Are the IITs losing their relevance in today's global context?

Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of Environment and Forests, started a small controversy asserting that the fabled IITs are not “world-class” in their faculty and research but only in their students. But the IITs are, after all, the pride of the Indian education system, according to even “60 minutes,” an American news show, that compared their prestige to Harvard, MIT and Princeton combined. So is there any truth in Mr. Ramesh's statement?

The recently submitted Kakodkar Committee report suggests that the IITs are losing some of their relevance both in the Indian and the global context. The report notes that IITs provide only 0.5% of all engineering graduates in the country today, compared to 10% a few decades ago. And its urgent recommendations on increasing allocations to improve the R&D and teaching infrastructure are in tune with what directors of the institutes and others have been saying for some time now.

As previous studies have noted that autonomy is a key requirement to promote excellence, the Kakodkar Committee was set up in February 2010 to “suggest a roadmap for strengthening the financial, administrative and academic autonomy” of the IITs. Following an online survey, meetings and a visit to China to study the functioning of Universities there, the Committee submitted a report earlier this year (which was revised in some respects and resubmitted), and the report is now being studied by the IIT Joint Council.

A key suggestion made by the Committee is to make the IITs more autonomous by making them operationally self-sufficient. The report suggests a four-fold increase in the fees (the revised report suggests subsidising economically weaker students) and an increased industry-academia partnership, among other measures, to improve the funding situation. At the same time it recommends setting up more IITs, attracting quality faculty and research students (Masters and PhD) and improvements to the R&D infrastructure.

While the report is comprehensive about these aspects, there is a constant tension between opposite poles. Teaching and research; complete autonomy and government control; quality and quantity – these issues figure constantly and the report suggests compromises. For example, it suggests “the pursuit of education and research together benefits both the students as well as the faculty,” while recommending that the government cut non-plan expenditure on operational expenses while allowing the institutes to raise their funds from various sources. The original goal of IITs as the incubators of socially relevant technology for nation-building is not lost, and the committee endorses earlier ideals while suggesting stronger private player presence for funding needs.

But one of the biggest thrust areas is the development of the faculty and the attraction of the “best students” to PG programmes. Here, the report emphasises enormous quantitative increase and cautions against dilution in quality. 

The report shows that the number of PhDs in technology in India is less than a tenth the number produced by China and less than a seventh produced by the United States of America.

While many of the suggestions in the report are both interesting and ambitious, one question that remains is: given the scarcity of funds, and given the record of IIT graduates leaving India and/or engineering behind for greener pastures, does it make sense for the government to invest more in the IITs?