Suresh V. Shenoy is Executive Vice President at Information Management Consultants, Inc., a Virginia-based consulting and technology company. He is also the current Director of PanIIT North America and its former president. He replied to emailed questions from Business Today's Goutam Das on Brand IIT and the challenges it faces.
Is there a dilution in Brand IIT considering that now we have 16 from five a few years ago?
What separates IIT students from others is the fact that they represent the top one per cent (or less) of the entire student body seeking post-high-school education in India. According to UNICEF statistics, there are 447 million children in the 18 years or high-school age category. Of this, approximately 59 per cent male and 49 per cent female children go on to seek a college degree. That is about 223 million children! If you assume five per cent of them aspire to attend the IITs, that is a formidable number - 12 million and the top one per cent of this is 120,000! My numbers may be off somewhat but according to Wikipedia, approximately 450,000 applied for the JEE between 2000 and 2005. So we are somewhere in the ballpark. The current capacity of 16 IITs is less than 25,000 - so India has a long way to go to meet demand. When I talked about this with some of my old professors at IIT Bombay - I was told that the difference in the 'quality' of students from the first quartile to, say, the third quartile was very small - i.e. a student ranked 100 would not be significantly different than a student ranked 10,000!
So India has an extremely rich resource of young, bright students and it behooves us (India and the rest of the developed world, which ironically is experiencing declining populations) to make sure that these youngsters are given access to the best higher education and research environment at the most affordable cost. I think the "IIT Brand" has manifested itself by the quality and brilliance of the students rather than the research coming out of the IIT labs or the pedigree of the faculty. By this I do not mean to diminish the quality of the IIT lab infrastructure or the curriculum or the faculty. But it is a fact that the IIT education program is at best comparable to any average college of engineering in the USA or other developed nations. So while the number of IITs increase from five to seven to 16 or even 50 - as long as the JEE processes used to select and admit students is not compromised, I believe the increase in capacity will only enhance India's stature in the rest of the world as a rich source of brilliant young engineers and scientists.
The newer IITs have found it difficult to attract good faculty. If that is the case, the quality of education imparted can't be significantly different from tier-2 institutes such as the NITs. Also, some alumni have indicated that there is a growing disconnect between students and professors in many older IITs. Many older professors have not upgraded to new teaching methodologies.
The question of recruiting good faculty is a challenge not only in India but anywhere in the world. Most universities are rated based on the quality of research papers and intellectual property developed in their labs and also the student placements, etc. Unfortunately, good researchers do not translate into good teachers and vice versa! Hence, there is always a tug-of-war between recruiting researchers and teachers and all universities try to have a healthy balance. The IITs are in the same boat. I know that IIT Bombay has elevated its research program significantly and an increasing number of graduating students are enrolling in the post-grad programme which, over a period of time, will yield better researchers as well as teachers. My own personal experience at the IITs was that students learned a lot from each other more so than in class. Labs and practicals made a big difference and the IITs provided a fairly good environment for that.
In brief, faculty recruitment is a challenge but it can be addressed by reforming the pay scales, making it more attractive to hire research superstars as the nuclei to build a culture of research and so on. These processes take time and a political will to achieve the desired results and I think the current HRD minister, the directors (who are increasingly alumni themselves) and the boards of governors are cognizant of these changes required to build a faculty pool. I am confident that, over time, this will be resolved. There will be some pain in the interim, but even that can be addressed by attracting foreign researchers, adjunct faculty and increasing the number of post-graduate enrollment. Distance education is another approach that is becoming increasingly acceptable… theory and classroom education can be delivered well on-line. So if the IITs allow online education and focus on creating a rich/contemporary lab environment for practicals and research, the overall quality of education will be improved and offer increased capacity at each of the IITs.
From the input perspective, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi take the cake. In 2011, 70 of the top 100 JEE qualifiers went to Bombay and 24 to Delhi. One professor told me that students are increasingly picking IITs by their location and not departments. Given this, isn't there a degree of difference in quality of input and output between IIT Bombay and Delhi and rest of the older IITs?
