To Lift the IITs, India Needs to Build a Few IIBs

IIT Delhi. Credit: Bryn Pinzgauer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

IIT Delhi. Credit: Bryn Pinzgauer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Earlier this October, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) council recommended a tuition fee hike of approximately 100-150% to the MHRD. However, a final decision on the matter was postponed for after the Bihar elections. Earlier, a similar decision on fee increase had already been taken by the council of the 30 odd National Institutes of Technology (NITs) with the intent of recovering the entire running expenses of the institutes from students.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development will be quite deserving of praise if it eventually approves the IIT council’s recommendations which are based almost entirely on the 2011 Anil Kakodkar Committee report, Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance. The report had proposed that “the fee charged by the IITs should cover the full operational cost of education, which works out to be roughly 30% of the total current cost of education.”

A step in the right direction?

As the title of the Kakodkar Committee report suggests, there are solid justifications for a big fee hike.

The older IITs are excellent institutions but they have underperformed in comparison to similar institutions in Asia, including those in China. There is also a real possibility that the newer ones may not do as well as their more established counterparts even over the long run. If India is to take bigger strides in developing its knowledge sector in the coming decades, elite institutions like the IITs must lead from the front. To do that, they not only need a clear plan of action but also substantially more resources and greater autonomy from the government. And in order to advance their cause for greater autonomy, they need to become less dependent on government funding.

A fee hike makes good sense in other ways too. Unlike students pursuing degrees in most other disciplines at most other institutions, IIT and NIT students are, certainly on paper, not only more employable but also have a higher earning potential. As such, there is no great need to support them financially other than through interest-free loans, something which is what the MHRD appears to favour.

Finally, higher education subsidies are often wasted on students who do not directly and significantly contribute to (nor intend to) India’s science and technology sectors. This issue merits further discussion.

IITs and IITians

At different times during the past few years, prominent Indians like Jairam Ramesh and Narayan Murthy have questioned the contribution of IITs to India’s science and technology. But what about IITians?* Have they done better than their alma mater?

While measuring the worth of institutions such as the IITs over a period of time, in terms of inventions, patents, national and international recognition received by faculty and other such indicators, is fraught with difficulty, it is still possible to carry out such an exercise. On the other hand, measuring the contribution of IITians to India’s science and technology sectors is nearly impossible since the IITs do not appear to have maintained complete data on their alumni from the beginning.

There was recently a spirited debate on this subject. On the one side, it was asserted that the IITians have done precious little and therefore the subsidies are not justified; the other side countered that IITians have done much for India’s economy and development. While both positions have some merit, it is necessary to emphasise that the rationale for building IITs (and providing them with generous subsidies) was (and is) not to produce graduates who make a mark as entrepreneurs and create jobs but to promote and nurture indigenous talent in science and technology for the benefit of the nation.

There is some anecdotal evidence on the contributions of IITians to India’s science and technology sectors which is, unfortunately, just that.

For example, less than 2% of engineers at ISRO are from the IITs and NITs. According to another report, India is the top country of birth among Asian countries for immigrant scientists and engineers in US, with 950,000 out of the continent’s total 2.96 million. This represents an increase of 85% over a 10-year period. These numbers surely include many IITians.

On the other hand, data collected by Abhishek Sanghavi (a former student at BITS Pilani-Goa) shows that of the 162 assistant professors (typically fresh PhDs who have been hired over the past 5-6 years) in three disciplines – EEE, Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering – across the five older IITs (i.e. Kharagpur, Kanpur, Powai, Chennai and Delhi), nearly 36% were IITians. The numbers were as high as 18 of 27 assistant professors (or two-thirds) at IIT-Delhi.

Why do students want an engineering degree?

Many sociologists would agree that India has experienced a rapid transition over the past two decades or so to become a ruthlessly capitalist society where the worth of an individual is largely measured by her income and/or assets. Others, however, interpret the changes that are taking place in a more positive light, describing India as an “aspirational society.” Either way, if in the past parents insisted that their children (especially boys) take up engineering it was because they believed it would help them secure a decent job; today, young men and women are keen to join an IIT or NIT not simply to enhance their employment prospects but to secure a large pay package, usually in fields other than science or engineering, within the shortest time possible. The media, of course, makes a big deal of such ’successful’ graduates, further fuelling the desire among others to chase wealth above everything else.

The claim that the one thing young Indians really care about is the pay package may seem exaggerated. After all, many recent IIT graduates do not seem to mind continuing their affiliation with IITs as faculty members at salaries that are much lower than what they could make in the private sector. However, the ever-increasing popularity of IIMs and other business schools in India and abroad among engineering graduates would suggest that there is an element of truth in the statement.

According to one report, while fewer numbers of IIT graduates head abroad these days than in the past, about half of them choose to join a business school. Not surprisingly, engineering graduates make up for approximately 90% of IIM students. These numbers clearly hint that a fairly large number of those who benefit from subsidised engineering education are not particularly interested in their own disciplines but only see it as a stepping stone for securing jobs that are better compensated than a career in science and technology.

The students (and their parents) should not be faulted for looking after their interests first. Indeed, it is the government which must take a fair part of the blame. For example, even today, India’s higher education sector, including specialised research centres which purport to promote merit and excellence, offers few incentives for young, hardworking women and men to consider a career in science and technology. As in the good old days, we reward experience and ethnic or personal ties over merit and even marginalise or punish those with new ideas. It is actually quite sensible on the part of students to reject careers in India’s science and technology sector and aspire to do other things.

