Photo: The Hindu Losing vision and mission: The numerous factors that made the IITs excellent are being whittled away. The picture is of IIT Delhi. Photo: Sandeep Saxena
India’s premier institutes of technology are losing their academic edge because of unplanned expansion and excessive politics
The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) figure prominently among Indian higher education institutions known outside the country. They are internationally respected for the quality of their graduates and for the quality of their teaching. The IITs may be the most selective schools in the world, with more than 500,000 students taking the entrance exams each year. Yet, the IITs have been in trouble for some time, and recent comments by Ved Prakash, the chairman of the University Grants Commission certainly do not help their cause. Mr. Prakash called the IITs “glorified engineering colleges” and argued that traditional universities should be the main beneficiaries of funding.
Why have the IITs been so successful over a half century? They are elite institutions — attracting top faculty members committed to the best-quality teaching and with some focus on research. The faculty knew that their students would be the cream of the crop and that meritocracy would be the hallmark of the “IIT ethos.” They were attracted not by high salaries but by an idea that top, international quality higher education in technology and engineering can succeed in India. The country needs some elite institutions if India is to compete globally. IIT governance has traditionally been less bureaucratic than in other Indian universities — academic staff have had more power to influence key decisions and politics has been generally absent from campus life. In other words, the IITs have been more like the best universities worldwide, and are unlike the mainstream Indian academic institutions. Without question, good governance is central to the success of academic institutions everywhere — and Indian universities, steeped in bureaucracy, have not been noted for effective campus governance
One of the main reasons that the IITs and, later, the Indian Institutes of Management were established was precisely because the traditional universities could not be reformed. Bureaucracy, politics, a dispersion of academic authority, and other factors prevented this. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed over the past half century. While some of the traditional universities have good quality departments and some of the colleges are outstanding, the institutions themselves seem impervious to change.
Why are the IITs in trouble? They have been unable to replace the superior quality faculty who were first attracted, as several generations have retired. Inadequate funding, much greater opportunities in the private sector, and some deterioration at the IITs themselves have made them less attractive. At present, a significant percentage of academic posts remain vacant because appropriate candidates could not be found.
In an effort to “spread the wealth,” there are now 17 IITs, many established in recent years, and some located in quite remote places. This expansion has to some extent “cheapened the brand” since the overall quality could not be maintained — in part because qualified academic staff cannot be lured to mofussil locations. Top facilities — including needed laboratories, residences, and others — could not be provided in a timely way.Overexpansion has not served either the IITs or the quality of Indian higher education well. India, facing public demand for IIT-level education, as well as shortages of top talent in most fields, frequently errs on the side of expanding too quickly, failing to ensure that the needed intellectual and infrastructural resources are available.
The IITs have also become enmeshed in the complex political issues affecting Indian higher education. Close to half the students admitted to the IITs must be from the backward classes or disadvantaged caste and tribal groups. Policies relating to these reservations have been constantly debated and litigated.
Appointments of academic staff are also affected by reservation policies — but not to as great an extent. Other political battles concerning the locations of new IITs and other issues have also ensued. There have also been disputes relating to the appointments of IIT directors and allegations of political inference.
The factors that made the IITs excellent are being whittled away. What is needed is a return to the effective policies and practices that characterised the IITs first for several decades. Rather than forced to conform to the norms of the rest of India’s sclerotic higher education system, the IITs should be a beacon for the rest. The UGC’s Ved Prakash has said exactly the wrong thing.
(Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)
Keywords: Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian higher education institutions, College funding, IIT governance, IIT selection policy, IIT political issues
View comments (22)
Sibal and co. are interested in bringing in Foreign universities to India. This is not possible unless IITs lose their sheen. Increasing the no. of IITs under the pretext of giving them a wider reach is only a hogwash.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 11:54 IST
As an IIT student, I say we are already at top. It's about maintaining our standards and getting better.
Serious problems that we are facing maintaining our standards are lack of faculty, attitude of student community towards education, political influences and economy of country. There is an dearth of good faculties in most IITs, not that the present faculty is not good, but may faculty positions are vacant because we do not have people qualified enough to teach well. The students no longer care about learning, the focus is on getting good grades somehow, the increasing student to faculty ratio facilitates that, also, our selection criteria has been performance oriented and not merit oriented for the last 5 years to say the least.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that one would get a decent job after a BTech for IITs, our delicate economy and concentration of jobs in IT sector have demolished whatsoever faith student community had in learning! Don't get me started on getting better!
from: Amit Kumar Koshta
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 11:41 IST
Sir, many of your concerns are valid but I think one of the major issue is that unlike western universities IITs doesn't have any significant collaboration with industries for research and thus most of the graduate students end up doing a job in IT sector or Data analysis irrespective of the field they did their engineering graduation from.
