BETWEEN HOPE AND HYPE – The case for an IIT in Mauritius

In ‘The IITians’ author Sandipan Deb - an IIT alumnus recounts asking Nandan Nilekani, then CEO at Infosys Technologies about the quality of professors he was taught by at IIT Bombay. ‘We had some really awesome professors, really brilliant guys but I am not the right person to talk about them because I rarely met them. I hardly ever went to the class and I don’t remember a thing I was taught’ came the embarrassing response.
Jairman Ramesh, an outspoken yet extremely upright Minister in the Congress government, Nandan Nilekani’s hostel-mate and quiz team partner was more brazen in his reply to Deb ‘ I have no memories of inside the IIT classrooms except maybe seeing all these guys wearing full-sleeved shirts with some formulas written down on the wrist which they could cheat from in the exams’
Criticizing the status of research at the country’s premier institutes, years later, in a yet another stunning condemnation of the IITs,  Jairam Ramesh is reported to have said ‘There is hardly any worthwhile research in our IITs. The faculty in the IITs is not world-class. It is the students who are world-class. So, the IITs are excellent because of the quality of students not because of the quality of research or the faculty’
According to Scimago Institution Rankings, which assess global universities based on research published in international journals, in a list of 2,700 universities, of the 16 IITs, only eight make it to the list – the seven oldest IITs feature between ranks 465 and 1,201.
By government’s own repeated admission IITs have done no world-class research to boast of and worse they are not exactly teaching what the industry wants.
If Jairam’s views reflect the unfortunate reality of the IIT’s why are these institutions being sought out by countries outside India, promoting them as a symbols of excellence in education and research – the very objectives in which they seem to have failed at home?
Expectations from IITs were unmistakably high. Addressing the convocation of the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur, West Begal, in 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru the modernist Prime Minister proudly declared ‘Here …stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making’
On Jairam’s account, Nehru’s IIT dream of producing engineering geniuses that undertake cutting edge research and innovation remains sadly unfulfilled. In their sixty years of existence, IITs have put out no Nobel laureates, achieved no major scientific, industrial or commercial breakthroughs or made any name in the area of research and innovation. Instead it has produced a body of alumni who have gone on to run investment banks, sell sweetened water and floral underwear and skin whitening creams for multinational corporations. It has also helped set up software sweatshops that hired cheap Indian labor to service US corporations. The best and the brightest IITians settled in the Silicon Valley and made tons of money for the venture capitalists and sometime for themselves, designing computer networks and other such stuff.
It is said, that on a per capita basis, the IIT’s have produced ‘ more millionaires’ than any other university in the world. That is a glowing achievement, but not the one Nehru expected nor the one taxpayer paid for. Sure enough, it does not help any of the IITs find place in the list of ‘Top 200 Universities in the world’ where less glorified universities from countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea have, either.
So what is the contribution of IITs to a country whose million citizens go to sleep with stomach half empty so that India’s research and development ambitions could materialize?
Every year more than 500,000 students apply for a seat at one of the IITs – less than 10,000 (2%) of those get through an entrance examination that is arguably the toughest in the world. An IIT professor and later a member of the Board of Directors at IIT Delhi once told me that if you selected the top 2% of Indian students in any year and sent them to the forest for four years and then brought them back to run banks and consumer goods companies – all that they would require is a six month training to excel in their jobs. After having sucked the very best students out of the society, the IITs add very little to their knowledge in the four years of stay there – a view held by many accomplished students of IITs themselves… and reflected in Nandan Nilekani’s remark.
Atanu Dey, a long time blogger, who went to IIT for his graduate studies and then to UC Berkley to study economics looks at the IITs as an overcrowded compartment in a Mumbai suburban train. Given the permanent shortage of seats and despite the ghastly travel experience, everyone wants to get on board. What is scarce is not necessarily good but the very fact of scarcity creates an illusion of quality that is hard to resist.
With a chronic shortage of staff hovering at 40% and unable to reform themselves from within, the IITs are a far cry from the brand image they enjoy. But that is not entirely their fault. India’s spend on R&D is an abysmal 0.9% of its GDP compared with countries like Israel, Japan, Korea who spend around 4-5% of their GDP on R&D. India’s annual research spending is measly $36 billion a year as compared to $405.3 billion by USA, $ 139.7 billion by China and $160 billion by Japan. By some standards, the IITs are rather generously funded. Yet their annual budget (US$160 Million or so) is measly compared to the budgets of leading American Universities such as MIT (research budget approx US$700M) or Stanford (US$1.27B) or Cornell (US$670M) etc.
If lack of government funding failed the IITs in their research agenda - inability to hire academic and research staff at market salaries make that failure only worse. It is not uncommon to find a fresh graduate receiving starting salaries in the range of US$6 -10,000 per month against an average salary of US$2-3,000 for an assistant professor at the same IIT. This explains the relatively poor quality of staff at IITs – it is rare to find the brilliant IIT graduates coming back to teach at the IITs except for short assignments from the US Universities where they occupy positions of eminence, carry out cutting edge research and earn respectable salaries.
All this brings us to a very important question. Until the IITs are able to fix themselves at home what lessons can they possibly deliver overseas?
In that context, it was interesting to read Ms Touria Prayag’s interview in Le Express Weekly with Prof. R.K Shevgaonkar, director of IIT Delhi on his institute’s plans to mentor an International Institute of Technology Research Academy (IIT-RA) in Mauritius.
Taking a close look at the IIT’s failings in India could perhaps be an important way to ensure the success of upcoming IIT-RA in Mauritius.
Clearly, one of the lessons relate to providing institutional autonomy to IIT-RA. Yet autonomy is a pipe dream when paychecks are written from government funds and the Directors are appointed on the basis of phone calls. IITs autonomy is a sham. What are the chances that genuine autonomy at IIT-RA could be achieved in a way that was impossible to achieve at the IITs?
The second lesson is that producing quality research requires active collaboration of the private sector and tons of hard cash - both public and private. Except in the lucrative pharmaceutical industry, private funding for research in India is zero. Similarly, funding for private sector research in Mauritius except in the sugar industry is largely amiss.
In both the above cases, there is an alarming resemblance between India and Mauritius in the nature of their national R&D expenditure (both public and private). Not unlike India, R&D spend as a percentage of GDP in Mauritius is equally paltry - less than one percent.  
The success of IIT-RA in Mauritius is entirely dependent on the ability of government to ensure a generous funding for the newly setup institution. Targeting a national R&D spend in the vicinity of 3-4% could not only help IIT-RA’s teaching and research agenda but can also rescue and expand existing research efforts at the University of Mauritius.


