IITs, has gone so far as to conduct an entrance exam for students to gain admission into its own training course! An IIT hopeful who attends the year-long preparatory course at the Ramiah Institute goes through a punishing process. A typical day at the Institute is reputed to begin at 4.30 a.m. and go on till 8 a.m., when the students leave for regular school. After school, students undergoing the course need to spend long hours completing the homework assigned by the Ramiah Institute. After going through such a gruelling process to gain admission, students have to measure up to extremely tough standards once they are in the IIT system.

Graduates of IIT Madras at the 2002 convocation.-SHAJU JOHN

It is no wonder then that the typical IIT B.Tech. graduate emerges as a person who is highly competitive, very ambitious, extremely confident and having unparalleled technical knowledge, quantitative skill, and problem-solving ability. In fact, the IITs require such a high level of quantitative and analytical skill of its students that when the time comes they consider Masters-level courses in the top U.S. universities to be relatively easy. Moreover, the IIT course load is so large and extensive (amounting to some 180 credits at the end of four years) that it is often comparable to a Bachelors plus Masters degree in institutions of quality abroad. In the 60 Minutes segment on the IITs recently broadcast by CBS, Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, described his post-graduate experience thus: "When I finished IIT Delhi and went to Carnegie Mellon for my Master's, I thought I was cruising all the way because it was so easy relative to the education I had got at IIT." Most IITians are also extremely loyal to their alma mater and keep in close contact with their fellow students. Many of these qualities have helped create an effective and powerful system of networking among IIT students, past and present.

In a 1998 article, Businessweek suggested that other countries could emulate the IIT example. It praised the IIT system for creating "out of limited resources, a class of executives and entrepreneurs who manage to combine technical brilliance with great management skills... In many ways the IIT grad is the hottest export India has ever produced.'' The science and technology curriculum of the IITs is state-of-the-art and constantly updated. Although there have recently been problems in this respect, their success in attracting, retaining and developing high quality faculty, many of whom are not IIT graduates, is an inspiring model for higher educational institutions in the developing world. The IITs have also managed to maintain, over the long term, a low faculty-student ratio. There is also recognition of the need to constantly update the expertise and capabilities of existing faculty. The Quality Improvement Programme (QIP) for faculty was set up with this in mind. Under this scheme, faculty members can update their educational qualifications and can also attend short-term courses in selected institutions. The QIP also incorporates measures to improve classroom-teaching methods.

Most of the IIT campuses have better infrastructure than other institutions of engineering and technological education. For all the required monastic discipline, IIT students are fairly active in extra-curricular activities. Apart from the superb quality of student input, the significant degree of autonomy the IITs enjoy in their admission process, selection of faculty and curriculum decisions, and the generous and sustained levels of funding they have received from the Central government are major reasons for the success of the system. In an article in Business Line (June 3, 2002), former IIT Madras Director P.V. Indiresan suggests that the IITs have succeeded because "by and large, they have enjoyed the three basic freedoms of an educational institution: freedom to choose whom to teach, who will teach, and what to teach. The IITs also enjoy full cost budgetary support. The IITs will remain successful so long as these amenities continue."

III. Subsidies, accessibility, and educational priorities

The IIT student is typically male and hails from a middle class background. One of the biggest achievements of the IITs is that they have provided world-class education at a cost relatively affordable to the average middle class family. Without government funding of these "institutions of national importance,'' most IIT students would probably not have been able to afford such high quality education. The generous subsidies given to the IITs have also allowed them to attract students from all over India.

The Gajendra Circle, a landmark on the IIT Madras campus.-K. GAJENDRAN

As early as 1946, the Sarkar Committee recognised that international standards of education could only be achieved at costs commensurate with international levels and suggested that the government, the institution, and the student share the educational cost. Prior to 1993, the government funded a large proportion of each student's cost but decreased government funding has resulted in increasing cost to the student. However, by international standards, the cost of an IIT education still continues to be a bargain to the student. Currently the tuition, room and board for a four-year B.Tech course at IIT is estimated to cost a student Rs.70, 000 a year and at a conversion rate of 48 rupees to one U.S. dollar, this works out to $1458.33. By contrast, tuition, room and board costs for an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the academic year 2002-2003 amounted approximately to $36, 030. An Indian Express article (August 30, 1999) stated that IIT Bombay spent approximately Rs.125,000 per undergraduate student, which amounted to Rs.500,000 for a four-year course. At that time, the article suggested, an IIT Bombay undergraduate was paying an annual fee of Rs.38,500.

