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  • The IITs must get over their silo mindset

    IITs silo mindset
    THE INDIAN Institutes of Technology (IITs) have been in the news lately because of comments made by the Infosys chairman emeritus N R Narayana Murthy at a gathering of hundreds of former IITians at a ‘Pan IIT’ summit in New York. He is reported to have said that “the majority of the students fare poorly at jobs and global institutions of higher education” and that IITs should “transcend from being just teaching institutions to reasonably good research institutes”. We are told that the audience applauded with gusto.

    The most quoted response from India came from Chetan Bhagat, “Mr Murthy had a point, but wish he wasn't so sweepingly high handed. Fix the system. No point judging students” and also “that such comments should not have come from a person who runs a “body shopping” company and calls it “hi- tech.” It is interesting to note that both of them are former IIT students and so were those applauding them. Ample proof that many of those who have graduated from an IIT are in ignorance of how the system functions, its accomplishments and its role in the development of science and technology in India. Chetan Bhagat provided us with an entertaining account of the rambunctious life of students at an IIT in his novel Five Point Someone , but displayed complete ignorance in matters concerning how the system runs.

    Performance at IITs
    Mr. Murthy claims that IITians don’t perform well in global institutions of higher education and that IITs should graduate from just teaching institutions to research institutions. The first comment has no basis in fact or a study, and the second ignorant of the present output of IITs. At their annual convocations last year all the older IITs awarded about 1,500- 1,700 degrees each. Of these 60- 70 per cent were post graduate degrees including about 180 PhDs each. Bachelor degrees constituted only about a third of the IIT production.

    In terms of student population and faculty interest, IITs have already become research institutions but all ill- informed discussion focuses only around the undergraduate students. This is probably because our research oriented graduates cannot occupy high positions in industry or write novels.

    The quantity of research being done in IITs today is much more than double that just ten years ago. On an average, the research capability of faculty members today is also far superior to the kind who taught me in an IIT over four decades ago.

    A study done by the Department of Science and Technology a few years ago showed that more than 80 per cent of all employees in the research departments of both public sector and private sector large companies mostly came from IITs. But these are the employees who don’t get to speak at CII or FICCI annual meetings.

    Today the main problem lies not in the quality of students or the faculty of IITs.

    The problem is much more basic. There is very little demand for real research either from the public or the private sector, including Mr. Narayana Murthy’s company.

    This shows in the low number of jobs available for PhD graduates every year. India produced less than 700 PhDs in engineering last year, and China more than 5,000. Indian PhDs have a hard time getting a good job, especially in the private sector, but all Chinese PhDs are absorbed in their own country.

    Unless there is a much greater demand for technical research in the country, it will be difficult for IIT faculty or students to improve the quality of their work.

    IITs facing many problems
    Demand for research comes from three sources: infrastructure and public sector needs, private corporations, and defence departments. All three sources in India are sub- critical and don’t employ people who understand how research is funded and managed. Very typically, they demand results in months, don’t have a professional knowledge in the topic involved and don’t have a network of researchers they consider friends.

    Analyses done in Europe and the USA show that academic- industry or academic- government collaboration takes place more often when the people involved know and trust each other from university days, or have met each other in some other social context also.

    This has a greater chance of happening when all organisations involved employ MTechs and PhDs. Since Indian industry,

    and the public sector do not have many respectable job openings for PhDs, the possibility of human contacts developing for collaborative work becomes miniscule.

    Most collaborative projects are ordered from above and the project monitors have little understanding on how to deal with their academic counterparts.

    We also have to understand what kind of human beings opt for research careers anywhere in the world. They usually come from the middle or lower middle class, have spent nothing on their education, do their post graduate studies on scholarships, and then look for stable jobs. It is the same in India. We recently received a tearful email from a student declining an offer of a PhD scholarship. He said he could not spend more time without a high paying job because both he and his father had taken loans for his education and they had to be paid back. He added that a research career was his first option and not the job which he knew was going to be boring. But he had no option and knowingly decided on a course of life not to his liking. This is not an isolated case.

    As long as the quality of school education is based on the ability to pay, we will ensure that all the potential researchers who are not able to attend high fee schools will not be able to find admission to IITs. After that, those students who go to private colleges and shell out significant amounts of money for their undergraduate education will certainly opt out of science and research careers. Even if fees are low, many students find paying for hostels and food a significant drain on their family funds. Data from USA show that availability of educational loans generally helps children of middle class families, as those who are poorer generally consider a loan a lifelong burden and so don’t even apply for one.


    Therefore, an equal school education and very inexpensive college education are pre- conditions for encouraging research careers. This is why in most European countries, college is free and scholarships are given for living expenses.

    Even in the USA, all the top universities take pride in announcing that no deserving candidate will be denied an education for financial reasons.

    IITs themselves will also have to change a great deal to compete internationally.

    The recent Shanghai rankings of world class universities show that most of those included are largely government funded and not discipline based like the IITs. To enter the international league in research output, IITs must evolve into full fledged universities to promote interdisciplinary research and escape from their silo mindsets at present. But this will certainly not happen if we follow Mr. Narayan Murthy’s advice to shift from the tenure system for its faculty to a five year contractual appointment system.

    This will ensure greater corruption, lack of vision and serious researchers opting out of the system. I guess I should not fault Mr. Murthy much. If I had to give advice on how to run his company, I am sure they would go bankrupt quite soon.

    The writer is Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi
    Article Credits: Mail Today