Since 1980, the number of four-year engineering colleges has grown from 158 to the present figure of 1,208, partly as a consequence of the demand for engineers in various sectors of the economy including information technology, limited expansion of the IIT system, and the mushrooming of capitation fee (self-financing) colleges.
The intake in the four-year engineering degree granting institutions is now a staggering 350,000 per year. Typically, each year, out of a pool of over 150,000 applicants appearing for JEE exam, approximately 3,500 are absorbed into the seven Indian Institutes of Technology.
Thus the IITs and the erstwhile RECs (Regional Engineering Colleges), renamed as NITs (National Institutes of Technology), barely account for a little over 1 percent of the total engineering intake per year. Those who do not get into the IIT system write quite a few entrance exams at places all over the country in search of their goal and get into some engineering college whose quality is poor compared to an IIT.
These are some of the statistics documented thoroughly in the recently released U R Rao Committee Report, a must read for those constantly concerned with India's role as a superpower in the 21st century.
This lofty goal cannot be realised unless the current intake system receives a quick overhaul with significant pro-active governmental participation. The profit-oriented approach of the private sector certainly does not fit the needs and demands of the times.
The report estimates that to maintain minimal quality teaching in degree granting institutions, which come under the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), the country needs well over 10,000 PhDs and twice as many MTech degree holders. Currently, India produces barely 400 engineering PhDs per year, mostly from the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science, as opposed to 4,000 produced in the basic sciences.
This report did not cover the IITs, IISc, and the NITs since they do not come under AICTE.
It is clear that given an opportunity most of the students would like to go to an IIT or get an equivalent education. The question is how does one achieve the twin goals of giving a quality education to the vast majority of the students and supplying the engineering institutions with well-trained post-graduates.
Safeguarding a brand
Instead of blaming the past, the country needs to rectify these mistakes and look to the future by developing a well thought-out plan with minimal bureaucratic interference.
First, the populace has to begin to recognise and accept that many of the NITs and institutions, such as VJTI (now called Veer Jijamata Technical Institute), Anna University, Jadavpur and Sibpur, can impart an IIT-type undergraduate education easily with minor adjustments to their syllabi. Institutions such as BITS, Pilani (Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences), for example, have already accomplished and are now on par with the IITs.
Therefore, instead of regarding NITs as second-class institutions many of them can be elevated to an IIT status by giving them full autonomy, financial resources and having a PhD programme, et cetera. This alone will enable the admission of at least 6,000 more students through the current single Joint Entrance Exam system (JEE) in one stroke.
With the involvement of IITs, their curricula must be brought in line with that of the IITs as a mandatory step before giving them an IIT status. Bold decisions are therefore the need of the hour.
The IITs may be unduly concerned about their brand name being diluted. This need not be so. Take the state of California, for instance. It has a population of approximately 50 million with ten universities under the University of California banner, known as the UC system.
While all of them have comparable undergraduate programmes in engineering, they are distinct in terms of their research and thus get calibrated and ranked.
Thus, a nation of one billion people can certainly afford to have at least 25 IITs, which will be ranked based on their research but all of which impart quality undergraduate education. This is not to say that the IIT brand is being compromised, but just that the education system is confronting the practical realities of a large country in more constructive ways.
By having more IITs, stressed students in the 10+2 system need not chase different entrance exams when they complete their studies. The other model is to have more IIT like institutions in the private sector for which there is clearly no appetite on the part of the private industry even in the IT arena.
Reality speaks, here and abroad
One reason many good students hailing from middle class families do not take the JEE exam is simply because financially and in terms of practical outcome it is just not worth a two-year coaching effort on their part. Add to this the uncertainty of getting into an IIT, and hence good students prefer to go to the schools in the state.
Increasingly, many upper middle class students choose to go abroad also for an undergraduate education because it holds prestige that is similar to that of an IIT education.