What would you expect from an 18-year old entering college? They are the same world over - college education is more than just classrooms and text books. Students seek an active social lifestyle and clearly the major urban centres like Delhi and Bombay lead the way. You see that here in the US where Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco are primary targets for college entrants. How many people offer a smaller rural university campus as their first choice?
However, as I mentioned, the quality of students entering any of the IITs is not significantly different. While one expects the students graduating from Delhi or Bombay to be socially more "rewarded", I don't believe they are socially more "adept" or any better than their counterparts from other IITs. I was President of the PanIIT Alumni Association in North America for two years (I am from IIT Bombay, class of '72) and I have had the privilege of working alongside graduates from all the IITs… what I experienced was the fact that we had all survived JEE and then spent memorable days on the IIT campus and that created a bond amongst us and socially, we were all on the same page with similar values. In the end, we were mostly cut from the same cloth!
What has been the impact of reservations on the quality of output and Brand IIT?
On reservations, the PanIIT association has done a lot of thinking and actually wrote a letter to then human resource development minister Arjun Singh when he first recommended the quotas. We have generally endorsed the social goals for helping backward classes and other financially disadvantaged sections of the community to get preferential treatment. However, the methods employed to achieve this through a quota system at the IITs seems unfair to them and we recommended several alternatives for achieving the higher social goals for creating equal opportunity. We recommended a more aggressive programme in the pre-school through the high-school system where students would be prepared with a better foundation to get admission to the IITs rather than having these kids jump into the IIT system without the necessary preparation. Another recommendation was to create an "Associates Program" where JEE is not required but there would be a couple of years of preparatory education before offering these students to apply to the IITs.
The IIT campus environment can be very intimidating because every student you encounter was at the top of his or her graduating high-school class. They are very smart and regardless of how intelligent one might think them to be you always encountered someone who did better than you. Any student (backward class or otherwise) asked to enter such an environment without being intellectually at par or prepared would be like throwing someone in the deep end of a pool and asking them to sink or swim… very unfair and painful.
In Fairfax county, as in several others in the US, there is a process for helping gifted and talented students attend magnet schools. These schools are natural feeder schools for MIT, Stanford, the ivy leagues and so forth. It is based purely on academic and intellectual capability and not on quotas. India needs to adopt a similar system to help the underprivileged.
Meanwhile, quotas are regressive and unfair to the very people who aspire to attend the IITs. Those who get in based on quotas will eventually be frustrated, drop out or fail in the long term without the required foundation. The system can also be misused or abused by those who are the creamy top of the backward classes - those who are financially capable of a good high-school education and yet leverage the quota system to get into the IITs. Again, this is unfair to those deserving students who are truly handicapped financially or by social circumstances.
IITs still attract the top engineering aspirants. A hypothetical question - if an aspirant has the money, would he still prefer an IIT versus an institute in the United States, Europe and Australia? IITs don't rank in the global top 50.
The IITs, like any other university, must operate in a free market. I know that US institutions for higher learning are competing for the best students in the world. They work hard at providing the most conducive student life, campus environment, curriculum choices, placement, etc. The IITs must compete in this marketplace, and that would be a healthy system for everyone. We should not allow the IITs to become complacent about their ability to attract the best students in India through the JEE. By allowing students to travel abroad and/or for the leading universities to open campuses in India - the IITs will be forced to compete and not take their supply chain of students and faculty for granted. The IIT alumni have contributed enormously to build the IIT brand despite the fact that the institutes do not rank in the top 50 or even the top 100. Today, IIT graduates can be found at every major organisation in their CXO ranks - they are inventors, educators and entrepreneurs. That is what lends luster to the IITs and not the patents or research papers coming from the IITs. So by allowing students to make their choice to travel abroad and by allowing privately funded colleges to thrive in the country, India can only benefit by making higher education accessible to the burgeoning college-age population.