Saturday, August 27, 2005

What have IITs contributed to India?

From The Hindu: Brand IIT: the people behind the image

Dinesh Mohan, a faculty with IIT Delhi has written the centrepage article in The Hindu, explaining IITs' contribution to India.

The article first talks about how strong the IIT brand is and that even sarkari staff understand the value of IIT faculty that they give priority to them! Then he goes on to state that the IITs are more than the undergrads, and through some limited statistics demonstrates that at best the 'brain drain' would have been 20% if you take all the graduates produced by the IITs. Then he quotes "a Department of Science and Technology sponsored study" to show that "a majority of those employed in the R&D departments of the top 20 public and private sector companies were Masters or PhD products from IITs. Similarly, a significant proportion of those working as teachers in engineering colleges received their higher degrees from the IITs." Rather than giving clear details such as the companies studied and the percentage of IIT graduates, mere use of words like "majority", "significant" dilutes the argument. By "majority" do we take it that it is at least one out of every two? Is it indeed true that every second person in top engineering R&D staff in India is an IITan? What is "significant"? Out of the 1,000 or so engineering colleges in India (including the IITs), how many faculty members are IIT graduates? We have no answers, but the author assures us that the numbers are "significant".

Then the author proceeds to say that IITs and IISc are the only institutions from India that figure in top 500 research institutions in Asia. But exactly where these colleges are ranked is not mentioned. At the very top? At the very bottom? What is the highest ranking that an Indian institution has achieved in this list? When I started searching around for this, the results were shocking. While I do not understand enough to accept the methodology employed by the researchers (Professor Nian Cai Liu and his colleagues at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China), I can say that Prof. Dinesh Mohan has hidden a lot of things.

The results are available on the web. From India, three institutions appear. IISc at 215, IIT Kharagpur at 421, University of Calcutta at 461! In other words, no other IIT is seen there (like, for example IIT Delhi), there is an institution other than an IIT and IISc. If IISc is not included (which anyway is not an IIT and hence doesn't come under the purview of what Dinesh Mohan is talking about), the standing is rather abysmal.

However, finally the author says that "a dispassionate analysis would show that we have done better than most people think, but are not good enough yet."

That is it. IITs are not good enough yet, as research institutions. A lot of engineering colleges in India can produce good engineers. We expect a lot more from the IITs. I would have been happy if Dinesh Mohan spent the space made available to him to discuss how IITs could be made into world class research institutions. Instead he tamely ends the article with
... there must be a restructuring and reinventing of the IITs with a vision of the future, not the narrow immediate needs of today. And for this, there must be debate and discussion that captures the aspirations and dreams of the young Indian researchers in India and abroad.
We want a roadmap now! Aren't we already late?


  1. Thanks, Badri, for fisking this op-ed. I too thought it was poorly written.

    I don't want to nit-pick, but if you see the Shanghai Ranking list, all the universities in the 401-500 range have the same 'rank' (probably because their composite scores arre nearly the same); they are therefore listed alphabetically. So, it is not correct to say that IIT-KGP is ahead of University of Calcutta.

    Recently, there was a discussion over at my blog about the Shanghai rankings, and the criteria they used. Bottomline: these rankings are as bad as the article by Dinesh Mohan!

  2. Thanks abi. I noticed the ranking range, but didn't think through sufficiently.

    Quite true that the Shanghai rankings didn't look very robust, which is why I added some disclaimers, since I did not know enough to debunk them.

    But quoting randomly from those rankings to indicate that the only institutions in that list from India were IISc and IITs was misleading the public.

    Moreover, it appeared to me that the whole space allocated to this article was wasted, as it offered nothing new or useful.

  3. Hi Badri,

    Its a very badly written piece nd rightly was article space wasted on a badly written article on an important issue..

    On a totally diff yet to put some of my random thoughts on ur tamil blog about the debate on the reservation issue..Hope to do it sometime soon..But am glad that ur blog gives a focus to that issues and provides a forum to discuss on it..

    The current issue of Frontline has a detailed coverage on that topic..thought u might be interested to look into..

    Best regards,

  4. Hmm, a little late to comment on this...

    But as someone who has spent time in a central govt research institution, I can definitely say that the IITs are a pathetic joke as far as research in Science goes - I don't know about Engineering research. IISc is way ahead of the IITs as are the central govt research institutions like TIFR in Mumbai and MatScience in Chennai. Even if you consider these research institutions the citation index for papers published by scientists from these places is not all that great - citation index is the number of times a work is cited in publications other than the author's own.

  5. Just came across your views on the article ,pretty interesting to ponder.As you have already stated that the results posted by the Shanghai Dude is not all that robust, i would like to agree on that.I feel Georgia Tech ranks much higher in research (overall)than quoted ,I seriously wonder whether the person who published that had the right channel of access to the ratings.