Performing well initially at engineering colleges across India may soon offer students a radical incentive - an automatic opportunity to complete their undergraduate programme and earn a PhD from the coveted Indian Institutes of Technology.
The IITs will cherry-pick 2500 third-year students at other engineering colleges each year to complete their B.Tech and pursue a PhD at the country's top engineering schools, if a blueprint for the Institutes' future is proposed.
A human resource development (HRD) ministry panel under former atomic energy commission chairman Anil Kakodkar has proposed the initiative as a key component of a strategy to increase the output of PhDs from the IITs. The students can be picked on the basis of their performance in the first three years of their undergraduate studies.
The proposal, if accepted, will also for the first time offer top engineering students who missed out on admission into the IITs through the highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) a second chance to live their dream - studying at the IITs.
"It is a win-win situation, we believe. Selected students get to live their dream of studying at the IITs, and the IITs get a cadre of students ready to take up research studies," said a member of the Kakodkar panel, speaking on condition of anonymity. The panel presented its report last week to HRD minister Kapil Sibal.
Several faculty members at the IITs contacted by HT however expressed reservations about the practicality of the plan.
The panel has also proposed setting up five new IITs in addition to the existing 15, to enable the country's top engineering education brand - the IIT system - contribute a higher proportion of engineering research students than at present.
The panel has argued that the IITs should raise fees from Rs. 50,000 a year to about Rs. 2-2.5 lakh a year. This is 25-30% of the total education cost for each student estimated at 7.5-8 lakh per year, as was reported by HT on April 23.
The blueprint however largely focuses on one of the biggest concerns plaguing engineering education in India - a shortage of quality research as compared to countries like China.
The IITs have hiked their intake of doctoral students and increased their output of PhDs in recent years to about 1000 a year, and today contribute the maximum number of engineering and technology PhDs among all sets of Institutes in India.
But they must hike the number of PhD graduates a year from 1000 to 10,000 by 2024-25 if India is to catch up with China or the US, about ten times ahead at present, the panel has argued.
The panel has proposed three new sources of students to attract into this PhD programme, apart from the current practice of inviting PhD applications from post-graduate students. The 2500 students cherry-picked from other engineering schools after their third year, constitute the first part of the plan.
The government should incentivise about 2500 teachers at other engineering schools each year to join PhDs - by paying their salary and tuition fee - the panel has proposed. The third set of 2500 PhD students can come from among youngsters working in industry, by offering part-time PhD programmes, the panel has suggested.
The IITs will also need to increase their PhD intake through conventional means to about 2500 to create a total pool of 10,000 PhD entrants each year, the panel has argued.
But not everyone is convinced that the panel's blueprint for increasing the PhD output of the IITs from about 1000 to 10,000 by 2024-25 can work.
A senior IIT Kanpur professor who was involved in hand-holding the new IIT in Rajasthan questioned whether the IITs could absorb the additional student population. The panel has proposed increasing the infrastructural demands of the IITs, but it is through the increased PhD output that the Kakodkar blueprint suggests the IITs meet their massive teacher shortage - between 25-40 %.
"The increased PhD output is aimed, at least in part, at helping creating a cadre of potential teachers. But assuming we start acting on this blueprint today, who will guide and teach these over 2500 additional PhD students? The IIT infrastructure - including the burden on faculty - is already creaking," the professor said.
Another major concern voiced by some government officials outside the IIT system involved the proposal to attract 2500 teachers from other engineering colleges for PhDs each year.
"Other engineering colleges also face a teacher shortage. If you take some more of them away, you may in the short run exaggerate the problem at those colleges," an official argued.