Compared with the cost of an MIT undergraduate education, IIT costs are small change. Informed observers such as P.V. Indiresan have suggested that the typical IIT student is in need of more financial assistance than the typical MIT undergraduate since the cost per year of MIT undergraduate education is almost equal to the current U.S. per capita income while the cost of an IIT education works out to much higher than the level of India's per capita income. However, it needs to be noted that the total cost of an IIT education is far less than the amount an IIT graduate who works abroad can expect to earn within months.

The IITs involve a considerable burden to the Indian taxpayer and this raises the important question of how the country should direct its educational investment. In a country with a woeful primary education record, government funding of the IITs is significant. In 2002-2003, the Central government's budgetary allocation to the IITs was Rs.564 crores compared with a total elementary education outlay of Rs.3,577 crores. Even if it is recognised that the State governments undertake a large responsibility in providing primary education, there is little doubt that the allocation to primary education is grossly inadequate. The myriad social benefits of primary education such as lower fertility rates and improved health care are evident but some important questions beg asking. Are the returns on investing in primary education, for the country as a whole, higher than the returns on investing in higher education, particularly in such specialised technical training? Are the spill over effects of such high quality technical education large enough to justify the significant investment? Is the right balance between primary and higher education being maintained?

Returns on primary education may not be easily quantified or measured but there is widespread recognition that universal primary education is a vastly beneficial goal. The question of educational priorities almost assumes moral proportions, especially if the money spent on IITs can alternatively be channelled into primary education. Are sections of society being denied access to primary education on account of significant Central Government funding to the IITs? Estimates of the IITs' heavy contribution to the brain drain, discussed later in the article, would suggest that the money spent on the IITs can be better utilised in primary education. Calculating the true cost of an IIT education may be more complicated than it appears on the surface. It would have to include some measure of foregone primary education and its associated benefits, which could have otherwise been provided with the amount allocated to the IITs.

Professor M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT Madras.-K. GAJENDRAN

IV. Meritocracy and Social Justice

Many consider the IITs to be among the very few institutions in India that can be considered non-corrupt. IITs enjoy a great deal of academic, administrative, and financial autonomy. The government has thus far not interfered with the selection process or the curriculum of the institutions.

Academic merit is the sole criterion for undergraduate admission. Since the admission process is based solely on the JEE, the system ensures that only those with the most developed quantitative, analytical and scientific skills, as measured by the JEE, enter the institution.

The IITs currently have no reserved quotas except 15 per cent reservation of seats for S.C.s and 7.5 per cent reservation for S.T.s, who are admitted on the basis of "relaxed criteria,'' and a very small number of seats for physically handicapped persons and children of defence or paramilitary personnel killed or disabled in action. Typically, seats in the S.C./S.T. quotas are offered straightaway to those who get at least two-thirds of the marks obtained by the last student admitted in the general category.

If this reserved quota is not filled, a limited number of S.C. and S.T. candidates who fail to meet the two-thirds criterion are admitted to a preparatory course and are required to go through a year of training. At the end of the course, these candidates are tested in physics, mathematics, chemistry and English and, upon achieving a certain cut-off, are admitted into the first year B.Tech. programme.

At the Ocean Technology Laboratory in IIT Madras.-K. GAJENDRAN

Studies suggest that close to half the seats reserved for S.C.s and S.T.s remain vacant and that of those admitted a significant proportion, perhaps up to 25 per cent, is obliged to drop out.

