Friday, April 25, 2008

IIT and the obsession with exclusivity

I came across this article, and this one too, by Prof. P V Indiresan, in the Business Line. One talks about how exclusivity is the USP of the IITs and the other argues that India does not really need any more IITs. I might have been convinced if the esteemed professor had not made such a mess of his arguments. Initially, I wanted to simply rant. Now, I prefer countering each of his arguments with my own counter-arguments. In the meantime, check out this excellent retort by Abi. Ok, on to the real arguments the professor puts forward.

His first argument is that India does not need engineers of the quality the IIT produces simply because the economy expects them to sell soap or analyse stock market trends rather than apply the complex theories of thermodynamics they learn at IIT. He claims that
"Many youngsters struggle to get into an IIT not because they love the knowledge they can obtain there but because IIT education offers entry to lucrative careers. (...) Suppose, we have a similar business school which offers an MBA programme directly the way National Law Schools do. In that case, will not our brightest opt for a direct MBA and discard IIT?"
What the hell? So, the only kind of knowledge that recruiters value are those that an MBA degree can offer? I am sorry, but I don't agree. Companies and organisations need good mechanical, electrical and electronic engineers just as much as they need good managers. IIT graduates may not pursue engineering in India. They may choose to do an MBA after their B. Tech from IIT. But, that's their personal choice. What I do with the degree I obtain is my problem. That doesn't mean that the government should stop offering those degrees. I have a degree in History, another in International Affairs. I am not using either at the moment. Does that mean that I forget what I studied? Or that what I studied is "thrown into the dustbin" as Prof. Indiresan claims? I think not.

His second argument is equally flawed.
"If high incomes can be earned without a university degree, people will mostly bypass college education. I know of the proprietor of a famous chain store in the old days of Madras who refused to let his sons join college for the fear college education will make them too arrogant to be humble before customers."
Frankly, that's ridiculous. In addition, his claim that most students play truant and miss classes at the slightest excuse because all they want from college is a degree that will help them be short-listed to superior jobs, is simply unacceptable. He is a teacher. One with several years' experience. Must he necessarily be so insulting and demeaning of students? Does he imply that students will only join the IITs for their brand value, and nothing else? Those of you who have studied in one of the IITs, please tell me. Can you actually get an IIT degree without putting in some serious effort into your studies? Isn't that the real difference between IIT and XYZ College? Any new IITs will necessarily have those qualities right?
"Thus, the stark fact is people are not interested in higher education but in good income, better security. If these could be ensured immediately after high school education, few will bother to attend college. Further, most jobs need skill training rather than academic scholarship. If we were to look at history, great economic empires were built not by university scholars but by skilled apprentices. Few of the richest — Gates, Buffet, Mittal, Agarwal — people in the world today will attribute their success to university education."

I am sorry professor, but I think you have got the whole issue wrong. There can be no such thing as over-expansion of university education. While it is true that primary education must be strengthened to bring it on par with university education in India, to say that university enrolment must not be expanded is stupid and short-sighted. We need qualified engineers, just like we need qualified doctors, lawyers or accountants. To say that engineering education need not be expanded or reformed simply because the market wants good managers is like saying we must not grow wheat because the market demands rice. Stupid. Period.

The second article dazzles the poor reader with lots of scientific theorems, but behind all of it lies a single flawed logic. Because the USP of the IITs is exclusivity, there must necessarily be a shortage. If the shortage is filled, there will not be any difference between an IIT and a street-corner polytechnic. There again Prof. Indiresan seems to have thrown logic out of the window. The presence of half a dozen good B-schools in the US do not diminish the brand value of Harvard. Similarly, as Abi points out, the presence of multiple campuses of the University of California does not make UCLA any less sought-after. So professor, the lay person might be impressed with all the jargon you insist on using in your articles, but beyond the glitz, it seems to me to be a truckload of bad arguments, flawed logic and downright short-sightedness.


Kaustubh said...

well the fact is...i dont remember even a single person above 9 point who joined a core company(except in cse)...most people either opt for finance/consultancy or go for MS/Phd abroad....and i hv been in IIT for three years....i still think pay in indian industry is much below than in service sector and reason being they do much less R&D inhouse...mostly being imported techonology.What the indian industry needs is the engineers to maintain its production line and for that i dont thik iit education is required(by iit education i mean:providing hostel facility in cities like delhi/mumbai or teachers who r God of their field and whose interest is research),,,,i dont think spending 2+ lakh per annum on a student is justifiable..y open new IIT

Badri said...

Dear Kaustubh, you say an IIT education is not needed for 'the engineers to maintain its (industries) production line'. OK. Let us give them the average engineering education. You say you are in IIT. What do you plan to do? Do you think people like you should be given the 'coveted' IIT education, so you can find the best 'soap selling' job or go abroad to do PhD?

