Is India ready to scale up the IITs and IIMs?

9 Jun


The first few policy announcements in education from the new government have come in, prominent among them the call to increase the number of IITs. The increase in the three types of premier professional institutes has been part of their manifesto and has been discussed across various non partisan fora for a while now. The IITs, the IIMs and the AIIMS are seen as flag bearers of excellence in education. Never mind that much of their success is attributed to the intense competitive examinations for entry that means that the best students study there – given any education they would excel. The fact remains that they do excel because their efforts, their schools and their higher education all combined to give them tools to do well.
The success of these institutions has made them a beacon for the nation – their graduates are respected globally and the number of aspirants per available seat is in the scary five digits. There is talent in the nation that seeks better education which academic universities are unable to provide. What do these institutes offer that the other higher education institutes do not?

* First – they offer more rigour and a drive towards excellence which is certainly not the ethos of most central and state universities.
* Two, they teach their students to slog – really work hard. After the years here any real world challenge may be daunting for other reasons, but hard work is not one of them. It is not for everybody really. Many would fail under this pressure and they really should not be here at all. But for those who can take the heat, they are also taught to bear the load.
* Three: it is a professional course, not academic – this means you are employable at the end of it all. No person who has graduated from these institutes needs to fear being jobless for long except by choice. There is a gamut of useful skills that cannot be learned here that are not taught in other higher education.
* Four: The graduates of these institutes get a wage premium over most others. Not only are they paid more, they often have a faster trajectory at work too. There are many more reasons – one could go on. Easy case for why India needs more of these.

In principle.

In practice it is not so easy. If the plan was to expand the IIT etc., network then work on that should have started two decades ago and it should have been made explicit to all the people who could contribute to this process. If you don’t share national objectives, if you don’t fund them and if you don’t task specific institutes and people with them then the job will not get done. The IITs face a similar predicament – there are not enough people to staff the IITs to the standards of the older IITs.

Work on growing potential faculty for this generation of IITs should have started in the 1980s or at the latest the 1990s. It takes over two decades to groom strong academic faculty who can deliver to industry and global standards. First it takes them five to seven years to create their first independent work – the PhD. Then it takes them at least another five years to work on their post doctoral projects to learn how to manage a range of research and build quality research teams while managing laboratories etc. Then, it takes a few more years to establish oneself as an expert in the field to be able to build networks with industry to feed the industry academia research to market loop. Some take longer, others seem to be naturally good at doing this. An academic is ready to be independent only after they are capable of sustaining good work and funding for their teams. This cadre is seriously deficient in India.

IITs and other professional institutes offer excellence for various reasons and not all of them have to do with great faculty. Over the past few decades they have had excellent faculty for sure, but very few global superstars – so it is not just about the faculty. Other factors make for a good working environment. Basics like water, electricity, good buildings, good laboratories, libraries, teaching support, research capabilities and much more. Excellence can be wrought only when all else works as it should. This is a rather expensive process. There are stories of great academic directors refusing to let institutes be staffed or accept students till the facilities were perfect in every possible way. This attention to detail is not about comfort – it is about ensuring that all attention is focused on the job at hand and not dissipated away in distractions. Setting up such excellence takes time, money and great resources.

There is not much point in creating more IITs or IIMs if this cannot be ensured. These are known for quality and the entire premise is destroyed if quality cannot be maintained. Having more but of indifferent quality will do one of two things – either create a caste hierarchy between the IITs or dilute the value of the current IITs as well since they will be dragged down with the reputation of the rest.

The setting up of more professional institutes of excellence is a noble intention. But this cannot be done in a rush, nor should it be done at the cost of what has been achieved with a great deal of effort. Plan well, take the time, identify the hurdles, resolve them before implementation and most importantly – nurture them for specific objectives. Do not expect to seed a generic ‘IIT’ – it does not work that way.  Each must have a clear goal and enough autonomy to achieve it.

Better still, set up institutes of excellence in each central university with specific goals. Invest in current institutions for excellence and invest in new institutions to increase quality teaching and learning capacity. Focus on specific needs and achievables to ensure success.




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