Shaping the IITs and destiny of India

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The IITs were created to lead innovation and technology development movement in India. However, they are still a long way from being recognised as world class. Kinkini Dasgupta Misra tells us what could be done to foster creativity, innovation and excellence in shaping the institutes and how IITs could drive India’s social, economic, and technological transformation.

Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are recognised the world over for their academic excellence. The IITs are known for dedication of their faculties and for the strong motivation and work ethics of their graduates. Many IIT graduates hold important positions in academia and industry in India and abroad and have made our country proud, whichever profession they chose to pursue – be it science or engineering, teaching or research, entrepreneurship or corporate world, or public service. They have earned respect globally for their intellect and professionalism.

Established to build a prosperous India

IITs were created as “Institutes of National Importance” in 1950, as India needed knowledge in science and technology to build up a prosperous nation and “to wipe every tear from every eye”. The IITs were to focus on research and postgraduate education that would give India the leading edge in science and technology for building a prosperous India. The history of the IIT system dates back to 1946 when a 22-member committee, headed by Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, recommended the establishment of higher technical institutions in various parts of India, with affiliated secondary institutions. The first Indian Institute of Technology was founded in May 1950 at the site of the Hijli Detention Camp in Kharagpur. On 15 September 1956, the Parliament of India passed the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act, declaring it as an Institute of National Importance. Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, in the first convocation address of IIT Kharagpur in 1956 said: “Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”

IITs not in top 100 of the world

The IITs were supposed to lead the nation in R&D (Research & Development) by focusing on ways to build a prosperous India by raising the incomes of the poor. And they were supposed to educate PhD students who would lead R&D in India’s industries and serve on the faculties of India’s other technical institutions. The IITs would thus have created a multiplier effect and a culture of innovation throughout the country. Despite this, none of the IITs rank in the top 100 institutions in the world in research based on any measure, and IIT professors and graduates hold few significant patents in India.

The IITs are known to be among the best teaching institutions in the field of engineering, which have made a global mark with their high quality education. B. Tech and M. Tech graduates from the IITs have made a very significant impact in various domains and played a leadership role in Indian industry and R&D organisations. They have also provided some PhDs to educational institutions (in addition to industry). IITs have created all the relevant ingredients and the best platforms to lead the Innovation and Technology Development movement in the nation.

IITs could still become a force to lead India’s social, economic, and technological transformation if they can support themselves financially and have full autonomy in making financial and operational decisions.

At the same time, it is true that till recently, the IITs had not grown at a pace commensurate with the expansion of engineering education in the country. Currently, around 500,000 engineering graduates come out of our engineering colleges. This number would cross one million in three to four years from now. There is however a serious question about their quality. Industry finds a large number of these graduates unemployable needing further training. In the 1970s and early 1980s, close to 10% of engineering graduates came from the IITs; this has dropped to below 0.5% today. The decreasing fraction of IIT graduates and with a significant fraction amongst them moving away from engineering and technology, has led to decreasing benefit of IIT graduates to national development in proportionate terms (based on the Kakodkar committee report).

In terms of research, the IITs are continuously enhancing their research activities as evidenced by the increasing number of PhDs passing out of the IIT system. Even so, the number of PhDs that pass out annually from the IITs is very small (about 1000 per year) in comparison to the size of our country, size of our economy and number of youth in the country. Recognising that we are fast moving into an era dominated by a knowledge-driven economy and would have to face higher levels of competition as the Indian economy becomes one of the largest in the world, emphasis on technology and innovation linked to advanced research is becoming increasingly important.

Pushing innovation frontiers

A world class higher education system is marked by excellence in functioning. Improvement in our academic system calls for innovative changes. In India, research and innovation does not adequately portray the inherent ingenuity of the people. Science, Technology and Innovation Policy of 2013 aims to push innovation frontiers by kindling the creative energy of our population. The mantle to make this policy successful and unleash our inventiveness lies on our higher academic institutions, better resources and a flexible and conducive governance system that can recognise and selectively support credible new ideas in a hassle-free manner.

The vision of taking India into the league of leading nations would be possible only if we have highly capable engineers, doctors, academicians and other intellectuals. A strong academic foundation is the basis for producing such talented and trained people. Our efforts at expanding higher education infrastructure in India have yielded positive results. Even then, on account of lack of quality, very few academic institutions can claim global reckoning. As per an international ranking, there is not a single Indian university, including the IITs, amongst the top 200 universities in the world. Leading universities of the West and universities even in countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are ranked higher than any Indian institution. This has led to serious attention in our planning, policies and implementation.

Recommendations for making IITs world class

The Kakodkar Committee 2011 (Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance) has proposed significant augmentation/ addition in the following four domains. This would be over and above the current mode of support through various research funding agencies for individual proposals submitted to them by the faculty.

  • Identify 3–4 areas of recognised strength involving a reasonable faculty strength at each IIT and support them massively to become the world’s best. Selection of such areas should be done on the basis of demonstrated highlevel capability.
  • Take up large coordinated research projects involving a number of groups from different disciplines (from same or different IITs) to address important national challenges/ other grand challenges with specific pre-defined deliverables.
  • Establish research parks with significant industry presence at each IIT on the lines of a research park established at IIT Madras, to enable industry–academia collaborations and build a research and innovation ecosystem.
  • Establish special laboratories of government ministries/ their Public Sector Undertakings(PSUs) at IITs to
    strengthen indigenous capability in key areas of national importance. It is expected that such augmentation of research infrastructure in the IITs would create useful linkages between them and the external world, thus making research at IIT more meaningful. More importantly, this would lead to a broad-based innovation ecosystem of which IIT students and faculty will be an integral part.
  • Creating a reasonable sized science and engineering pool for India’s future would be necessary for scaling up engineering education with quality human resource for meeting India’s needs.

The report also highlights that in order to make India a world leader in the present day knowledge economy, IITs must nurture an ambience of innovation and entrepreneurship. It is important to have a strong industry–academia relationship with focus on technology development by encouraging industry R&D personnel to become adjunct faculty and enable large numbers of industry persons to do PhD.

IITs could still become a force to lead India’s social, economic, and technological transformation if they can support themselves financially and have full autonomy in making financial and operational decisions. They could play major roles in shaping India’s science and technology by focussing on research and development towards sustainability, partnerships with private and public organisations and rural areas and slums to improve the economy of the unorganised sector.


Kinkini

Kinkini Dasgupta Misra

The writer is a Scientist-F at Vigyan Prasar (under the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India, New Delhi.

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