Just a few months into the job as director of IIT-Madras, Bhaskar Ramamurthi has earned a name for himself with a no-nonsense approach among faculty and has endeared himself to students with a friendly attitude. Behind the school boyish charm, he is a seasoned engineer whose life's mission is to take technology to the masses.

In a two part interview for The Hindu Education Plus, Mr. Ramamurthi talks to Ajai Sreevatsan and Vasudha Venugopal about the IIT-M's changing student profile, research outlook, future challenges, and in general on online learning, IT industry and new laws in the making.

Is there a change in the profile of students getting into IITs?

Yes, the student demographic is definitely changing. We are getting a whole mix of people. Just last year, 18 per cent of applicants declared in their JEE application that they are from rural areas. Many of them are also declaring as from “first-time learner family.” It is very clear when you meet them. They are all coming from different backgrounds.

You have spoken about the need to increase diversity in the campus and to bring the percentage of international student population to at least 10 per cent. Any conscious, systemic attempts?

We are focussing on research partnerships which will eventually evolve into joint Ph.D programmes with reputed universities abroad. Whatever little we have done, we have found that it completely transforms our students. On the whole, there are about 80 foreign students on the campus right now. We want to increase this to 300 - 400. On the gender diversity front, our girls vs. boys ratio has been increasing by about one per cent every year for the last several years. There has been significant improvement at the B.Tech level, but the ratio is not too great when it comes to M.Tech. Last two years, 80 or 90 girls have been getting in at the undergraduate level, out of a total intake of 800. This is not bad at all. And it should go up further. My guess is the intake would have about 40 per cent girls in a decade or so.

In the U.S., an engineer can do a literature course and earn credits. Why can't an Electrical Engineer in IIT do an elective in the humanities department? Is the system here constricting?

That is where we should head towards. Today, we do have a system that has electives. But, it is not the same as in the U.S. The problem is that you can give the freedom to students to do what they want, provided you can then declare what they are in the degree. How to do this is a question that we have been asking ourselves.

Some of the older IITs have for sometime wanted to remove the branch allocation at JEE. The problem is the newer IITs are not ready for that. Actually, giving a branch at that young age is a terrible thing to do. But that's the reality. Besides, the public wants that. Public will prefer if you give the branch in LKG itself. But I think what we'll do is try to loosen up, give some options, and make sure the degrees are branded right. Instead of creating departments that function like silos, we must try and liberalise. We'll probably move towards that in the next few years.

The IIT Governing Council has proposed to consider Class XII marks along with JEE. Will that help to improve the quality of the entrants?

The JEE exam pattern has moved away from the traditional pattern because we are conducting it for six lakh students. Just because students are preparing for this bubbling test alone, they are struggling with the regular maths courses here. They are not doing proofs (subjective answers wherein students will have to prove theorems) at all. There is no way we can correct six lakh papers with proofs. This can be countered if we consider the Class XII results. But the issue of normalisation exists. It is very important that students give importance to school. We need to make sure they don't ignore school, but also assure normalisation. As it is a ranking-based test now, students have started ignoring topics. When they come here, they do not know integration, because it is only five marks in JEE.

Why do you think the craze for getting an IIT seat is not that high in Tamil Nadu, compared to Andhra Pradesh or Rajasthan?

There is not much interest here to get into IITs. It is a social trend in Andhra Pradesh where it is a viral thing. There is a craze even in villages and small towns to get into IITs and go to the U.S. for higher studies. Kota sends about 3,000 of the 6,000 students into IITs every year. In Tamil Nadu, the craze for students and parents is to get placed well. I think, here the start and end of it all is to get into a good IT company and it is not that bad a deal after all.

To be continued

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012