IIT Reforms: Improving International Rankings are Not Enough

A lack of funding, political sway and a narrow focus towards education hamper the growth of the Indian Institutes of Technology. 


In the recently–released Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education rankings of global universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have failed to feature prominently. Despite being considered “institutes of national importance” and the goal of providing a “world-class” education, only three IITs could feature in the top 200 of these lists, and none in the top 100. 

The current Human and Resource Development (HRD) Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, recently directed the IITs to come up with their own “action plan” to improve the institutions’ international ranking. In an effort to generate more funds, the IITs have opted to increase fees for their Master of Technology courses ten fold, and to ensure teaching quality and research output, the faculty is to be periodically reviewed. However, experts contend that this view of reforming the IITs is flawed: apart from producing engineers, these institutions have failed to provide the academic leadership necessary for other educational institutions in the country, and have not prioritised social development. Government interference has also stemmed the growth of these “premier” institutes. In IIT Delhi, the HRD ministry under the current government has sought to force the institution to accept a student’s admission despite being initially rejected, and R K Shevgaonkar and Anil Kakodkar, former governors and chairpersons of IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay respectively, have in the recent past resigned from their posts citing an increase in government interference—Shevgaonkar was pressured to release funds to pay Bharatiya Janata Party member Subramanian Swamy “salary dues,” while Kakodkar quit over alleged disagreements with then HRD Minister Smriti Irani over appointments to the IIT board.  

This reading list looks at some of the issues plaguing the IITs, and argues that the institutions’ academic foundations need to be strengthened to create a globally-renowned university.       

1) Building a ‘World–Class’ University

Rishikesha T Krishnan argues that increasing funding alone will not create a university that can rival the world’s best. Issues of politicisation, bureaucratic control, and nepotism currently plague Indian universities. An ideal “world–class” university, writes Krishnan, is one where the focus is on scholarship produced, and hierarchy does not make itself known.

Funding of research projects is on a competitive basis, subject only to peer review. Faculty build their reputations and are promoted for the quality of their research and ideas (as achieved very successfully by the US [United States] tenure system), not for their seniority or proximity to the powers that be. Most Indian universities appear to be far away from this ideal.

Further, Krishnan questions if India is committed enough to build universities along these criteria. In 2005, it was estimated that Rs 1,300 crore would be required per university to make it world–class, not to mention the accompanied change in political outlook required to overhaul education in India. Moreover, these universities need to be tailored towards the needs of a developing nation, which is no small feat.

It is also worth asking whether a university located in a developing country can claim to be world class in the true sense of the term if it is focused on science and engineering alone. If we look at the process of economic development, it is evident that technocratic solutions by themselves hardly ever solve problems. Technologies need to be rooted in the social, economic and political environment if they are to succeed. People who change the developing world will need to understand this environment for which they would benefit from learning philosophy, history, and the social sciences. Unfortunately, many of the IITs that started off with some commitment to a liberal arts component in their curricula have over time diluted or decreased this component and the humanities and social sciences departments have been neglected.

2) Creating an IIT for the Future

Amrik Singh writes that at the time of their establishment, the IITs were to be comparable with the best universities in the world. However, Singh argues that if the IITs are to be relevant in the international context, they need to stop emulating the Massachusetts Institute of Technology model (upon which they were designed), and instead form their own path in research and development (R and D). More importantly, Singh also emphasises the need to “debureaucratise” the IITs. 

Unless we can adopt this alternative, what we have will always be second-hand and derivative. By the time wc catch up with an advanced country it would have gone ahead. In other words, we would be always one step behind - if not more. Properly speaking, no country has ever been able to progress unless it has become self-reliant in R and D … The plain fact is that the initiative in scientific research was taken mainly by the science laboratories with funding provided by the government. Before long, the whole thing got bureacratised and the result is that not much has been accomplished on that plane. A number of people have argued over the years that government control of scientific research is not going to give us that edge over others which we aspire to achieve. Scientific research has to be debucaucratised and R and D placed by and large in the hands of private industry, which is motivated by the desire to overtake others.   

3) Investment Needs to be Better Planned

Sanjay Mishra criticises the government for neglecting IITs. Insufficient faculty, poor research, and low student intake hamper the goal of a world class education. Mishra argues that money is being poorly allocated for these universities. Rather than improve existing infrastructure, the only focus seems to be on expanding the number of such institutions in the country. Qualified and capable staff, says Mishra, are the need of the hour.

If there is a shortage of suitable faculty to expand programmes in the existing and well established institutions how can new institutions be expected to recruit good teachers and researchers? As mentioned earlier, the present teacher-student ratio in the IITs and IIMs is close to 1:10 while many globally acknowledged higher education institutions are working well with a ratio of 1:15. This indicates that there is some scope for expansion of student intake even with the same faculty strengths. 

Mishra also writes in favour of adopting a more flexible policy with the faculty, which allow for better academic staff to be hired and retained.

The shortage of teachers has been a chronic problem since the starting of IITs and IIMs [Indian Institutes of Management] and innovative ways for their recruitment and retention will have to be explored. Let us return to the example of Israel which has 21 universities in the global top 500 and three Nobel Laureates in the last 10 years. These universities attract the best academic staff not by giving high salaries but by providing generous sabbatical leaves and allowing academic staff to have joint appointments in other universities in the US or Europe. China has proactively recruited high rated American-Chinese researchers and teachers to set up research laboratories and academic programmes in China.

4) Focus on Social Development

Mona G Mehta and Raghubir Sharan write that technological education in India has acquiesced to the demands of the market and industry, and has failed to realise how innovation in the manufacturing process has perpetuated structural inequality in the country. Mehta and Sharan argue that the IITs have been subsumed by the current government’s development discourse, they are now passive “suppliers” and “executors” of the development agenda. 

The IITs have passively aligned themselves to this shrinking discourse on development, instead of suggesting alternatives to their narrow vision. Their graduates are trained to cater to the demands of the market and aspire for technological needs set by competition-driven business corporations. Corporate placements are treated as the capstone moment of engineering education and success is defined primarily in terms of salary packages received by graduates. Technological education in India has privileged the demands of the market and industry while ignoring the demands of democracy to create an egalitarian society.  

Mehta and Sharan further contend that for the IITs to be relevant to the Indian populace at large, they need to better engage with social realities in the country.

To make a successful journey from passive suppliers of technology to thought leaders on the question of India’s development, IITs must respond to the dominant discourse on development and articulate paradigmatic ideas on what development ought to be for India’s democratic project. Efforts in this direction will have to go beyond merely reforming the engineering curriculum to arrive at the right ratio of technology, science and humanities course work. 

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