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It’s not rocket science

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:33 IST

Hindustan Times
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When minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh recently said that the faculty in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) wasn’t “world-class”, he would have expected the furore that followed. But he, an IIT alumnus himself, would have also known that he was merely articulating Indian higher education’s worst-kept secret.

In December 2000, management consultancy firm McKinsey submitted its report ‘Shaping the Knowledge Economy in India: The need to set up a national mission for technology education’ to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The report concluded that attracting and retaining good faculty was the single biggest problem facing the IIT system. Research output is a critical indicator of faculty quality. Between 1993 and 1998 while the number of citations per faculty member (which attests to the quality of papers being written) for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was 45, and for Stanford’s engineering school 52, a typical IIT professor could hope for only two or three. In 1996-97, 102 patents were granted to MIT professors and students. The number for an IIT was between three and six.

OK, this is old data, and things may have improved dramatically since then, though one doesn’t see how. The hi-tech wonderland of Silicon Valley was born around a university, Stanford, with professors encouraging PhD students to turn their laboratory work into commercial enterprises. Thus did Hewlett-Packard get started off, as did Sun Microsystems, and Google, and scores of other companies pushing the frontiers of technology. But has the presence of an IIT in Mumbai done anything for the chemical industry in Mumbai? Has the presence of an IIT in Kanpur done anything for the engineering industry in and around Kanpur? They have been islands with no links to even their immediate geographical environments, forget the broader industrial landscape. And it’s not that Indian industry has a bias against any new technology developed in an IIT.

A few years after the McKinsey report, the government set up a high-powered committee to study the IIT system and suggest ways forward. I was invited by IIT Kharagpur as one of the alumni to interact with the committee. There was not much interaction — one committee member was repeatedly dozing off — and the same problems were discussed: faculty, faculty and faculty. Soon after, then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi got into the act, trying to curb whatever little autonomy the IITs had over who to hire and what to teach.

And not that the government wasn’t interfering even before that. The McKinsey report clearly concluded that the selection process of IIT directors wasn’t always merit-based and that directors lacked autonomy in critical areas like financial issues and personnel policies. Said an IIT director to McKinsey: “I had to drop out of a conference last year because my clearance from the ministry didn’t arrive in time. Why should the ministry approve my travel?” Complained another director: “On paper, I can remove a non-performing faculty member, but in reality it’s virtually impossible.”

But to go back to the root of the problem: why would a brilliant engineer want to teach in an IIT? An IIT professor’s annual compensation package is perhaps one-sixth of what he would earn in industry. As a result, to borrow Tennessee Williams’ immortal phrase, the IITs are dependent on “the kindness of strangers” for good-quality faculty, on bright people who are also idealistic and not too concerned about money. This is clearly a situation that is not sustainable. In the US too, professors get paid less than people in industry, but it’s not one-sixth or one-seventh that of a person with similar skills in industry.

Traditionally, most IIT graduates, if they had a research bent of mind, would go to a American university, where the facilities were better and the challenges more futuristic. And typically, a non-IIT graduate would join a post-graduate programme in an IIT, go on to do his PhD there and join the faculty. So in the large majority of cases, IITs end up with the also-rans as faculty. But surely you can do something with them after that? But there are no aggressive faculty enhancement programmes. Koch University in Turkey selects high-potential students in the masters’ programme for doctoral training. It pays all their expenses for the four to five years it takes for a PhD in an American university. The quid pro quo is that they will have to return to Koch to teach. In Ireland, Catholic University pays all expenses for faculty presenting papers at US conferences. The prestige associated with these conferences stimulates quality research. Singapore Management School has a deal with Wharton Business School for sending young faculty members to learn at Wharton for one year. And it pays equivalent US salaries to its faculty.

Years ago, I was sitting with legendary IIT professor and former director of IIT Madras, PV Indiresan. “Let’s face it,” he told me bluntly, “Most teachers in the IITs are inferior to the students.” Mrs Indiresan, sitting next to him, objected. “You shouldn’t say things like that!” she admonished. “The truth is the truth, so why try to hide it?” insisted Indiresan. “And the reason is simple. Every IIT student is one out of 100 people who took the entrance exams. But the professors are not one out of every 100 applicants for a post.”

To be fair, the picture is not all bleak. There is cutting-edge research going on in several IITs, often in collaboration with some of the world’s best technology companies. But these projects are the exceptions to the rule. The undeniable truth remains, that till IIT professors’ salaries are delinked from government scales and raised to competitive levels, till these pay packages are based on their performance, till they are allowed to receive direct compensation from industry without any limits, and the quality of campus infrastructure improved to give the faculty a better personal lifestyle, these institutes that we are supposedly so proud of will have to rely on sheer luck to attract “world-class” teachers.

Sandipan Deb is an IIT alumnus, a senior journalist and author of The IITians

The views expressed by the author are personal