An ill-advised exception to the JEE selection process was made some years ago by the institution of a Direct Admission of Students Abroad (DASA). A small number of foreign nationals or Indian nationals abroad were admitted either through the JEE or by achieving a stipulated score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) II in mathematics, physics and chemistry. DASA students had to pay tuition fees amounting to $6,000 per semester, in addition to miscellaneous fees. Since the quality of student intake through DASA was found to be unsatisfactory and there were also abuses of the system, the scheme has been discontinued by the central IIT Council from 2003. The issue of severe under-representation of women in the IITs is discussed separately.

V. IITs and the Brain Drain

The Silicon Valley celebration aside, the IIT graduate has been termed often enough India's hottest export. An IIT degree is considered to be a sure ticket to the U.S. A popular joke of the 1980s suggested that IIT students had one foot in India and the other in Air India. In fact, since the 1970s, the migration of IIT students to U.S. universities after graduation has been increasing. Writing about this aspect, Businessweek (December 7, 1998) noted: "So routine is the exodus that at IIT Madras, the local campus postman and bank clerk provide unsolicited advice on the best U.S schools to attend. When acceptance letters arrive, the postman waits outside the student's door for a tip a large one if it's from a highly regarded university such as Stanford." There can be no question that the brain drain results in India losing its brightest academic talent. The acceptance rate of the IITs is between 1 to 3 per cent from an already selective pool of applicants. Data on the IITs ' contribution to the brain drain are few and far between. Interestingly, the IITs and their web sites are coy about the number of alumni who go abroad to study and work. Despite receiving substantial budgetary allocations from the Central government, the failure to collect systematically data on the sensitive point of the brain drain suggests an attitude of non-transparency. IIT managements and alumni networks tend to avoid initiating a public debate on the destination of IIT graduates and who benefits directly from the IIT system.

The Real Brain Drain

It is likely that close to half the annual undergraduate output of the seven IITs, that is, anything between 1,500 and 2,000 young men and women, go abroad every year overwhelmingly to the U.S. It is estimated that there are some 25,000 IIT alumni in the U.S. A bleak factor for India is that few of those who go to the U.S. for higher studies plan to return. The Economist (September 26, 2002) cited an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey that found that over 80 per cent of Indian students in the U.S. planned to stay on after the completion of their studies. The survey also revealed that Indians students were more likely to remain in the U.S. after higher studies than students from any other country.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. In his keynote address at IIT50 he described the IITs as "an incredible institution" with a worldwide impact.-K. GOPINATHAN

But what is telling, even in the Sukhatme study, is that migration rates were significantly higher in those branches of engineering that attracted the highest ranked entrants to the IITs. During 1973-77, over 43 per cent of IIT Bombay electrical engineering graduates migrated abroad in comparison with 20 per cent of metallurgical engineering graduates. It also currently estimated that in the popular computer science stream, almost 80 per cent migrated to the U.S. In short, the creme de la creme of India's educational talent has been emigrating.

Does it matter that the academically brightest leave in large numbers? It has been suggested that in the new global economy, labour should be able to exercise its skills where the reward is greatest. However, there seems to be strong evidence to suggest that the loss of the skilled can be very harmful to developing countries, particularly through the loss of productive potential and the loss of prospective tax revenue.

The study by Desai et. al., cited earlier, points out that the one million India-born currently living in the U.S. constitute a mere 0.1 per cent of India's population. However, they account for 10 per cent of India's national income. While these migrants might have earned lower salaries at home, they still represent lost tax income. Brand Equity (January 15, 2003), a supplement of The Economic Times, estimates that by a conservative valuation, IITians in the U.S. have a combined net worth of approximately $30 billion. Writing on India's recent overtures towards its 20 million-strong diaspora at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Financial Times (January 18, 2002) noted that the net assets of non-resident Indians (NRIs) are "estimated at roughly a third of the $500 billion gross domestic product (GDP) of India's 1 billion people." The 2001 Human Development Report (HDR), published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), suggested that a high-end estimate of India's loss from the migration of software professionals, many of whom are IIT graduates, is as much as $2 billion a year.

The HDR points out that there may be several positive effects of such migration. According to the HDR, the Indian diaspora has enhanced the reputation of India in Silicon Valley by "creating a sort of branding.