Alumini IIT Roorkee.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 11:23 IST
IITs are certainly not the correct path forward but Ved Prakash's demand that "traditional universities" should have received equal funding is at best laughable. The selection of faculties is done in most "traditional universities" are done on the basis of bribe and students who end up there are the ones mostly ill-trained. (Certainly the students are not to be blamed as f they had means for better training they would also have gone for IITs.) But this "heady mix" of bad faculty + ill-trained students make them anything but an educational institution. They need total overhaul. An academic audit of faculty - especially Science faculty - needs to be done in traditional universities and those among faculty who do not live up to the standards need to be send away. Only then they can claim some sort of dignity let alone funding.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 11:20 IST
Concerns about deteriorating level of quality of education in IIT is valid, but expanding IITs and reservation in them must see in a different way.I am also critical about reservation but if it is to be removed should be removed from all not only from IITs. Expanding IIT may have effected quality or sheen of it but its true only for new one, Previous 7 IITs are still have well trained staff and cream of the student crop. India is youngest country in the world and to tackle the level of competition we needed new IITs and of course we can expect them to be as good as the previous one, it will take time to be that.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 10:28 IST
Not something we don't know. Possible solutions would be more helpful.
from: Vanshika Mohta
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 10:27 IST
When the government was thinking of setting up an IIT in Rajasthan, some of us (including faculty members from IITs, TIFR, and some US universities) wrote to the HRD minister and the chief minister of Rajasthan that it should be located in Jaipur, giving them cogent reasons. We never heard from either of them, and they didn't heed our advice.
At a more personal level, I felt that I should somehow help the IIT in Jodhpur (because I'm from that region) and applied for a job. I never heard from them. They did me a favour because if they had appointed me, I wouldn't have been to do the work in number theory which it has been given to me to do in the meantime. (An older IIT, and one or two IIISERs, have done me the same favour.)
As it turns out, IIT Jodhpur has not been able to attract decent faculty members, at least not in mathematics and physics, and many of those who were initially hired have left for better places. All this was predictable.
from: Prof Chandan Singh Dalawat
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 09:21 IST
I agree with Dr.Prakash when he called the IITs "Glorified Engineering Colleges". I have seen one of the best students graduating from traditional universities. Traditional universities like Punjab University are gaining prominence because of their high quality of research. I think what is important is not the brand value of the university, but the work that has been accomplished by the student. There is more scope for carrying out interdisciplinary research at the traditional universities. This encourages more collaborations resulting in high impact factor research.IIT's on the other hand are super specialized in engineering field.
from: Dr. Vijayakrishna
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 07:59 IST
I support the author's view. Of the 8 new IITs, only IIT Gandhinagar and IIT Hyderabad picked up. Some IITs are not even known in the engineering community. Students tend to prefer NITs or other top non-IITs when their rank is just sufficient to get to a new IIT. Now, being practical, how can we reclaim the status of IITs? Can we reduce the number of backward class seats? Definitely not, because of the political influence that is intertwined in the HRD ministry. Is shutting down of new IITs which are not upto the mark a solution? Probably not, because once an institution takes root, it is really difficult to cut it out. I would have been glad if the author could point out innovative and more importantly pragmatic ideas to a problem which might spell a doom to these prestigious institutions.
from: Vaidyanathan M S
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 07:56 IST
The analysis could have touched the decisions from the Govt and HRD minsters intervention in the past couple of years. This article seems to be generic and lacking depth on isolating the exact problems.
Whatever listed, everybody knows, so what ?
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 07:24 IST
In one respect the IITs are quite different from most Indian engineering colleges: they give importance to mathematics and the sciences, as the world's best institutions do. As an alumnus of two IITs and the father of an engineering graduate, I have seen the difference. Unfortunately, the IITs have been able to attract good science faculty but have been less successful in filling their engineering departments. This may be partly because of the difference between their salaries and what industries offer. It would be nice if someone could suggest a solution!
from: R S Chakravarti
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:54 IST
I am also of the opinion that IITS are becoming less prominent organisations in the eyes of the people of India.More than anything that IITS are not cosidered as best institutions remarks raised by the foreign judging organisation .When they were judging the best 200 institutions,except Indian Institute of Technology Bangalore,no other institution have found their place in the merit list.The main reason for this is the interference of the government.For getting popularity of the masses for vote catching,lower percentage of marks for certain categories were considered for admission.Reservations have been cosidered for certain posts.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:53 IST
- "attracting top faculty members committed to the best-quality teaching".
Heh. Really? I could have swallowed the part about focus on research. Some professors, I must say, still do indulge in that. But this? You do NOT get "best-quality teaching" (and I must emphasize on 'teaching') in the IITs - not by a long shot. The writer clearly does not know much about the IIT system - and yet we have an article written by him about improving that very same system. Ah well.
from: Prasoon Shukla
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:42 IST
The author has pinned several key issues that have over a period of time caused the decline of IITs. The country's best engineering institutions are now merely existing as brand label monuments.
Just one quick look at what career options recent B.Tech graduates of IITs are opting is sufficient to prove the point. Most of them have either lost interest in engineering or did not have the intention in the first place. While there is nothing wrong in taking up management or unrelated software jobs, the danger comes when it becomes a significant trend. Top students from regular university colleges are able to far exceed IIT grads when it comes to engineering concepts. Many of them are pursuing research at top univ's world-wide. Whereas 10 years back, non-IIT students could hardly make it.