IIT is merely an idea - well funded, autonomous institutions focusing on Engineering education and research. The output from IIT cannot be forced to do one thing or the other, because they are all individuals with free will.

What the proponents of more IITs are demanding is this. Increase the number of IITs. Create higher education institutions with more funding and autonomy. Create more students who get trained there. Chances are that more of them will opt to stay back and do good for the country. Exclusivity, brand value etc. are complete bunkum.

If you think an IIT education at 2_ lakh per annum is of no value, that is your wish. You could have chosen any other place to study.

(Disclaimer: I am an IITian, and I don't do core engineering. I never did. I make and sell books now.)

Anonymous said...

Your response to the first argument: One good reason why government should offer degrees, if the degree holders dont utilize what they learnt? The government invests crores in these institutes. The students study here at a fraction of that cost. Is it not reasonable to expect some returns from the IITs?

Does that mean that I forget what I studied
Hmmm... May be you didnt, in which case you are really exceptional, but, most would, to some extent.

Regarding your response to the second argument: Can you get an IIT degree without putting some serious effort.... The short answer is yes, you can. We had a simple motto before the exam: "One night, one fight". In most cases that was enough to propel GPAs above 8. There were a small section of students who had genuine interests and worked hard. But most others took it easy and got through the courses.

Admittedly, Indiresan's articles were anything but well-written, but I fail to see why any good new institute should be named an IIT?

Also, if more IITs are indeed needed, then what is the logic behind starting a new IIT from scratch rather than converting the top NITs (just like they did with Roorkee)?

If you think new IITs can match up to the standards of the existing ones, then think again. When the existing IITs, which already have a good brand name, cant attract sufficient number of good faculties to fill the vacancies, how can you expect a brand new IIT to attract good people?

I think Kaustabh has hit the nail on the head.

Badri, if IIT is an idea, then why cant you carry over the idea to a new institute, with a different name?

Badri said...

Anon, you asked: "Badri, if IIT is an idea, then why cant you carry over the idea to a new institute, with a different name?"

Which is easier? Continuing on an existing model and make some minor modifications, or starting a fresh concept, albeit based on an existing model?

JEEs can handle any number of students. If the intake is to be more, the cut off marks have to be changed. That has never been a problem for IITs in the past.

You say that IITs are struggling to fill up vacancies. I however feel that there are plenty of capable candidates. The problem may be with the current faculty members in a given institute. A new entity is like a start-up company. Several teachers may be interested in joining the outfit. (Provided you start it in a reasonable place and not Guahati. Not that I have anything against this place though:-) If Bangalore, Hyderabad, Trivandrum etc. start up IITs, they shouldn't have much of a trouble finding faculty members...)

More IITs - should we simply rename the existing NITs or start afresh... I think we need to do both. Sometimes, existing institutes maybe so full of 'problems', converting that will be more of an effort. My view will be, starting new institutes will be better.

Amrutha said...

This is getting interesting. But, I would like to know why institutes must not be named IITs. After all, IIT is a brand. And, if the government wants to use that brand name to attract the best of students, why not? All that matters is that they maintain the quality of education that is normally associated with the brand.

Exclusivity is hardly the only good thing about the IITs. There is so much more. And most people would choose IIT over another, equally good college simply for the brand image right? Badri, I don't really agree that brand value is bunkum. It does not always pay, but it does carry a prestige tag that is undeniable.

Pratik . said...

IIT is a brand you say. Well, more IITs would mean expanding the brand. If we want to expand the brand, we would also like to ensure that the quality of the brand does not drop. If the quality drops off, it is questionable whether you want to expand at all.

If, while expanding the number of IITs, the quality can be maintained, then why not expand it? This brings us to the questions, can the quality be maintained? What is needed in order to maintain the quality?

A couple of years back, there was a nice little article [well, may be not nice depending on which side of the fence you are on ;)] in the IIT Madras student magazine. It was an article by a professor cribbing how slowly, abroad, the brand IIT was "declining". Apparently, the feedback the professor received was that the quality of students was declining over the years; that students were no longer conceptually as strong as the IITians of yore.

Now, if the standards of existing IITs have started to fall, then what hope will the newer ones have?

Probably, there are a couple of crucial reasons for this fall. With the everwidening discrepancies in academic and industry salary, research and teaching looks no longer attractive to most. Soap selling is attractive. Really attractive. Going abroad to get a PhD is attractive to, since that offers job openings abroad post PhD. Two hoots for doing research.

The second problem is the faculty. With fewer and fewer bright students getting into academics, getting good enough people to teach students is tougher. If the existing IITs cant manage enough quality faculty, then can you realistically expect to attract good professors in the new ones?