On the campus of IIT Delhi.-S. ARNEJA

Indian nationality for a software programmer sends a signal of quality just as a `made in Japan' label signals first-class consumer electronics." Much of the credit should go to IITians in this regard. The report also points out that the worldwide network of Indian professionals has helped raise the endowments of some of India's higher educational institutions. IIT alumni have begun to make large donations to their alma mater. On the occasion of IIT50, Vinod Khosla donated $5 million to IIT Delhi and Avi Nash, Advisory Director, Goldman Sachs, announced a $1 million donation to the chemical engineering department of IIT Bombay. N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Vinod Gupta, Kanwal Rekhi, Suhas Patil (of Cirrus Logic) and Gururaj Deshpande are part of a longer list of alumni who have made significant donations to the IITs. The HDR maintains that the diaspora has had direct effects on India's information technology sector, particularly by creating jobs through the development of "back offices" and "manufacturing facilities" in India.

A country that loses workers often gains some income through remittances from these workers. However, unlike less skilled workers, highly educated professionals tend to account for little in terms of remittances.

The skilled are more likely to emigrate with their families and more easily integrate into their new country and, hence, are less likely to send back remittances. Skilled Indian professionals in the U.S. have also failed, by and large, to contribute large levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) required by India. In contrast, China, which along with India is the largest exporter of students to the U.S., has greatly benefited in this regard from its skilled emigrants. The Financial Times (January 18, 2003) noted that China "has managed to attract 10 times more FDI than India on the back of strong in-flows from the Chinese diaspora." In the final analysis, there is little doubt that India is a net loser from the migration of its best-educated brains. As The Economist suggested in an article on the brain drain (September 26, 2002) that "the loss of the skilled and educated may do more harm than emigration in general." The article added: "Their departure removes the stabilising political influence of a middle class. And the exodus of scientists and academics wreaks particular havoc, especially if it happens quickly." While benefits such as remittances and FDI inflow seem to accrue in some degree, it is hard to imagine that such contributions are capable of offsetting the tremendous potential tax and productivity loss caused to India by the brain drain.

How then can India recover some of the resources it loses when IITians and other highly skilled people emigrate? It is impractical and undemocratic to place restrictions on them. In the long run, only a change in the existing economic, political and social situation in the country can prevent large-scale migration of the skilled. But the government has the capacity to provide more incentives to encourage people to stay. An important solution may lie in the system of educational funding. Instead of providing a large subsidy to IIT graduates, the government could replace some portion of this subsidy with a loan. This loan can then be written off if the graduate chooses to remain and work in India after completion of his or her studies. Many years ago, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati suggested a small tax on expatriates. India could also consider the U.S. model of taxation, where citizens are taxed on the basis of nationality and not residence. A small flat tax of 1 or 2 per cent on the income earned by Indian nationals living outside the country will still yield sizeable revenues to India. However, such taxation often requires multilateral cooperation and may not even be feasible.

Students in IIT Delhi. One glaring drawback of the IIT system has been the gross under-representation of women.-S. ARNEJA

Many who go abroad for further studies tend to remain abroad. With this in mind, the IITs need to improve the quality of post-graduate education they offer and greatly strengthen the research they do. Currently, relatively few IIT undergraduates continue in the IIT system for post-graduate education and research. To an extent, these post-graduate courses seem to be designed to bring to speed those who have received undergraduate training elsewhere, and to fill the void left by other science and technology educational institutions. Improving the status of faculty and aiding research might result in more IIT B. Tech. students remaining in India to become academics. Not all IIT students attend the best U.S.colleges for post-graduate education and some of those who now go to middle-rung U.S. schools might choose to remain in India if post-graduate education in the IIT system were improved.

This issue needs to be debated within and outside the IIT system. The pool of applicants, especially among those who clear the JEE screening test, is already very selective and students who are close to the threshold of admission but fail to make it must also be recognised as extremely talented.

