How IITs Turned From Nehru's Vision of Technology To Catering Engineers for MNCs

And while the IITs have been in decline for many years now, some of the MHRD's exclusivist policies are poised to drive them further into the ground.

Note: This article was first published on February 16, 2017 and is being republished on November 14, 2018, Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary.

The India Institutes of Technology (IITs) – often considered by the general masses as the ‘holy cows’ of technical education in India, and recognised in higher education circles as National Institutes of Importance – are in fact premier institutes of the country that have, of late, come under scathing public criticism. This has intensified after they failed to be among the top 100 universities in the QS and the Times Higher Education global rankings. Strangely enough, though they find a place in the top ten institutes in the MHRD-backed India rankings, the IITs have been reprimanded for participating under the engineering category as opposed to their usual practice of participating under the university category in the world rankings.

Within Indian public circles, they are often berated as institutes that utilise public resources to finance graduates whose sole objective is to serve developed countries, thus draining the intellectual and the public capital of the country that produced them. Lamenting on how the IITs have turned into white elephants, Ved Prakash, chairman of the University Grants Commission, has described them as “not more than glorified engineering colleges”. Even on the research front, the IITs have been censured by many, including Hamid Ansari, the vice-president of India, for failing to be among the top institutes of the world.

While tracing their growth, Murali Kanta points towards a glaring failure of the IITs to attract Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and female students in a progressive way. In one of the recent issues of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), the institutes were lambasted for failing to align their goals with the democracy’s. In this backdrop, it is essential to put to test some of these critical comments against the IITs and decipher the real problems that have prevented these institutes from achieving their full potential. And in order to do that, we must first understand the structure of the IITs and the socio-political context in which they were set-up.

Institutes, not universities

On the recommendation of the N.R. Sarkar committee report (1946), the first Indian Institute of Technology was established in Kharagpur in May 1950. The consequent IIT (Kharagpur) Act, 1956, declared the IIT to be “an institute of national importance”. Five years later, the Institutes of Technology Act, 1961, created a unique framework for the funding, administration and academic development of the IITs as privileged institutions.

Within a decade, four more IITs were established in (then) Bombay, Madras, Kanpur and Delhi to meet the growing technological demands of the planned economy. Jawaharlal Nehru, the chief architect behind the creation of the IITs, had envisaged these institutes as cornerstones in building the industrial, scientific and technological edifice of the nation. He had hoped that these institutes would provide valid and vital inputs in building huge dams, power plants and industrial production units – and so spearhead the technological force of the nation. In other words, these institutes were established with an express concern to advance the bubbling aspirations of post-Independence India’s historic tryst with the project of modernity.

Though the IITs Act had envisioned many noble social objectives in principle, its main objective was reduced to catering engineers to the growing body of Indian industry in practice. As a result, employment became the major objective of education in these institutes. Nehru emphasised just this in his first convocation address at IIT Kharagpur:

We take all the trouble to put up this expensive Institute and train up people here, and then, if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong about the governmental apparatus or Planning Commission or whoever is supposed to deal with this matter. Such state of affairs can only be described as fantastically stupid because one trains people for certain ends and then wastes them, not even for a moment thinking in terms of the individual’s employment and his living, etc.

Thus, it is evident that the institutes were primarily meant to produce quality engineers who would have a greater role to play in building not just a new India but also developing nations in Asia and Africa – as they were direly needed technical personnel to lead their societies. It is worth noting in this context that, in an underdeveloped but mixed economy, where upward mobility is the sole guiding principle of the middle class, employment takes centre-stage and pushes research into a secondary position.

We ought to remember that there is a big difference between the structure of a university and an institute, and that both are envisioned to serve a unique but different purpose. As Rukmini Bhaya Nair has pointed out, “a university is meant to be inclusive and universal, whereas an institute stands for specialisation and technical knowledge.”

While universities emphasise on research in the basic sciences, humanities and social sciences, institutes are primarily expected to provide trained graduates and consultancy to the industry. Therefore, government policies regarding IITs have always emphasised academic-industry interactions with a hope to generate funds. And obviously, as a result, institutes that have nowhere close to the ideal teacher-students ratio push research and academics to a secondary position.

Moreover, IITs are under immense government pressure to generate funds. The appointment of business tycoons into the governing council of the institutes further indicates the wider influence of the neoliberal corporate influence on research and academics at the IITs. Nevertheless, it is significant that, until very recently, Indian business houses – unlike their counterparts from around the world – rarely funded research and development at the IITs or, for that matter, at any institutes of higher learning.  

Where the IITs failed

Unfortunately, except in producing quality engineers, the IITs have failed the country on many fronts today. They have not become thought leaders in ushering in any radical thinking that could alleviate some of the burning concerns of contemporary India. They have not been able to provide academic leadership to a country that still has a staggering number of illiterate people. As the EPW analysis read: “Despite being among the foremost centres of technological education in the nation, the IITs have remained passive observers rather than thought leaders on the question of India’s path of development.”

The IITs have miserably failed to:

  1. develop the scientific temper among the common masses, and
  2. bring in structural changes to overcome the hurdles of a hierarchical society because of the marginalised position they have accorded their humanities and social science (HSS) departments

The shrewd politician that he was, Nehru seems to have anticipated this predicament, understanding that with such reliance on technology, the institutes would become too narrow in focus and gradually lose their relevance in society. Hence, as Nair wrote, “He wanted a structural component within the system that was oriented towards turning technologists into ‘better men and women’.”

I know you can measure with your techniques and rules the hardness and strength of this metal or that, of stone and iron and whatnot. … How do you measure the strength of an individual? The human being as material is not only a difficult material but an exciting material because it is a live material, a growing material, a changing and dynamic thing. No two persons are alike and we have to build with that material… [and] function in the environment of India with the material of India… It is important that … engineers advance to become better men and women.