I agree with Badri that there are enough good students outside the existing IITs who can fill 10-15 more IITs. But sorry, the quality of IIT is *not* exclusively determined by quality of the students. its a combination of the students, the infrastructure and the faculty.

By the way, regarding why should there not be new IITs, extending this argument, I would like to ask why Turkey has just one Middle Eastern Technical University; why Sweden has just one KTH; why UK has only one Oxford and one Cambridge?

For that matter, why doesnt each state in India have its own NIT?

So far as IITs being an idea is concerned: well, the autonomy that is accorded to IITs is also available to other institutes of national importance. I understand with the NIT act of 2006, this autonomy is also there for NITs. This is certainly there for IISc (so, why just one IISc? Heck, why did they name it IISER and not IISc in Kolkata, Hyd, Pune). Its there for Indian Statistical Institute as well. So, the "idea" is not exclusive to IITs.

The reason why GOI should not open new IITs (or for that matter IISc or ISI) is simple. It is not because of exclusivity. It because, over the years, these institutes have proved their excellence, and today they are synonymous with national pride. They are supposedly centers of excellence and excellence has to be preserved not diluted.

on a different note, when IITs started in 50s and 60s, they didnot have much of brand value. The big brand name was BHU, Roorkee, Calcutta University (before Jyoti Basu and co spoiled it), IISc (yes, till late 60s, IISc actually had undergrads). But IITs could still develop a brand name for itself. Which just goes on to show that to create something of good value, you need not make a carbon copies of certain names.

Disclaimer: I did not do my undergrad from IIT. I was among the 10,000 odd who cleared the screening test and flopped in the mains. I however did get to see the workings of an IIT as an MTech student. I am a PhD student now, with every hope of returning to India for a faculty position after PhD and postdoc [so more IITs would presumably mean better chance for me; a purely selfish thought;)]

Pratik . said...

And by the way Amrutha, nice thought provoking post. Even though I dont quite agree with you, your post was nice. :)

kaushik said...

I am in the same position as you! And I don't see any reason why new IIT's should not be opened. As Badri said, it is much better that you have a start-up rather than changing an existing place with its problems.

Right now, the IIT undergrads are not that keen on science either. I was in IIT-B, and was surprised that more than 80% of the batch had no inclination in engineering or science or research. They were there to organize Mood-I and Techfest, get resume points, like headed a team of 30 students in organizing blah blah, and get into Consulting or Finance. At the same time, I saw loads of students rotting in horrible pvt engineering colleges, interested in a career in science. If the IIT brand can help these people (surely, IIT tag is helpful, new IITs will have better teachers and facilities, if the government is committed to making world-class IITs), then why not have new IITs.

IITs themselves offer students a world of opportunity, and in a place, where the pvt educational institutes have made a mockery of education, keeping IITs exclusive to just 3000 students, when atleast 15000 or more are equally capable, is a crime. It is upto the govt to step up higher education, as pvt sector has abjectly failed to do so.

अनगढ़ said...

Dear Amrutha,
I would like to add one link to one of the article in hindu on 25 june, 2006.

I could not resist the temptation to thank you and appreciate your articulation on IITs even if it is midnight (but only then power supply is resumed in my town!). I do feel that an institution or any place whatsoever it may be is good only because some really good, capable people used it as their workplace to nurture their professional excellence led by their innate creativity; the reverse notion that one is excellent only because he/she hails from a known-to-be-good place has limited applicability, derives its roots from the very first notion with the “brand value” of the place established by some (unknown, perhaps) hardworking, visionary people motivated by their inner self and thrives partially on the certainly grueling entrance procedure. These are the inherent limitations of this procedure, the blind faith in the infallibility of which as cultivated by media (adulation of the mainstream media at home, as you put it) in the conscieousness and sub conscience of upwardly pulled middle class, which are the real problem. Brand becomes more powerful than the brand setter. Up to the extent that a person is brilliant (!), meritorious(!),doing a great nation service(!) for middle class, small town people when he has a label of a scientist/engineer in a media savy premier organization but his merit vanishes, brilliance and service become unrecognizable for the same middle class if the same person opts for lectureship in their own town!!! Again, this all starts a debate in me to pose technological innovation as a result of one’s playful incursions of imagination, dwelling deeper into the world around because of inherent inquisitiveness of human being, prompted by his natural urge to live and to improve upon the quality of life against corporate determined innovations as a critical economic capital to maximize profit with its narrowest meanings.
Don't you think that these are the guys who can make any institutin of worth its name.So does this model of build-on-the-best is comprehensive in itself or should be complemented with faith in universal capability to get a holistic approach.
One more question, which is hovering in my mind, is what is the need to establish an educational institution. Question has been termed to be silly by my fellows from science stream but I feel its answer is deeply related with the present anomaly where educated don’t want to share education.
Again, kudos to your lovely analysis.
i m