The reason is simple. Those who crack the entrance of IIT-JEE do it not because of the love for Engineering, but, due to society pressure. The bright kids of India are always guided to prepare for IIT-JEE, crack with high rank, and join it, because, the parents tell them that IITs are a safe school. At least, the future will get secured by cracking IIT-JEE. They can pursue their interests after ward. That's how the Indian psyche works. When safety is the first priority of human, then, no major breakthrough, hell, even no major wars can be won.

And on IIT system, the system is well past its yore now. The time has moved on to scrap the IIT system. It was applicable during the era when India was a socialist nation. Indian, at present, is now moving towards capitalist society, which means, change must happen even in the field of education.

Indian Education System needs a complete overhaul. This work has been delayed for more than 60 years.

A very intersting exposé on India's IITs.
And indeed pertinently so as for the first time an Indian IIT is to open a campus ,abroad,namely in Mauritius.

Frankly ,both Nandan Nilekani’s and Jairman Ramesh's opinion on the IITs are neirther here nor there!

There must be thoudands like them who have failed to attend classes and are doing so today,not only at IIT's but other universities andeducational institutions.

A situation prevalent inother countries too,including the USA!

To note too quite a large of Indian students have turned down the chance of studying at usually termed as 'prestigious'and top universities in Britain,namely Cambridge and Oxford.

According to the same Indian students,it is the quality of the students that makes up the reputation of a university and not the reverse.

Most of these students have opted to study in the US.

When the head of the Madras Institute of Technology was asked in an interview on British television,all be it a few years back,said that he saw the migrating of his students as a positive move.

Adding that these students were in a way ambassadors for India and that he was proud that his institution,the MIT was producing world class graduates!

In fact,at the time more than 90% of the Madras Institute of Technology were being recruited by US firms.

India's real problem is one of organisation or the lack of it.

And this is prevalent across the board.

Hence a shake-up is badly needed in the way India Inc. is being managed!

From the civil service,the private sector,the NGO's,banks,local governments etc..

Let,s hope that the Mauritius campus does not drown in a world of incompetent management!

It will be in the interest of the readers to balance Mr Sharma's article with this contribution by S Prasad , Former Director, IIT Delhi, to Business Standard in 2011.
"It is, however, important to mention that two major transformations of the IIT system are under way. First, thanks to a parliamentary decision, there is a much greater “democratisation” of the system by design, replacing its earlier elitist character. Second, it has made an effort to reposition itself as a research university system, in which postgraduate education and research are as important as undergraduate education.

The democratisation has obviously been designed to make quality IIT education accessible to a much more diverse student population and will, therefore, necessarily lead to admission of students who are less prepared. It is hoped that it can fulfil the aspirations of the young population with a wider base, and provide an opportunity and a gateway to the brightest and the most ambitious of the masses to rise in social and economic status. In essence, therefore, while reforming the admission process should be an important agenda for the IIT system, an even greater task is to quickly learn to handle this wide diversity in the campus. There is clearly a need to devise educational paradigms, which make the entire, enlarged body of students to become equally competent. Moving forward, this has to be a key agenda for the IIT system, even as the nation needs to make parallel efforts to improve the schooling system, especially in the rural areas. The curriculum changes at the IITs increasingly reflect their sensitivity to this need.

Coming to the second aspect, IITs today are equally concerned about their image as research universities. In fact, the older IITs today have larger numbers of postgraduate and research students than undergraduates. This contribution in building a solid and useful technological human resource base needs to be acknowledged as much as their contribution to admitting and nurturing elite undergraduates. It can be argued that the IITs are nowhere near the likes of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford in their research output. However, for a country that has started to make reasonably serious investments into research only in the last 10 to 15 years, IITs have not done too badly, considering the usual parameters to measure this success — the quantity and quality of research publications, PhDs and so on. Let us not forget that before the advent of the Internet, and owing to inadequate opportunities to travel abroad, IIT faculty (and for that matter, most Indian scientists) and research students were terribly out of sync with the rest of the world in terms of access to latest research and availability of quality infrastructure.

While introspection and self-criticism are important tools for making progress, it is important to give credit where it is due. IITs are rightly evolving to the next stage: becoming research universities in the global sense, where admission to undergraduate programmes becomes “difficult” rather than remaining “impossible”, and where motivated students pursue advancement of knowledge in well-equipped labs, and are mentored by good researchers."

Absolutely right,RChand.

I think that the arrival of television networks though ,all across India has triggered a peaceful revolution in that country.

And yet the Indian Civil Servants uptu the eighties were reluctant to introduce that useful medium into India on account of costs!

Too expensive,they claimed!

Of course internet will play a role in shaping 21st century India.