India’s premier institutes of technology are losing their academic edge because of unplanned expansion and excessive politics

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) figure prominently among Indian higher education institutions known outside the country. They are internationally respected for the quality of their graduates and for the quality of their teaching. The IITs may be the most selective schools in the world, with more than 500,000 students taking the entrance exams each year. Yet, the IITs have been in trouble for some time, and recent comments by Ved Prakash, the chairman of the University Grants Commission certainly do not help their cause. Mr. Prakash called the IITs “glorified engineering colleges” and argued that traditional universities should be the main beneficiaries of funding.

Standing apart

Why have the IITs been so successful over a half century? They are elite institutions — attracting top faculty members committed to the best-quality teaching and with some focus on research. The faculty knew that their students would be the cream of the crop and that meritocracy would be the hallmark of the “IIT ethos.” They were attracted not by high salaries but by an idea that top, international quality higher education in technology and engineering can succeed in India. The country needs some elite institutions if India is to compete globally. IIT governance has traditionally been less bureaucratic than in other Indian universities — academic staff have had more power to influence key decisions and politics has been generally absent from campus life. In other words, the IITs have been more like the best universities worldwide, and are unlike the mainstream Indian academic institutions. Without question, good governance is central to the success of academic institutions everywhere — and Indian universities, steeped in bureaucracy, have not been noted for effective campus governance

One of the main reasons that the IITs and, later, the Indian Institutes of Management were established was precisely because the traditional universities could not be reformed. Bureaucracy, politics, a dispersion of academic authority, and other factors prevented this. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed over the past half century. While some of the traditional universities have good quality departments and some of the colleges are outstanding, the institutions themselves seem impervious to change.

Why are the IITs in trouble? They have been unable to replace the superior quality faculty who were first attracted, as several generations have retired. Inadequate funding, much greater opportunities in the private sector, and some deterioration at the IITs themselves have made them less attractive. At present, a significant percentage of academic posts remain vacant because appropriate candidates could not be found.

In an effort to “spread the wealth,” there are now 17 IITs, many established in recent years, and some located in quite remote places. This expansion has to some extent “cheapened the brand” since the overall quality could not be maintained — in part because qualified academic staff cannot be lured to mofussil locations. Top facilities — including needed laboratories, residences, and others — could not be provided in a timely way. Overexpansion has not served either the IITs or the quality of Indian higher education well. India, facing public demand for IIT-level education, as well as shortages of top talent in most fields, frequently errs on the side of expanding too quickly, failing to ensure that the needed intellectual and infrastructural resources are available.

Course correction

The IITs have also become enmeshed in the complex political issues affecting Indian higher education. Close to half the students admitted to the IITs must be from the backward classes or disadvantaged caste and tribal groups. Policies relating to these reservations have been constantly debated and litigated.

Appointments of academic staff are also affected by reservation policies — but not to as great an extent. Other political battles concerning the locations of new IITs and other issues have also ensued. There have also been disputes relating to the appointments of IIT directors and allegations of political inference.

The factors that made the IITs excellent are being whittled away. What is needed is a return to the effective policies and practices that characterised the IITs first for several decades. Rather than forced to conform to the norms of the rest of India’s sclerotic higher education system, the IITs should be a beacon for the rest. The UGC’s Ved Prakash has said exactly the wrong thing.

(Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)

More In: Comment | Opinion