Based on the Sarkar Committee Report, four Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were established in Kharagpur, Bombay, Chennai and Kanpur between 1950 and 1959 as autonomous institutions by an Act of Parliament. In 1961, one more IIT was set up in Delhi. After a gap of over 40 years, another was set up in Guwahati in 1995 and the 150-year old University of Roorkee was renamed an IIT in 2001. The original five IITs have fulfilled their mission of ‘producing world class technologists and scientists for achieving industrial and economic freedom’ for independent India. They created a brand image for Indian intellectual prowess and laid the foundation for a leading role in the global knowledge economy.
The outstanding record of the IITs has made many states want an IIT in their own backyard, sometimes even if it is just as a status symbol. With a pen stroke, a deputy secretary in the Ministry of Human Resources Development recently more than doubled the number of IITs. A wise decision or not, it is now a fait accompli. So what can be done now?
Nearly 400,000 students sat for the IIT Joint Entrance Examination in May 2009, out of which some 8,000 have made it to an IIT. There is no doubt that the input of student quality is good, never mind the blooming of a thousand coaching factories. But admission to each of the new IITs should be restricted to 100 per year for the first three years, as was done in the
case of IIT Kanpur — that is, till the infrastructure, faculty and laboratories are in place to accommodate more students.
Each of the new IITs should operate on the campus of one of the older IITs during this three-year period, the host IIT serving a mentoring role. At the suggestion of Professor Humayun Kabir and concurrence of Jawaharlal Nehru, each of the original five IITs was assisted by a technologically advanced country for a period of nearly ten years. That model worked well and should be explored in the case of the new IITs. The potential countries that may be approached should include the ‘original four’: the United States, Britain, Germany and Russia, along with Japan, France, Canada and Australia.
As the P. Ramarao Committee on IITs (2004) clearly documented, the faculty strength even in the existing IITs is short by 10 to 60 per cent, in relation to their sanctioned strength, with an average shortfall of 27 per cent. Concerted efforts should be made to acquire quality faculties for the existing IITs as well as for the new IITs. Some innovative measures and attractions may be in order, as recommended by the Goverdhan Mehta Committee recently. As the collaborating foreign universities have done in the case of the older IITs in the 60s and 70s, the mentoring IIT should provide 10-20 faculty members to the new IITs each year for a ten-year period. This requirement should be taken into account in the recruitment of faculty for the older IITs.
There is a gross shortage of engineering PhDs in the country. The emphasis on the PhD programmes in engineering should be
greatly enhanced, including a substantial boost to the quality improvement programmes in the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, for teaching staff of engineering institutions. Each new IIT should be connected by a broadband link to its mentoring IIT so that lectures delivered to the regular classes at the older IIT are available to the students in the classrooms of newer IITs in an interactive mode.
The number of engineering disciplines should be restricted to about three to five in the initial years, in view of limited admissions (100) and until the infrastructure and faculty are fully in place. Though the new IITs are obviously created in response to pressure from the various state governments, their modus operandi in terms of recruitment, governance etc. should strictly adhere to the proven, established pattern of the older IITs as institutions of national importance.
Post-graduate education and research should be an integral part of the new IITs right from the beginning, though obviously on a limited scale at the start. They should not be tagged as undergraduate institutions. If some of these and other measures are proactively implemented, there is a chance that some of the new ‘mushrooming’ IITs may begin to emulate the older IITs in quality in the next 20 or 30 years.
EC Subbarao is the author of An Eye for Excellence: Fifty Innovative years of IIT Kanpur