Monday, April 28, 2008

Why there should be more IITs

After the recent Supreme Court verdict approving OBC reservations to (Central Govt. controlled) higher educational institutions, Prof. PV Indiresan in particular has focused on what it will mean to the quality of IITs.

Once upon a time (till the early 1990s), IITs guranteed a trip to USA, to pursue higher studies, find a job, get a green card and eventually get a US citizenship. During the late 1990s software professionals without an IIT education could easily accomplish all this (except pursuing higher education). Also during the same period, increasing numbers of non-IITians managed to get into US universities. Today, it is not necessary for one to go to an IIT to find a place in a good US university for higher studies. Top students from any of the NITs and reputed Engineering colleges can get full assistantships in several US colleges.

A substantial number of IITians walked into IIMs and then eventually into FMCG and marketing companies. This prompted a few of my professors to contemptuously mention 'soap selling' in connection with the career choices of my co-students. One doesn't have to get into an IIT to crack CAT and get into an IIM.

Most people looked at getting into IITs as it guaranteed them (a) a trip to US or (b) a chance to get into an IIM; failing both (c) at least a guaranteed job in an Engineering company. This meant a lot in the 1970s and 1980s when well paying jobs were difficult to get.

That is not the situation today. Any smart young man or woman each can find hundred possible jobs. Even if one is not smart enough, one can land up a job with a basic education and some soft skills.

Should we then really worry about whether to increase the number of IITs or not? I think we should. IITs, when they were started, were expected to fulfill one key role. To help build engineers who will help build the country. Several IIT engineers have helped in this process. However, more than 60% or probably 70% ended up abroad, or sold soaps and fresh atta. I myself never did anything useful in engineering. I sold cricket and am now selling books.

IITs are however wonderful institutions. They get good funding. They have decent teachers - far better than several other institutions. They have great laboratories and computer facilities. They have integrated and compulsory hostels. It is in the hostels that students pick up substantial soft skills. The ambience is wonderful. IITians are successful primarily because of the environment in which they grow. It is not the quality of education in the classrooms, as most people think. I know of several of my classmates who never ever attended the classes but are doing quite well in their lives.

Such an environment is possible only because of the liberal funding, autonomy and a student selection process. The selection process can be made more inclusive than what it currently is. Reservation for OBCs will help in a long way. Reservation for women will help too.

In our country, private players cannot build good educational institutions today. Mostly, only scoundrels get into building engineering colleges. In and around Chennai, that is what I see. There may be an odd good one, but mostly the institutions are controlled by uneducated rascals, who are part of this or that political party, who have amassed wealth through illegal means and use the colleges to further this ill-gotten money. They have hoodwinked the entire system to get Deemed University status and are now going by the name of X University or Y University. They have spanking new buildings but nothing else worth underneath. The quality of the faculty is shocking. The students are left to rot by themselves. I can't see a single one of them becoming a world class teaching and research institution in the field of engineering in the years to come.

So, the onus of building great higher education institutions is in the hands of the central and the state governments. The central government has an excellent idea in the form of IITs. There are several trained administrators, Directors, Registrars and Deans of IITs. If we open up another 20 IITs, they can be headed by these Deans. Finding good quality teachers is a problem, but in my opinion, it is a problem which can be solved. Several students who receive PhDs in IITs and IISc can be employed in these new IITs. Several faculty members in US universities can be persuaded to come to India. We should look at setting up one IIT in every state capital.

In addition, the state governments should look at setting up 3-4 engineering institutes modelled on IITs. They should get staff from IITs on deputation to build these institutions. They should fill these institutions exclusively from those students who write JEE. So in effect, we should have around 100 IITs and IIT like state colleges. All of them should have an average funding of Rs. 80-100 crores an year. 25% of these institutions will be funded by the central government and administered by them. Remaining 75% will be funded by various states and administered by them.

This will increase the intake to around 25,000 students every year from the IITs. Just imagine what kind of progress this will take us to.

Instead, if we restrict the IITs to only 7 or 10, or go up in small increments, we will have around 2,500 to 3,000 undergraduates coming out per year from the IITs.

The IIT brand is primarily created by the students and not by the faculty. I believe the top 25,000 to 50,000 ranks from JEE are good enough to maintain this brand, provided the funding and infrastructure are available to the institutions.


Several people worry about more money going to higher education while the primary education is in shambles. But this is a poor argument for couple of reasons.

You should not promote one or the other, but should try to apportion money to both, within reason. If we invested heavily only in primary education, what will all those kids do after they cross the 5th standard? You need to simultaneously invest in secondary education, higher education and professional education.

Primary education is relatively an easy area. Private funding can be tapped wherever possible. Licenses can be given to people to run primary schools, because all you require is minimal infrastructure. Educational voucher schemes can be introduced in several places. Microfinance institutions like SKS Microfinance are looking at high quality village schools funded by micro-loans.

However, institutes of higher learning are not easy to build. Our current regulations do not allow foreign universities to build and operate educational institutions in India. For profit companies are not allowed to provide education in India. While we need to battle with such laws, at the moment, only the Government is capable of building higher education institutions of world class. Therefore, they must be encouraged to do so.

Most problems cannot be solved by just pushing more money in one specific area alone. Primary education will remain a problem for a long time to come, because it requires more people and more infrastructure. To put every child into a primary school, we need millions of new schools and new teachers in far flung areas. Even if we have all the money in hand, we won't be able to accomplish this overnight. We cannot wait for this task to be completed before we can take up the problem of higher education.

Our tax income is growing considerably year on year. If money can be found for NREGA, it can be obtained for education - both primary education and higher education. I see all the state governments projecting low revenue estimates for the subsequent years. If I look at the Tamil Nadu budget, the revenue estimates are considerably lower than the actual revenue realised by them. Because they start with lower revenue projections, they allocate lower resources for education. Then, when they actually make more money, it gets spent on politically expedient areas.

With better revenue projections, the allocation for education can be substantially enhanced by every state. The central government can also increase the outlay for education substantially. Cutting defence spending will help a long way too!

P.V. Indiresan's bad arguments against creating new IITs
IIT and the obsession with exclusivity


  1. Makes a lot of sense. But in the meantime, the government really must focus on improving enrolment in all educational institutions, primary, secondary and post-secondary. It is not enough to build schools and colleges. We must ensure students do not drop out because of financial problems, or in the case of girls, marriage. That requires extensive government involvement.
    Also, stupid laws restricting the founding of private institutes must be scrapped. What we need today is private-public partnership in education.That's what I have spoken about in my post on education reform. You can see it here

  2. The IIT brand is primarily created by the students and not by the faculty. I believe the top 25,000 to 50,000 ranks from JEE are good enough to maintain this brand, provided the funding and infrastructure are available to the institutions.

    I totally agree with you. Also, the 2000-3000 that do make it to the existing IITs are not the best. I did my UG in a pvt institution, and a MTech in IIT-B, and I was kind of sad that some sad bunch of losers doing BTech in IIT were getting so much more opportunities than some really smart guys I knew in Bangalore.

    IIT brand brings in a lot of opportunities. And, it is important that these opportunities are not left to 3000 odd students, out of which more than 2000 are in IIT because they got a little bit more lucky than lot more equally deserving people on the exam day.

    The top IIT's will still remain top. IIT-G is still not thought to be in the same league as the other remaining IITs. But IIT-G students get the IIT training and much better opportunities than pvt engg college students (many of who just depend on Infosys, Wipro and TCS). It will be a while before IIT-G joins the other IIT league (or is perceived to join), but IIT name is a headstart.