Thursday, June 12, 2014

New IITs: A Storm in a Tea Cup

In his address to the first joint session of the current Lok Sabha, President Pranab Mukherjee outlined the Modi Government's resolve to establish an IIT and an IIM in every state, a move that has strong opponents as well as strong supporters. Those who support the move believe, rightly, that a country as large as India must expand the pie of quality higher education by investing in institutions like but not limited to the IITs and IIMs. Those opposing it believe, with fair cause, that these new institutions are sub-standard and significantly dilute their brand credibility that was built over decades.

In my opinion, the truth lies outside of this whole matrix. There is no arguing that higher education in India is of very poor quality. It is not just limited to the high-profile fields of engineering, management and medicine but also to commerce, liberal arts and the entire post-graduate system across the board. Our higher education system is under-funded with poor quality of faculty and infrastructure. It is not just about the number of seats but about their quality. Five years ago, when a slew of new IITs and IIMs were established, they came with very grand promises of sprinting to the lead in the IIT/IIM system. Today, that seems like a crude joke: none of the new IITs has a permanent campus, most of them have failed to attract experienced faculty and depend largely on assistant professors, many of whom just recently earned their PhDs. And why just point to the new ones? The research in the entire IIT system is of poor quality internationally and the PG and PhD programs are archaic, with students being hopelessly beholden to faculty politics. Creating more such institutions will only increase the scale of the problem.

And even more importantly, does India need so many engineers? Indian industry is primarily services-based, a sector that employs extremely high-skilled workers mainly in the field of IT. Most engineers, irrespective of of which area of engineering they major in, are absorbed into this sector after about a year's 'training' after they graduate. Even engineers from the IITs are not immune from this. Effectively, this practice nullifies any undergraduate education, irrespective of its quality, and replaces it with a year's training. In fact, the biggest complaint of IT companies remains that their employees lack soft skills of the kind a liberal arts program inculcates. It follows then that India actually needs more liberal arts colleges that also teach some maths lessons. What then is the need for more IITs and IIMs? For all the talk of investing $1 trillion in infrastructure this decade, the last ten years has ended with shrinking of manufacturing and construction while services continues to expand.

However, the problem with the IITs is not limited to the external climate they exist in. The rot lies as much within: cheap, subsidized education has been taken for granted and the parallel and alternate system of MCM Scholarships is ridden with fraud committed on the part of students and their parents themselves. Among a vast majority of undergraduates at the IITs is a false sense of entitlement: that they do not need to work to move upward in life, that the mere act of clearing the JEE makes them perpetually superior and unanswerable. Within the IITs, undergraduates are known to be extremely intelligent but lazy, stubborn, short-sighted and dishonest. And at the end of all this, the very best of them either leave the country for greener pastures or become managers, completely negating whatever technical skills they learned (and learned cheap, at that). When IITians protest against the so-called dilution of the brand, they are actually pointing three fingers at themselves. The IIT brand was created decades ago by engineers who really contributed to the growth of the nation through technical excellence - the people who built our dams, our highways and our cities. The IITians of today have a very insignificant role to play in nation-building (at least the Indian nation) and those in engineering outside of computer science will know that being an IITian is not a guarantee of technical competence anymore.

Therefore, the entire storm being created over Smriti Irani's move to create new IITs seems silly. The IITs themselves are in a state of decline and it is not because of new, sub-standard ones being created but because the entire system of technical education is becoming a farce because of students who have taken it for granted, while research was already a farce for the most part for a variety of reasons. Creating new IITs will not solve the fact that there are very few 'engineering' jobs in India that actually need a four-year engineering degree. Whether you create more IITs or none at all, these problems will continue and the only difference will be in terms of scale.

But in all this, there is one truth that comes out - in a large country like India, a highly exclusive, privileged, taxpayer-subsidized system cannot continue forever. Those opposing creation of new IITs/IIMs on the grounds that there will be more haves than have-nots are entirely out of touch with the needs of the country and even the basic idea of fairness. And those propounding the creation of more IITs/IIMs should also remember that there are only so many expensive institutions like these that you can create - this system makes equity improbable, if not impossible. This silly debate, which will lead to nothing at all, is hiding the bigger and more serious issues that plague Indian higher education. 

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