Although Nehru emphasised the role of the HSS departments in shaping the human material in technological institutes, the lopsided national policies on higher education that followed and the inept local administration at the IITs ignored that wisdom. And in ignorance, they sidelined the HSS departments.

Then again, this observation holds good for the departments of basic sciences, too. Though the HSS departments were expected to humanise technology, the emphasis shifted to technologising the humanities. For example, because of its global reach, English was the only discipline from the languages that was introduced in the IIT curricula. No other language of the land found a place in the academic courses. French, German and a couple other foreign languages received some attention – again and only for the market benefits. Moreover, the liberal and the neoliberal policies of the government further intensified the commercial use of the HSS disciplines.

Thus, English was reduced to a set of communication skills. Psychology was turned into HR. Economics became mathematical modelling. Philosophy was reduced to logic. The post-1990s thrust on liberalisation and then globalisation accelerated these trends and strengthened the structure of the IITs further to serve the growing demands of MNCs.

According to Simon Kuznets, a nation’s economy passes through a transition from agriculture to manufacturing and then to the service sector. However, economic liberalisation in the wake of the balance of payments crisis adversely affected this transition itself. Economic policymaking since the 1990s became less methodological and more opportunistic. The policies were framed to facilitate the growing number of opportunities in the service sector, particularly IT and finance. As a result, the economy jumped from agriculture to services without strengthening commodity-producing sectors, including agriculture and manufacturing.

The menace of coaching centres

Economic policymaking chose to fall in line with the neoclassical framework based on utilitarian thought, which helped strengthen a dream of high-paying jobs and luxurious life in this sector. While it is true that the service sector contributes a large part the GDP, it is also detrimental to the growth of agriculture and manufacturing. These macro-changes have adversely affected the role of and opportunities for IIT students.

Because of a long-term stagnation in agriculture and manufacturing, these students are unable to find any decent jobs there. The high-paid jobs in the service sector have been causing the migration of IIT graduates away from core engineering fields. Many graduates prefer these jobs over their desire to pursue careers in their core field mainly because of social pressure. Media outlets further the craze by reporting on the highest packages offered to graduating students on the front-page, putting the pressure back on students to pursue education according to what jobs they think they should hold.

Meanwhile, the initiatives of students and teachers who come up with innovative solutions are consigned to the inner pages and are played down.

Policymaking of the planning era made elite institutes out of the IITs and neglected primary and secondary education. This resulted in the IITs emerging as the ultimate destination for employment-seekers than for those who had a passion for science or engineering. Coaching centres then moved in to capitalise on this craze, going on a spree to sell the dream of IITs among youth almost to the tune of $40 billion.

And after encouraging their growth through faulty education policies, the government at one point woke up and exerted pressure on the IITs to curb this menace. To reduce the influence of coaching centres in the final selection of candidates, the UPA government put forth a proposal to consider the performance of students in their board exams. Evidently, this only forced students to attend coaching classes for board exams as well! Realising the faux pas, and to mitigate the burden on students, the government later advised the IITs to consider the score of board exams as a qualifying marker.

A question begs to be asked: how could educational institutes in the first place curb or control the coaching industry? As long as the government blindly and generously allows the private players in the field of education, all these half-hearted measures will be more of an eye-wash aimed at quelling some stray dissenting voices against the commercialisation of education. A change in entrance patterns will not address the failure of successive governments in strengthening primary and secondary education. And the IITs are definitely not equipped to address these problems.

Worse, a recent decision by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to hike the annual tuition fees for undergraduate courses at the IITs is a death knell to any hopes of reviving these institutes. The decision to hike the fee from Rs 90,000/year to Rs 2 lakh/year smacks of a design to further divide the society on the lines of caste, class and gender.

Using exclusivist policies

In 2011, when the Anil Kakodkar Committee submitted its report that recommending the hike, the UPA government shot it down on the grounds that it would stifle the prospects of many IIT aspirants. Behind the decision was an understanding that a fee hike would deter students from the weaker sections of society. However, the nod by the incumbent BJP government for the steep fee hike further bolsters the commercialisation of education. A report submitted by NITI Aayog to the prime minister’s office and the MHRD suggests that it was done to facilitate the entry of foreign universities into India.

Though students under the reserved category are exempt from paying the fee, the exemption could elicit an anti-reservation sentiment among students of the general category students. Additionally, it will also increase the growing demand for reservations by dominant castes, as has been happening in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The IITs also have a dismal record in admitting female students. Compared to the best institutes of the west, the IITs are reeling under a highly skewed sex ratio in their campuses. A study conducted in 2013 revealed that the male-to-female ratio ranges from 14:1 to 10:1 at the IITs. Sharmila Ganesan, a reporter at the Times of India, had rued that the gender divide had created an intimidating classroom experience, especially for girls hailing from smaller towns.

In this context, the fee hike could exacerbate the consequences of the skewed sex ratio because our patriarchal society – largely inimical to the education of girls – could use it as a convenient excuse and choose not to have women educated at the IITs. And in effect, we would be denting the overall growth of a nation if we failed to increase the diversity of student intake at the IITs.

Finally, the promise of an unhindered education loan without any collateral security for deserving students continues to remain a distant dream even to the lower rungs of the middle class, leave alone students from the lower economic classes. Such denial directly contravenes clear guidelines by the finance ministry, and the fee hike would further aggravate the inequality in having access to higher education. While the government talks about inclusive growth, it is really unfortunate that its policies will promote exclusivist ideals. Under such market-driven education policies and adverse circumstances, naively expecting IIT students to work for the betterment of society would not just be insensitive but also cruel.  

Gourishankar S. Hiremath and H.S. Komalesha teach economics and english, respectively, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The views expressed are personal.