The IITs are overcommitted, in crisis

The IIT system is in serious trouble at the same time that some of the IITs are building campuses abroad as part of India’s soft power efforts

Updated - November 04, 2023 10:58 am IST

Published - November 04, 2023 01:00 am IST

‘Maintaining faculty quality and attracting young professors committed to the IIT idea and to India’s development are both serious tasks’

‘Maintaining faculty quality and attracting young professors committed to the IIT idea and to India’s development are both serious tasks’ | Photo Credit: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are globally recognised as the crown jewels in India’s higher education system. Indeed, they are often the only Indian higher education institutions known internationally at all. They have produced leaders in high tech and related fields in India and abroad. The IITs may be the most difficult higher education institutions to gain entry in the world — with more than a million students appearing for the entrance examination each year and competing for 17,385 places in the 23 IITs. Yet, the IIT system is in serious trouble at the same time that some of them are building campuses abroad as part of India’s soft power efforts. It is worth taking a careful look at current realities to understand a looming crisis.

Foreign adventures

A branch campus of IIT-Madras has just opened in Zanzibar and IIT Delhi will be launching programmes from its Abu Dhabi campus in 2024. The tiny first entering class of 70 students has been accepted. How many of the faculty are from the Chennai campus — and will they stay in Zanzibar (frequently a problem for branch campuses of western universities)? The admission standards are not like those at home. Admission is based on the IIT Madras Zanzibar Selection Test (IITMZST) 2023 screening test followed by an interview. Some of the screening test centres offered to potential applicants were located not only in Tanzania but also in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates (which has a strong presence of the Indian diaspora).

Initially the Zanzibar campus is offering only two programmes: a Bachelor’s Degree (BS) in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence and M. Tech in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. They are open to students from across the globe. The annual tuition fee is $12,000 for the BS programme and $4,000 for the M.Tech programme and as noted, only 70 students have signed up. Reports say that the rules and regulations of the IITM Zanzibar campus will be based on the existing norms of IIT Madras.

Apparently, the campus is under renovation. Are there appropriate laboratories, access to IT, and related amenities? In other words, has IIT-Madras jumped into the international arena too soon — or should it be jumping at all? What are its motivations for this adventure? What is the purpose of this enterprise — to earn funds for the home campus? To expand India’s soft power? And quite important — who is investing the significant sums required to start up a branch campus? And, of course, this, and other Indian overseas efforts, must be of high quality.

Overexpansion at home

The first IIT was established in 1950 at Kharagpur in West Bengal, with four more following in a decade. Most of these partnered with top foreign technological universities in the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and Germany to get started, and they quickly achieved both excellence and top reputations. They hired Indians trained at the best foreign universities who were eager to contribute to national development. But these were small institutions — the total student enrolment was about 20,000 in the original six IITs.

After 2015, the government expanded the IIT system, adding seven institutions in the following decade, most located away from major metropolitan centres. These new IITs have struggled to meet the high standards of the traditional institutes. Some were created by upgrading existing institutions such as the Indian School of Mines Dhanbad, while others were “greenfield” start-ups. Top professors are often unwilling to work in isolated places, and the best students are also hesitant to enroll. In 2021-22, 361 undergraduate, 3,083 postgraduate and 1,852 PhD seats were empty in the new IITs. There should not be several tiers of IITs, with varying standards and levels of prestige.

But the system is doing something right — enrolment in all the 23 IITs has expanded to more than 1,20,000, with 25,237 students graduating in 2022-23, a clear indicator of more access and opportunity.

Faculty challenges, future prospects

At the heart of any academic institution are the professors. Attracting the best and the brightest is increasingly difficult. Salaries are dramatically below international standards. Foreign trained Indians are generally reluctant to return to uncompetitive salaries, often inferior work environments, and more academic bureaucracy (even though the IITs are less constrained than the rest of the academic system). Top Indian talent is increasingly attracted to the burgeoning IT sector, emerging biotech, and related fields — and not to academe — both within India and abroad.

There is now a severe shortage of academics in the IIT system. In 2021, out of the 10,881 of the sanctioned posts 4,370 were vacant.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the IITs are in crisis. Building quality in the new IITs is a significant challenge, and in the long run if this is not done, the prestige of the entire system will suffer. Maintaining faculty quality and attracting young professors committed to the IIT idea and to India’s development are both serious tasks. Expanding the system domestically may not have been a wise idea — and building overseas branch campuses is highly problematical. One might question if overseas expansion is a good idea under any circumstances, but in the context of the domestic challenges facing the system, such expansion seems particularly ill-considered.

Philip G. Altbach is Emeritus Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, U.S.

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