Once election promises went thus: ‘If voted to power, I shall dig a tubewell at this spot.’
Now they go: ‘If elected, I shall make an IIT here.’
Kapil Sibal gave us a few. Now Smriti Irani, the new HRD minister, has promised us eight more.
Some are understandably miffed at this because of fears that more IITs will dilute the value of their degrees. To them I say fear not. The worst that can happen is that, moving forward, the campuses will become the discriminator and not the institute, in the same way that the University of California is not the brand but Berkeley is.
Some object to the move by saying “but we should be investing in primary education and school meals and all this higher education investment is elitist and useless”. That is a regurgitation of the hoary “but we should be investing in poverty-alleviation rather than sending people to space” argument. The problem of primary and higher education has to be tackled simultaneously and one cannot wait for the other.
I am not convinced that opening new IITs is the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money. Of course we know why HRD ministers like opening IITs. People love them. The government dutifully obliges.
But the problem with higher education, particularly in engineering, isn’t that we need more graduates. Ask those in industry and they will say that their biggest headache is not quantity but quality. And even when the people say “we want more IITs” what they really mean is “we want more quality engineering education”.
For a sarkar whose mantra is ‘less government, more governance’ I would have expected a solution that relies less on increasing the size of government and a bit more on how to strategically leverage existing assets.
It’s not that we don’t have engineering colleges. We have a lot of them. Students pay a lot of money to study in these colleges and then, at the end of four years, they often find themselves unemployed or underemployed. That’s because anyone with cash and political connections can start an engineering college and all they have to do is invest in advertising and an army of lawyers and if any money remains after all that, they can hire some teachers and have a little bit of lab space. If our sarkar would clearly define stringent academic requirements that an institution has to meet and then put in place a system of enforcement that has teeth (as opposed to the current AICTE regime), maybe people would have the confidence in the infrastructure that already exists, instead of clamouring for newer IITs, even though it ends up spreading thinner our already thin higher education resources, thus exacerbating the problem rather than solving it.
Of course better regulation is only one part of the solution. If making quality higher education accessible for all is a priority, investments that are being earmarked for new IITs should be channelled towards creating a liberal federal assistance scheme for meritorious students with economic limitations, as well as a quick-start programme that allows high-school students with an aptitude for engineering to have summer-internships at elite institutes like IITs. The options are endless, and almost all of them are better uses of tax rupees than mindlessly opening new IITs.
And yet, we will have more IITs and then some more, because when it comes to politics and common sense, it is politics that wins every time.
Arnab Ray is the author of May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss and The Mine
The views expressed by the author are personal