The country is likely to benefit if the IITs can tap this larger pool while maintaining their high standards. If the number of IIT students is increased, there is a greater chance that more graduates will remain in India. A cursory glance at the composition of the IIT faculty will reveal that many bright minds do not make it into the IIT system. Many IIT faculty, who are not themselves IIT graduates, are obviously capable of moulding the brightest academic talent in the country. On the face of it, it seems that given the excellent infrastructure, resources, and academic culture of the IITs, a doubling of their annual undergraduate input is overdue.

VI. Diversity of the student body

One glaring failure of the IIT system has been its inability to attract Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and women students in a progressive way.

The typical IIT student is male, hails from an urban middle class family, and does not belong to S.C./S.T. ranks. There are rare exceptions. One remarkable case is that of Patwatoli, a weavers' village of 10,000 families, belonging predominantly to Other Backward Classes (OBC), in Bihar's Gaya district. Since 1990, the village has produced 25 IITians. Many of those who enter the IIT system from this village are first generation learners. While families in the village can hardly afford tutorial courses, many Patwatoli IITians have benefited from a strong village support network where those who make it to the IITs often return to counsel and coach younger aspirants. There is also the case of Arifa Khan, a young Muslim woman from a village in Andhra Pradesh who had little English and less knowledge of the JEE when she began her preparation. Gaining entry into IIT Madras put her on the fast track to success and, via the Xaviers Labour Relations Institute (XLRI) in Jamshedpur, to the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote from the U.S. that "IIT for me was life transforming in a true sense... a strong reason for my being here and my pursuits of entrepreneurship and other material success are a byproduct of my love for IIT, and my ambition to give back glory and pride, if not much else."

Indian Institutes of Technology An Experience in Excellence

Lunch time, at IIT Kharagpur. A rigorous admission process, an exacting workload, spartan living conditions and monastic discipline are some of the features of undergraduate studies at the IITs.-PARTH SANYAL

The IITs have an even more dismal record in admitting women. This is surprising considering that girls regularly perform better in board exams and gain admission in significant numbers to medical colleges and, growingly, to engineering colleges and other professional courses. The JEE, as it is structured today, acts as a bar to the entry of women into the IIT system. One explanation might lie in societal and parental attitudes. A widely used stereotype suggests that girls are better at rote learning and are incapable of the type of analytical and problem-solving capabilities required by the IITs. As a result, parents seem less inclined to encourage girls to pursue the IIT dream and are unwilling to invest large amounts of time, attention and energy in JEE preparatory courses for their daughters.Other engineering colleges and medical schools are considered to be safer avenues.

The small proportion of women who make it to the IITs usually do very well in the course. The world over, women have proved themselves as equals in intellectual and professional tasks and it is high time that such stereotypes were demolished. The IITs and their alumni need to take a more active role in encouraging women, SC and ST students, and students from other disadvantaged backgrounds, including minorities, to pursue the IIT dream. This is not to suggest that they reserve more seats. Even the top undergraduate institutions in the U.S., such as MIT and Harvard, actively recruit minorities and women. Increasing the diversity of the IIT student intake and improving social access is an issue that needs to be faced squarely today.

VI. What of the future?

As the IITs move into the second half-century of their existence, the key question is: which constituency do they intend to serve? The IIT system has responded successfully to the changing needs of the global economy, but a relevant question is whether it has even attempted, in recent times, to meet India's changing needs.

The IITs have consistently performed as institutions of excellence in an otherwise mediocre higher educational system. They have managed to provide high quality undergraduate education at a very low cost to some of the brightest in India. They have also produced undergraduates whose technical and analytical skills are truly world class. The IITs have thus far managed to attract and retain a high quality faculty at relatively low cost, but can this situation continue? How long will the teachers of Non-Resident Indian millionaires be satisfied with moral rewards? Through their success, IIT graduates have managed to create an Indian brand that commands enormous respect in the global market. This is clearly not what Nehru envisioned when he dreamed of their direct, hands-on contribution to nation-building and development, but there is much to be proud of when we look at the IIT system and the long-term performance of these "institutions of national importance.'' IIT products have performed brilliantly in advanced sectors of the global economy, but India has not benefited anywhere near enough from its vision and investment in the IIT system that Bill Gates has saluted as "world class" and "unique."

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×