IITs and beyond

To improve India’s international standing in the scientific community and to contribute applied research for India’s development, it is better to focus on the ‘how’ than the ‘where’.

More than eighty years ago, Subhash Chandra Bose came to the Hilji detention camp outside Kharagpur in West Bengal to collect the bodies of two unarmed freedom fighters martyred there.  That act served as one spark among many in catalysing India’s Independence movement.

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After Independence, the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur was set up at the very site of the detention camp. It was born on the back of the report written in 1946 on higher technical institutions by the Nalini Ranjan Sarkar Committee.  Noted educationists Humayun Kabir and Jogendra Singh constituted the Sarkar Committee.  Partly because West Bengal had many industries then and partly because Kabir and Sarkar were from West Bengal, the two were able to persuade Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and B C Roy, then Chief Minister of West Bengal, to establish the first IIT there.   The report suggested major institutions in the four regions of the country.  In rapid succession, IITs were established with foreign collaboration in Bombay (Soviet Union, 1958), Kanpur (United States, 1959) and Madras (Germany, 1959). The Germans were initially planning to establish the IIT in Bangalore but chose Madras instead when C. Subramaniam, then Education Minister of Madras State, impressed them with 630 acres of verdant forestland on the Governor’s estate. The fifth and last IIT of the first phase was established a few years later in Delhi with the justification that Kanpur represented Central India, not the North.  Eleven other IITs were born anew or upgraded since then in: Guwahati, Roorkee, Varanasi, Bubhaneshwar, Gandhi Nagar, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Patna, Ropar, Mandi and Indore.

These sixteen institutes have historically been built on the rationale of building human capital for a newly independent, industrializing India and on providing geographically diversified access.  The government headed by prime minister Narendra Modi has declared its intention, based on a research and development (R&D) view, of building an IIT and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in every state.   For a host of reasons, this is unnecessarily geographically focused, extravagant and wrong-headed.

Recent estimates and the experience of setting up eight institutes (all except Mandi are still on rented premises) suggests that establishment costs are likely to range from Rs. 1500 to 2000 Crores per institute.  Just the initial capital expenditure to build another dozen IITs could therefore be well over Rs. 18000 crores.   When location, land acquisition and putting up the physical infrastructure are major issues for the recent IITs, it seems ill conceived to announce further new ones before solving those issues.

The IITs have succeeded until now for three reasons: One, they have functioned autonomously with out too much interference; Two, the entrance gate has permitted only the best students in the country; and Three, the faculty has been good enough to turn this group into employable engineers.    This has allowed a brand to be built over the years that stands for excellence, which in turn allows for employment, career paths and success.  This success has reinforced the brand.   A material increase in the number of IITs threatens all three success factors and this virtuous circle.    A larger system will open up flanks for interference, the threshold for entrance will have to be lowered to admit more students and most importantly, faculty openings, many of which lie vacant today, will become even more difficult to fill.

At the very least the government  must reimagine the priority in the higher education sector to be a challenge in ‘software’ not ‘hardware’.   The Soviet inspired model of research conducted by central laboratories, and students trained by technical institutes like the IITs has to be fully reexamined to help prepare India for the next fifty years. The focus on setting up the innovation and R&D vision for the future is better placed on the structure, talent pool and compensation for researchers than on the physical infrastructure of newer institutes.   A good place to start will be to merge the various laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) into these technical institutes so that the flow of new ideas is fresh and continual and the opportunity to work in applied research areas is available in an academic context.  Another vital area of focus should be on allowing compensation to be flexible enough to attract the best and the brightest in the world. South Korea, Hong Kong and China have followed an excellent model of incentivising world-class diaspora from the academia to return and contribute.

Rather than undertake an ambitious and ultimately wasteful programme of setting up several new IITs, the government is better advised to completely revamp the structure of research in the country and place it back in technical institutes and universities. Seventy years after independence we must put our focus on getting R&D out of the detention camps rather than on building newer camps.

P.S.  “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life”, said Swami Vivekananda.

The above article was first published in Mint. Since then, I have received strong words of approval, even stronger ones of disapproval and many comments and suggestions.  To do full justice to the topic, I discuss below several threads that came from readers.

Critique 1:  “You are thinking small, India is a large country and needs more technical institutes”.  Most of those on the other side of the discussion have suggested that India is a large country with a rapidly growing need for technical human capital.  Providing good technical education that is accessible to everyone is therefore at the center of their critique.

Response: The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) interest in establishing more IITs (five were suggested first in 1998) came when then prime minister Atal Bihari  Vajpayee said the need for such institutions had risen because of growing global competition. Emphasising that the world’s best institutions were recognised on the basis of their capacity to create “new knowledge”, Vajpayee said: “The ability to translate this knowledge into new socially useful and commercially viable applications is the key yardstick to measure success”.  This purpose has been lost in the shuffle in prime minister Narendra Modi’s poll promises and education minister Smriti Irani’s passionate urgency to deliver on them. While it has not been carefully enunciated,  the purpose appears to have morphed  into setting up “people factories” in every state.

There is nothing wrong with setting up people factories if they serve the purpose of creating a workforce of employable youth. But it appears that the principal rationale — of calling these institutes IITs — is to sidestep the regulatory vice of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). By calling them IITs, these new institutions are grandfathered into the IIT Act (1961).  Autonomy from the UGC and AICTE are paramount considerations for new institutions so they are free to establish and evolve their curriculum, add and drop courses based on market demand and decontrol faculty salaries  from unrealistic government compensation bands.

By naming 30 potential institutions as IITs (29 states + Delhi) and also as institutes of national importance, it is inevitable that none of them will remain institutions of importance.  It will, in the long run, be more effective to evolve new models of legislation for newer institutes that seek to produce more technically qualified people.  In an age of greater federalization, it is imperative that we allow states to experiment with their own versions of the people factory, rather than foist upon them a central model.

Critique 2:  Money is not a problem in India.  Rs 2000 Crore per institute and an operating budget of Rs. 50-100 crore should not be a problem for such institutes.
Response:  In a large country like India, with a GDP now approaching $2 Trillion, there is no “shortage” of money.  It only begs the priority question. Is the prioritised best use of a fiscally constrained central government setting up more IITs? Would it not be better use of the money to focus on primary education or preventive health?  So while, money is not necessarily in short supply, “relative money” is. You need look no further for evidence than a combined (Center+States) fiscal deficit that is approaching 10 percent.

Critique 3:   You are mixing up technical institutes and research.
Response:  The Soviet model of doing research in centrally planned and administered research laboratories should have been reexamined when the Soviet Union collapsed. Around the world, the dominant model, and for good reason, is the University model for research supplemented by a few institutes.   India will inevitably have to move to this model to keep a steady stream of researchers coming into these laboratories who are young and current.   Research and development is not about creating a career path in a bureaucratic institution.  Instead, it is born in an ecosystem of young human talent supervised by professors with experience.

In summary, the first thing the Modi government should do is to clearly articulate why they would like to set up more IITs.  If the purpose is to create people factories, then it is better to evolve legislation in collaboration with some states that allows a state model for technical education. Different approaches can be tried to allow for autonomy, combined funding, quality of students and adequate faculty.  If the purpose of setting up more IITs is to improve India’s international standing in the scientific community and to contribute applied research for India’s development then it is better to focus on the ‘how’ than the ‘where’.  More IITs will not lead to more or better research.

Photo: epSos.de