Why it's Time for the IITs to Look Beyond Engineering

As India’s best-run institutions, they should build on their solid reputation in technology and science by diversifying into medicine, law, management, humanities and the social sciences.

In June, the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur (IIT-Kgp) announced plans to run a medical school. Earlier, indeed as far back as 1993, it had become the first IIT to offer business degrees at the Vinod Gupta School of Management. With its decision to begin medical education, IIT-Kgp has become the first IIT to take the first few steps towards becoming a more comprehensive institution.

What is interesting about the IIT-Kgp initiatives—whether it is its business school or its plans to offer medical education—is that they have come from India’s oldest IIT. ‘Old’ is not commonly synonymous with innovation and reform; more often than not, it is quite the opposite. In this case, however, it appears that among all the IITs, it is the oldest which is prepared to think differently and try out new things.

The decision to begin medical education at IIT-Kgp is not abrupt. The institute has been running a School of Medical Science and Technology since 2001, offering an inter-disciplinary three-year post-graduate programme in medical science and technology.

IIT-Kgp’s expansion into other areas, limited as they are primarily to management and medical education, are still quite modest but can possibly serve as a model for other IITs and premier engineering colleges to follow. Indeed, it can be argued that all IITs must be encouraged to become comprehensive institutions over time, and that time is now. Imagine the possibilities – the ‘new’ IITs as institutions that offer undergraduate and post-graduate degrees across engineering, science, medicine, law, humanities and social sciences and management!

The need to adapt and evolve

There are several good reasons why the IITs must evolve to become comprehensive institutions. Indeed, it is hard to think of a single reason why they should remain frozen in time, remaining much like they were when IIT-Kgp came into existence in 1951.

First, higher education institutions, like other state or societal institutions, need to adapt and evolve with time in order to flourish and become better. The IITs were created at a specific moment in India’s history for addressing a particular set of needs. At the time, India was a poor, agricultural society, lacking in scientific and technological know-how, which had recently become independent. Those conditions have changed.

For example, in some ways, as the successful Mars mission amply suggests, India is no longer ‘backward’ in science and technology. Also, compared to the 1960s, there are many more higher education institutions offering degrees in the sciences and engineering so that the IITs are no longer the only credible institutions which must by themselves shoulder the burden of nurturing the best scientific minds of the current generation.

Second, one gets to hear quite often that the earliest IITs were modelled after American universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That may well have been the case then but the fact is that the IITs are nothing like MIT. The differences between them are not just about the huge gap in the quality of education. Among other things, for example, MIT runs undergraduate and graduate programmes across sciences, technology, humanities and the social sciences. Indeed, some of its social science departments such as political science count among the top five worldwide.

Our IITs, with the exception of IIT-Guwahati, do not even offer courses in political science! Indeed, most IITs only offer post-graduate degrees and that too in the same humanities and social science disciplines that they started out with during the 1950s and 1960s – English, economics, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Despite its name, MIT is a comprehensive university; the IITs, as their name indicates, are not. Early on, the IITs selectively imitated MIT but have remained unchanged ever since. It is perhaps time for them to attempt a more sincere imitation.

Structure of knowledge

The real reason why each IIT should consider expanding and diversifying across disciplines is that our understanding of what constitutes scientific knowledge and how to create new knowledge has changed over time. The path to knowledge creation does not lie (and perhaps never did) within the confines of a singular discipline or a limited range of  fields. Quite often, generating new knowledge requires broader multi-disciplinary approaches and inter-disciplinary collaborations. This requires the presence of a core group of faculty in different disciplines as well as a larger body of students, including undergraduates, to support the larger numbers of faculty.

Third, as Sebastian Morris has pointed out recently, the IITs (and the IIMs) currently underutilise their resources, especially and including land, to the extent that they function at a sub-optimal scale in comparison to the best institutions in the world. By admitting more students, both by increasing the intake of engineering students and introducing other areas of study, whether medicine, law, business, arts and social sciences, for both undergraduate and post-graduate students, the IITs would make better use of the hundreds of acres of land that each campus occupies. Further, this would not only help reduce the cost of education for students but also strengthen their “core functions of knowledge creation and education.”

There are other compelling reasons for IITs to reinvent themselves as comprehensive institutions offering undergraduate and post graduate degrees in a wide variety of disciplines. The last two-three decades have witnessed a steep decline in the overall quality of higher education in the country to the extent that it is fair to describe it as “broken.” Only a few institutions, the IITs and the IIMs among them, have escaped the slide to the bottom (though things may still change for the IIMs if the current government is able to, as planned, successfully push for greater control over them).

Depth over breadth

There are few signs that central universities, which are specifically designed to be comprehensive institutions, will become better. Only the IIT group of institutions offer some hope because, above all, they still enjoy some autonomy despite fervent attempts in recent months by the current government to bend them over. The reinvention of the IITs as comprehensive institutions can perhaps compensate for the larger decline in higher education across most institutions in the country, whether central universities, state-government run universities or others.

There is some legitimate concern that greater diversity and size will dilute the quality of education at the IITs. The growth in the number of IITs is said to have diluted brand IIT. However, building more IITs in different parts of the country is not the same as increasing the size and scope of each IIT.  What is being argued here is that expansion should take place within each institute. This can be done in two ways – by gradually increasing the intake of engineering students, as well as by starting new schools in other disciplines to admit students in non-engineering fields.

It would be a pity if the IITs, as India’s best-run institutions, remain reluctant to build on their solid reputations in technology and science to diversify and do more, by introducing schools of medicine, law, management, humanities and the social sciences. There is some evidence from universities worldwide that narrowly-focused institutions—which the IITs are—can become better by evolving into something more comprehensive.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is an assistant professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, Goa.

Note: This article was updated at August 20, 2015, at 23.41 pm, to take into account that IIT-Kharagpur offers an LLB degree in intellectual property rights.