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Do we need more IITs?

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November 19, 2003 19:20 IST

The government has let it be known that, by the end of 2004 four more engineering colleges would be designated IIT, bringing the total to 11. It is part of an ongoing restructuring of engineering education that has included renaming the 17 regional engineering colleges as National Institutes of Technology, each with powers to award its own degrees.

The conversion of the REC into the 'deemed university' NIT is to streamline management, making it somewhat like an IIT-lite. Apart from these, there are other government and private university-affiliated engineering colleges. The idea of new autonomous institutes seems to have emerged out of the laudable impulse to decentralize higher education. But there are other forces at work. In particular, the ministry of education is increasing its control over the institutes. For example, it has decided to manage the alumni donations to the IITs through a central fund, in spite of opposition from potential donors.

Even with the expansion of the past decade, India needs more universities and engineering graduates. How many of these should be IITs? The government says, eleven, up from the current seven. But, why more?

The IITs are currently going through a particularly difficult period regarding faculty retention and infrastructure. Although they do a great job at training undergraduates, they haven't done as well as research universities. Wouldn't creation of more IITs, without adequate investment in the existing ones, dilute their brand name?

The recent laudatory press stories on them in the West have also led to questioning how good they really are. According to one view, IIT graduates have done exceptionally well because of the Joint Entrance Examination, which may be the most selective in the entire world.  These students would have done equally well if they had studied elsewhere.

Support for this view comes from the record of the graduates of the elite universities in Taiwan, China, and Korea, who are equally successful at entrepreneurship and basic research. Magazine surveys on universities in Asia place the IITs at the top together with two universities from South Korea and one each in Japan, Singapore, and China. The performance of the graduates is clearly correlated with the selectivity of admission.

India must prepare for its share of world trade increasing from the current 0.8 percent to 5 or 10 percent in the next couple of decades. Given that India's population is about 16 percent of the world total, this target is not too unreasonable. But this will require a revolution in the education sector -- both in size and quality.

But should the increase be in the number of technology schools, such as IITs and NITs, or in some other manner?  I think until the current problem of adequate resources for the IITs is not addressed, we should not create more of them. Meanwhile, their size could be increased with less investment, as in IIT Kharagpur's plan to more than double its enrollment in the next decade.

Success on the world stage calls for a new kind of a university that addresses not only technology but also issues of society, renewal and management. As Indian industry moves into the next phase of operation, it would need more designers, strategic thinkers, and experts who work on the interface of society and engineering.

The heyday of the purely technical school may already be over. Industry now seeks graduates with richer experience and learning in technology, sciences and the humanities.

This means that new growth should be in the engineering faculties of the traditional, comprehensive universities. But merely opening new engineering colleges assigned to such universities will not be enough. Rather, this should be done hand in hand with fundamental reform in the administration of the universities and getting rid of the prevailing culture of insularity in the departments.

University education will require an enlarged humanities component.  It should be possible for a student to create a curriculum that adjusts to the changing needs of the marketplace and society.

A comprehensive university will be able to offer more attractive choices that could include subjects such as history, philosophy, ethics, business management, forestry and water management, religious studies, languages, art and architecture. Not only will this help prepare the student better to function in an increasingly multicultural world where the jobs may be in a foreign land with a non-English language, it will also make him a more rounded, and better, human being.

Reformed Indian universities, with their lower costs, could become attractive destination for international students with long-term benefits to India in trade and political relations.

Growth of engineering education within the university framework will also challenge the technical colleges to enlarge their offerings. Their departments mirror the industry of thirty years ago, although technology has moved on. The most number of opportunities are in new, interdisciplinary areas such as media arts, biological engineering, brain and cognitive science, environmental science, materials engineering, health science and urban planning. Because of the increasing bureaucratization, the IITs have been unable to expand into these areas.

Therefore, for the present, let's keep the number of IITs at seven.

Subhash Kak