On other hand, there are also ominous signs of highly coached students who do get into the IITs, often not performing as well as students of the 1960s and 1970s, who got in through their own merit by passing the JEE exam without a coaching institute.
Restructuring the intake formula is critical then to creating a larger pool of well-trained students. For instance, if one looks at the 10+2 student pool in India, out of the 150,000 students who appear for the JEE, the academic credentials of 15,000 who don't make it to an IIT would be highly comparable to the intake of any top state university in the United States.
Statistics show that the IITs currently account for just over 1 percent of those entering the four-year degree programme. Compare this with the top 50 schools in the USA that have a comparable undergraduate programme in engineering and account for close to 40 percent of the intake.
The 10+2 curriculum in math, physics and chemistry sets a high bar for those getting into an engineering college in India.
The new situation places heavy responsibilities on the IITs as well as others in terms of post-graduate education. The IITs, as well as the IISc, have performed a commendable task of turning out excellent MTech and PhD students in engineering during the past four decades.
However, this number is very small compared to the faculty strength and resources at these institutions. Of the sanctioned strength of 26,000 for various post-graduate programmes in 321 institutions, only about 8,000 are filled. This is a sorry state of affairs and calls for a quick revaluation by the government.
Turning to the PhD scene, if each of the seven IITs has about 250 faculty members in engineering, then the number of PhD output should be at least 100 per year. If other schools can turn out another 100 students, the country can quickly reach a figure of 800 per year. The NITs who get an IIT status will catch up in a few years.
Numbers demand new approaches
There are two ways to achieve an increased PhD output. First, the system must double the intake of QIP (Quality Improvement Programme) teachers into PhD programmes. The QIP is one of the success stories of the IITs, whereby nearly 700 obtained their PhD degrees since 1971.
Second, a genuine effort must be made to attract regular PhD students by eliminating the GATE exam altogether. Hiring faculty members at lecturer level with an MTech degree and allowing them to complete their PhD is another method to increase the numbers.
The fact that barely 20 percent of the faculty members in the IITs and IISc have an undergraduate degree from an IIT and most have PhDs from India should reinforce the fact that there are many schools in the country that train high quality students who can then educate future engineers in the IITs.
In the 1960s many foreign-trained PhDs returned to India to begin successful careers. Today, very few do so because of a lack of a vibrant research environment implicitly prevalent when an academic institution has strength in numbers at the graduate education level. At present, there seems to be no concerted effort to address this problem.
New approaches are therefore needed without huge inputs as in the past. The optimum utilisation of existing classroom space, and outsourcing of hostel facilities to the private sector with a strict oversight are some of the issues that need to be addressed.
The IISc in particular may like to revive its highly successful undergraduate programme with a degree status. Additionally, it has the potential to be a leader in distance education and follow the Stanford model, with its obvious advantage of being located in the high-tech city of Bangalore. There can be no better tribute to the founder of IISc, the late J R D Tata.
Time is of essence
As we move into the 21st century, the time has come for an introspective look at India's higher education intake methodology, as well as the vital roles that the IITs and IISc play in the dynamics.
Post-graduate education, namely research and producing PhDs in large numbers, must become the primary mission of IITs and IISc. The existing IITs must step up this process, while for others it will take some time.
Creating IITs in foreign countries is not the answer to demonstrating their value. Rather, improving IITs' research output within the country will help put existing resources in student skills and aptitude to far better use.
The process of restructuring does not require the formation of new committees as has been done in the past. Only a readjustment of priorities and sustained commitment at the institutional and government level are needed.
Here, the ministry of human resource development has to boldly step in, since past experience has shown that IITs find it difficult to arrive at a consensus on best way to address the problem.
Postponing the decision and entangling the process in endless committees will only serve to worsen the problem! At this critical juncture the nation can ill afford to ignore its most precious asset, namely the younger generation that is certainly better trained than the previous one.
Professor M A Pai is currently Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois and was on the faculty at IIT Kanpur from 1963 to 1981.