This trend of merely taking up a course at IIT for brand label or using it as a spring board to do something else, has been plaguing the IITs for some time now and is definitely not a good trend.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:33 IST
Well said Prof. Altbach.
I am a '69 alumnus of IIT-Bombay and I fully share your sentiments. Not only are the IIT's centers of academic excellence, but were also microcosms of pan-India. The diversity of the student body was incredible (much like the armed forces) and that exposure has been a great experience as well.
At present it seems to be a struggle for even basic items of creature comforts. Students are packed in the hostel rooms like sardines and no expansion plans seem to be in the offing. The alumni association of IIT-B is doing it little bit, including such basic things as providing laundry facilities in the hostels.
As rightly pointed out in the article, if the IITs are restored to their past autonomy and independence, and in turn the IIT authorities work in a focused and meaningful manner with the alumni, it will not be difficult to address and resolve at least many of the infrastructural problems fairly quickly. Let's hope for the best.
from: Vijay K Raghavan
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:21 IST
Well to start off with, there are a plenty of reason which is plaguing the prestigious IIT's. One of the reasons is that the rapid rate at which the institute has proliferated, has left the quality lagging in various parameters. It also does have some drawbacks with just an average 4% of their Faculty recruit's coming from abroad, unlike the 51% in Harvard. Another reason is the the IIT's have got an brand name for themself's in the Bachelors of Engineering. They hardly have taken up steps to retain their bachelors degree student, who fly off to foreign universities or enter the corporate field. The need of the hour is to atleast come up with some blueprint plan, so that they scale up their strength with the number of students enrolling in their Masters and Doctorate levels. This would invite an cream lot of New generation Researchers and Can also consider them as an new arsenal of inducting them into the universities faculty fold.
from: Samuel Jeberson John
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 06:09 IST
An educational institution is as good as the quality of its students. Then the faculty and infrastructure. Reservation should not be given for admission to institutes like IIT. Those from the marginalised society need to be given all the facility to coach and prepare these students to score top ranks. The super30 proved good brains donâ€™t need reservation they need only the financial and moral support. The govt of the day by congress donâ€™t have any vision and desire to educate the students well. Just as in other areas so too the education is suffering due to myopic vision of govt and its citizens. We need a change for the better.
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 05:59 IST
It is very sad that well known IITs have become Govt chamcha institutions, with MERIT given go-by in both recruitment of staff and students; no wonder quality declined and rank fell far below in World class group it was included before
from: Radhik Hairam
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 05:55 IST
iITs and iISc need to strengthen their Ph.D programs. Ph.D stipends should comparable to entry lecel salaries post Masters to attract the best students. With growing R&D presence in the private sector and increased collaborations with faculty across the world the strength of adjunct faculty can be augmented so that research programs remain challenging.
IISc has over the past decade or more improved itself with better recruitment. iITs are slowly stepping up. What is refreshing is that the system is honest in acknowledging that things have slipped. Therein lies the hope that efforts will be made to fix the problem.
from: Dr. K. Anand
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 05:38 IST
My experience with IITs have been poor. In 2003, I was in Chennai and arranged for a seminar. It was hot in Chennai. I go to the department and there is no one.
I was sweating and was parched. I gave a talk in Anna University that same visit and the professors were decent enough to take me out for lunch to a fantastic restaurant near by after my talk. This was back in 2003.
Now present day: Due to family circumstances, I visit Chennai often. I thought may be i can give a talk at IIT Madras about my research again. So i wrote to the chair of the respective department several months ago where i wanted to show case my latest research and also attract some quality students for graduate school or postdoc. The guy is yet to contact me. I dont know how busy these guys who don't publish or bring money could be. This is today. I have given 50 talks in my short career so far. I have always been welcomed in other countries except for my own mother land.
from: Balaji Panchapakesan
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 05:25 IST
Formed as a result of the Sarkar Committee's recommendations ,made ironically at the fag end of British rule in India, and implemented by a newly independent nation, the students and staff of the IIT's have undoubtedly done the nation proud. However, as the author has rightly noted, the IIT's have in recent years lagged behind in many respects, largely as a result of political pressures and poor planning. It is easy to kill a golden goose as much as it is easy to muddy clear waters. Building and maintaining great institutions takes men and women of exemplary training and character. Later generations of leaders in India have largely failed the nation, and the fate of the IIT's is thus unsurprising, for there are many precedents. The University of Madras is today a shadow of its former self under the great Dr. A.L. Mudaliar. And the list goes on. The IIT's are certainly worth saving. But it will take a sea change in the nation for that to happen.
from: CS Venkat
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 03:29 IST
As an old IITian, I cannot but agree with the comments about the quality and dedication of the then faculty as well as about the recent cheapening of the IIT brand.
There is a telling comment in the article "In an effort to and spread the wealth, there are now 17 IITs, many established in recent years, and some located in quite remote places. This expansion has to some extent cheapened the brand since the overall quality could not be maintained"
I cannot comprehend why our political big-wigs like Sibal do not understand such basic logic.
Or, I must say that the politicians in India well know how to ruin a good thing. God, save our country from its incompetent leaders!
from: Kumar AA
Posted on: Oct 22, 2013 at 03:14 IST