The case for IIBs

Since a large percentage of graduates from the IITs, NITs and other engineering colleges head off to business schools, there is a need to rethink how the IITs can better nurture and promote indigenous talent in engineering, technology and science. One way to do this is could be by limiting the entry of those students who are ‘interested’ in engineering only because it is considered to be a ticket to a good business school.

It was recently reported that 80% of Indian students favour engineering as a career option because of its higher earning potential and the opportunities it provides for innovation. To begin with, such high level of interest in engineering among the young is quite unhealthy. If true, it indicates how one-dimensional Indian society has become. Curiously, however, newspapers neglected to mention that, according to the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Report on which they based their headlines and report, Indians favoured engineering largely because of its higher earning potential and less because of the opportunities it provides for innovation.

What this implies is that raising tuition fee may help the IITs cover their operational costs but that will not be enough for them to become magnets for students devoted to science and technology. The belief that BTech-plus-MBA is the surest way to the top is far too deeply ingrained in our society. How then can the IITs discourage fortune-seekers? A tuition hike, in combination with other measures, can perhaps help the IITs become places that primarily attract those interested in pursuing careers in or related to science and technology.

One initiative that the government could seriously consider is building a few Indian Institutes of Business (IIBs) along the same lines as the IITs in terms of common entrance exams and such but minus the subsidies and without post-graduate programmes (which the IIMs offer). Teaching-focused institutes that offer degrees in ‘professional’ disciplines such as business, finance, management, accountancy and other allied areas could become a very attractive option for students in the ‘BTech-plus-MBA mode’.

In considering the IIB option, one must also keep in mind that, even though NAAC ratings may suggest otherwise, there is a serious shortage of good undergraduate institutions in the country. It is not uncommon to find students pursuing a degree in engineering because they could not get admitted to a half-decent college to study economics, commerce or similar disciplines. Increasing the numbers of such colleges (and improving the quality of education at already-existing ones) would perhaps reduce the rush for engineering degrees. In sum, IIBs may nudge many students away from the IITs to pursue their true calling in business and finance, and in the process free up seats for those who want to attend at IIT because they are interested in technology and engineering.

Finally, the IIMs in particular should seriously consider limiting the number of engineering graduates they accept to perhaps no more than 50% of the total. Some of them have been slowly trying to reduce the intake of engineers. However, they need to do more also because, as public institutions, they have greater responsibilities to ensure that higher education subsidies at other elite institutions (i.e. IITs, NITs) are not wasted.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.

*An IITian would typically be someone with an undergraduate or graduate degree from an IIT. However, I am using the narrower definition of an IITian, for those with an undergraduate degree from an IIT, because there is a significant difference in the level of competition for entry into undergraduate and graduate programmes.

  • PlugIn Caroo

    India produces the most numbers of Engineers in the world. But does it translate into innovation, development or better engineering systems. Dont know about other fields but in Automobile Engineering and Electric Vehicles there is almost zero movers and shakers.Open youtube and search of Electric bikes and you will find a ton of kids working or building elecctric vehicles. You will not find a single Indian EV. ALL Indian electric bikes are assembled chinese parts rebranded as Indian just like they do on emergency lamps and rechargeable torch like clickon, geepas, and similar shit. In EV there are 3 names that has done some kind of work Chetan Maini, Tarun Mehta and Swapnil. The vehicles might have some flaws but at least they tried and for 1 billion Indians only 3 people who have created something. There are many students who make Electric cars/bikes as their projects mostly because they have to do something to get marks. The passion is just not there, nor is there any belief that they can create something better than Mercedes or BMW… give me one Automobile Engineer who believes as a student that his vehicle design can beat BMW or Merc.

    The problem is there but we are still not able to identify them. Now where does the problem lie? Possibly it is because student chooses Engineering because his/her parents told them to. Do Engineering, Get Job if possible in US, Get Married – Life is Set. Is usually the Indian dream. Most times the students are so immersed in learning and getting better marks that they miss the part that there are many problems around them that they could solve easily. Desalination of seawater can be done in a few hundred rupees (by putting together 1 old Airtel size dish antenna, 1 pressure cooker, a few meters of pipes and water tank). Production of Biogas and organic fertiliser from human/animal shit and Garbage also costs few hundred rupees. This biogas can be used to generate electricity, fuel the car and also use as cooking gas. There is no need for grid. But are we even discussing these issues at all.

    Our people do not know the difference between poisonous vermiculture and earthworm culture… for us both are organic. Are we even aware that one set of earthworm goes under the earth like a plough while other stays on top of the earth and shitting toxic waste. This is all because we take from West & European country blindly. Green Revolution handed out by the west and embraced by India has had disterous consequences for India with farmers commiting sucide in huge numbers. GM Crops, GM Cow (Jersey Cow) and Chemical farming has broken the back of Indian Economy and inflation is at an all time high even though the petrol prices has fallen. In cold and snow countries vermiculture is the only way for them while it is not at all good for us in India with warm climate. We need more earthworms which can be had from manure from traditional zebu cow breed. Even the recent beef ban could have been done scientifically as Jersey cow is giving dangerous milk due to being Genetically Modified. Cattle killing centres should be closed down. Export and leather work will be affected but if the Zebu breed multiplies it will be abe to generate income and income. But not a word is spoken on it. Most people do not even know the difference between Zebu and Jersey as there is hardly any Zebu cow in India…