What do you picture when you think of an IIT?
Probably not students shuffling from makeshift classrooms to borrowed labs, making do with lectures beamed live from other IITs because of a shortage of teachers.
This, though, is the situation at most of the 11 Indian Institutes of Technology opened since 2008.
That’s the year that marks a sudden expansion drive that has seen the number of IITs go from seven in 1994 to a proposed 23 this year, with plans for an eventual 29 — one in each state.As a fresh academic year begins at the IITs, with two institutes — Tirupati and Palakkad — taking in their first batches, what does this mean for a brand of premier institutes that was once a passport to success for students and a guarantee of quality for employers?
“Recruiters understand the difference between old IITs and the new ones,” says a senior professor at IIT-Delhi. “An IITian always stood for excellence, but now there is a distinction based on the location of the IIT. That distinction has slowly diminished the IIT brand.”
Some see hints of politicisation in the rush for new IITs. Educationists ask why use the IIT tag on cobbled-together new institutes rather than expand existing ones or wait for the new ones to earn the tag.
It is a question of managing expansion in a pragmatic manner, says nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar, who was also chairman of an empowered committee on IIT reforms.
“I would say the movement has been in the right direction but at times the growth has been too fast.”
A sudden expansion drive has seen the number of IITs go from seven in 1994 to a proposed 23 this year, with eventual plans for one in every state.
As a fresh academic year begins at the IITs, what does this mean for the brand of premier institutes?"Expanding the number of IITs without ensuring adequate faculty and research infrastructure in the new institutions presents a significant risk to both the quality of the graduating students and the global brand of IITs," says Soumitra Dutta, an IIT-Delhi alumnus and dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, USA.
Present-day students would agree. IIT-Kharagpur student Digvijay Patil, 20, launched a petition last year, pleading with union HRD minister Smriti Irani to stop launching new institutes.
“The intent should be to improve the existing IITs and expand with an eye on a culture of excellence,” he says. “There is little about the new IITs that qualifies them for that tag. You cannot have an IIT where students have to travel to other colleges to use a lab.”
Patil’s petition received 9,487 signatures — most from fellow IITians — and was forwarded to Irani. It received no response.
Those associated with the new IITs are advising caution too.
“IITs should not be thought of merely as teaching shops, since that objective is fulfilled by thousands of engineering colleges across the country. Mass opening of IITs is not desirable,” says former IITRopar director MK Surappa.
Meanwhile, older IITs already struggling with teacher vacancies of up to 43 per cent are now also ‘mentoring’ the newer ones, in a formula that sees faculty shared between institutes, further straining the staff.
In a country where about 1 million students graduate each year, the need for more institutes of higher learning is undeniable. There are two elements that confound educationists: Why the rush for new IITs. And why use the IIT tag on cobbled-together new institutes rather than expand existing ones or wait for the new ones to earn the tag — as has been done in the past.
Some see hints of politicisation in the rush.
“Every party wants to build its political image by setting up IITs. But at what cost?” says Anand Kumar, a mathematician and founder of the renowned Super 30 philanthropic IIT coaching institute. “Opening so many IITs has diluted the reputation of these institutes. What is the point of increasing the number of IITs when most do not offer the same quality?”
So where does one go from here? Most academicians agree that the key to the way forward is research — more research, better research, leading to more teachers (since the basic qualification for an IIT teaching position is a PhD), leading in turn to students who are more inspired to take up research, creating a virtuous cycle.
“A country of India’s size, on a rapid economic growth path, requires a significant emphasis on large-scale engineering and technological research at the highest levels of excellence.” says nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar, who was also chairman of an empowered committee on IIT reforms. It is a question of managing this expansion in a pragmatic manner, Kakodkar adds.
“I would say that the movement has been in the right direction but at times the growth has been too fast. The way forward would be to enhance the PhD-level research at the IITs. Each faculty member should train four or five good research scholars and groom them as prospective faculty. That will determine the rate at which we can grow.”
(With inputs from Himani Chandna, Abhishek Rawat and Apoorva Puranik)