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2020 vision for the IITs

February 12, 2004

Consider this. In terms of academic excellence, the Indian Institutes of Technology match the world's best universities.

Yet, when it comes to research output and quality, the IITs don't begin to compare.

To most, this discrepancy would not come as a surprise. R&D was not the centre of the agenda when the IITs were conceived of in 1946.

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As is well known, the vision then was to set up undergraduate schools, modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to produce technocrats for independent India's industrialisation programme.

The intent was clear from the fact that the ratio of graduates to research workers was visualised at roughly 2:1.

But even as 'Brand IIT' has acquired a formidable worldwide equity, the gap with MIT in terms of research excellence has widened substantially.

The question that is increasingly being asked: can the IITs retain their relevance as efficient technocrat factories (they enroll more than 20,000 post graduates and undergraduates a year)? Are they in synch with the new competitive needs of a globalising economy?

Signs of the emerging pressures are already visible within. As a document entitled 'Vision 2020: The IIT in the New Millennium' prepared by the alumni association of IIT Delhi points out, "The lack of sufficient focus on research is already presenting a challenge to IIT in recruiting new faculty."

Vision 2020, which is to form the basis of a workshop of IIT stake-holders on February 18 on the future agenda, has been prepared for the government's five-member Review Committee set up to examine the IIT system against the backdrop of economic change.

The paper describes the faculty crunch as a 'critical challenge' and the numbers it has collated are thought-provoking.

A few years ago, a quick survey of IIT Delhi, which accounts for roughly a fifth of the total IIT student population, showed that there are only 15 faculty members under the age of 35 years, and the number of faculty members who were expected to retire over the next seven years was 115.

That apart, faculty compensation is unattractive, not just relative to the US universities but to opportunities in Indian industry as well. This situation is representative of the seven IITs.

What's to be done? Vision 2020 has a succinct agenda. "To be among the world's best five educational institutions of technology and a source of technology for the world."

To achieve this, as Krishen Dhar, former president of IIT Delhi's alumni association and a key contributor to Vision 2020, points out, "The IITs cannot just run an undergraduate school, they must have a research agenda."

As a start, says Sudarshan Chawla, current president of the IIT Delhi alumni association, Vision 2020 suggests focusing on four or five areas of cutting-edge research. Crucial to this is funding, and this is the core of the proposals.

In PPP-adjusted terms, funding in the IITs lags world-class engineering institutes by almost eight times in the case of MIT and more than two in the case of Seoul National University, to provide an Asian comparison.

The composition of funding is also skewed. Currently, 65 per cent of IIT funding comprises government grants. In MIT and Stanford Engineering, by contrast, funding is made up of private endowments and government-sponsored research, the latter being the bigger component.

In the IITs, the latter is almost negligible. Ergo: the IITs don't just need much more than the Rs 80 crore (Rs billion) or so that each currently gets from the government, they need a radically different pattern of funding.

The paper says, ". . .in keeping with their status as national institutions, the bulk of the funding. . .(over 70 per cent) should come from government sources. Most of the funds should be in the form of research sponsorships rather than grants.

The clear message is that the government urgently needs to evolve as energetic and substantial an agenda as the original vision that helped establish India as a powerhouse of scientific manpower.

A blueprint of sorts can be had from China, which launched its 'TransCentury Project' as a national priority some years ago to establish world-class universities and beef up research.

This involved increasing funding (each university was to receive $200 million from the ministry of education), establishing partnerships with 20 top international companies and universities, offering start-up research grants of up to $250,000 and improving student and faculty infrastructure.

To be sure, mainland schools did lag some way behind their peers in Asia, but the Chinese have shown how adept they are at playing catch-up.

For India's HRD ministry, surely intervention of this kind must be more constructive than quibbles over fees and control.

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