Friday, September 19, 2008

Why so reckless?

My submission to The Filter Copy, September 2008

“It is legal because I wish it”-Louis XIV.

India seems to be the place where good ideas come to die. The recent progress in the systematic dismantling of India's premier educational institutions proves that however good an idea might be, the Indian government will eventually ensure its demise. Even if that idea is heralded as one of the greatest ever achievements of modern India.

The fifties saw our country making tremendous strides in virtually every field in spite of a chronic shortage of resources, virtually absent infrastructure and abject poverty. India showed the world that self-belief and an audacity to hope was enough to turn tables overnight. West Germany, Singapore, Japan, all ravaged by the war adopted our no holds barred march towards progress inspite of being reduced to near extinction as nation states. Fifty years later we see ourselves left significantly behind. But yet, we had still a few symbols of that ebullient decade which continued to inspire the nation of the potential within. The IITs occupy the highest pedestal in that short list of symbols.

The motives and intentions behind the creation of the IITs are well documented. The achievements of its eventual alumni even more so. They became the shining examples of a society which showed the world that this is how they train their best. It took decades of churning out top-notch professionals before the IITs became a synonym for excellence. And now that they enjoy such prestige on this planet, the Indian government, headed ironically by a distinguished academic, decided that maybe the time has come when they extinguish the last beacon of excellence in Indian Higher Education.

It has been a three pronged approach by the venerable HRD minister. The increase in reservation for students, the opening of a host of new IITs and of course ordering reservation in faculty positions. Bringing social equality has been the official reason. I won’t delve into the widely discussed issue of OBC reservation for students. The other two decisions, I feel have done more damage to the IIT brand.

Let’s begin with the opening of new IITs. Decision to open more premiers engineering institutions. Excellent. Calling them IITs. Short-sightedness. The concept of Brand Dilution may not make sense to the babus of Shaastri Bhawan but it does mean something in the rest of the world. We do not have twelve Stanfords, fifteen Oxfords or twenty two ETHs. The argument is if we have more IITs then we will have more IITians and hence by more hyper intelligent engineers! But IITs don't make people clever. They just provide the finishing touches to people who are already very smart. And I don't know whether people have noticed but we as a race have always faced a shortage of smart people. By having a few more buildings, we won’t end raising the IQ of the people occupying them. It does not work that way, Mr. Singh.

For some reason elitist has become a bad word in this country. Anyone who opposed calling the new institutes IITs are called elitists who want to prevent others from enjoying the facilities of an IIT. Yes, IITs are elitist. That’s because they were meant to be. The irreproducible campus culture would not have been possible if they allowed anybody in. If MIT allowed ten times the people in, would it have remained an attractive option as it is now? Is being the very best something to be looked down upon? Is propagating mediocrity the way ahead? Rather providing the new institutes with the same facilities but a different name would help in creating a new brand altogether which would build its own reputation over time. The gestation period for these new IITs will be quite a few years and in all probability the students passing out would not help in building the IIT brand further.

And will someone please pay attention to the problems faced by the current IITs before establishing half a dozen more? There is a massive crunch in faculty in all the IITs. While the administration is still trying to figure out how to fill the hundreds of vacant posts, we have another 6 adding to the problem. Recruitment of an IIT faculty member is no mean task. The applicants have to go through the strictest of screening procedures before making it as an assistant professor. Makes sense. They are supposed to educate and inspire the brightest set of people. It is difficult for a student to respect his or her teacher, leave alone learn, if the teacher is intellectually deficient and not qualified enough. So where are the teachers going to come from for the new IITs? We know they are not out there waiting. They would have filled up the already vacant posts then. So what is the ingenious plan of the government? My guess is they do not have a plan. You need people who can think when you need a plan and rumors suggest having the capability to think is a criterion for disqualification if you want to work for the HRD ministry.

Let’s come to this tiny issue called infrastructure. Experts believe, but then aren't they always wrong, that to run a world class institute it is a good thing if there are actual classes, labs, machines, hostels present in the campus. When the 'sudden' decision to start enrolment in at least 3 new IITs was taken for the year 2008-09, the IIT admission was taken by surprise. One primary reason was the absence of any form of basic infrastructure at the new venues. Other than the state governments securing the land, they didn't have more than a few old buildings. And as a result the already burdened IITs will have to help incubate one of the new ones. Incubate translates to harboring the students of the new IITs till the actual campus is ready.

IITG began similarly. It had humble beginnings, the reason for its establishment was political but with time it has come up very well. Something similar to the conditions now. But there is a difference between 1994 and 2008. In 1994 the existing IITs were not as plagued by a slew of problems as they are now. And an increase of one to the existing list did not bring Brand Dilution in to the picture. Curiously enough right now a survey of the standard of IITs among students will place IITG at the bottom. So 14 years and huge investments haven't actually brought things at par. This brings us back to the contention that it’s not the facilities and infrastructure of the IITs but the students joining them which is responsible for its pre-eminence. One may increase the number of IITs to a hundred but the number of smart people joining them will remain the same and they will continue to prefer the original five.

Let’s stop for a moment and keep the pessimism aside. If the current administration actually pulls off what the Nehru administration pulled off in the fifties, we all naysayers will look like idiots. Then in a few years we would have over 10 IITs producing brilliant engineers and this decision will be hailed as a masterstroke. So why are be criticizing before the idea has even come to fruition. Is that not blatant negativism and aren't we unconsciously preventing quality education for reaching more people? After giving this notion considerable thought I came to the conclusion that in spite of the possibility of a success, I would not be too hopeful. Why? The reason is this. This government consulted no one, did no preliminary survey, and took no IIT in to confidence before proclaiming this new idea. Already admission to those new IITs has been delayed because of a lack of preparations. So is it reasonable to expect that a government which is so short-sighted while taking a decision will be able to manage to actually execute it? Highly improbable.

Now let’s touch over a more contentious issue. Reservation among faculty positions. Sometimes I wonder what exactly the thought process behind such astounding decisions is. I would give anything to lay my hands on the minutes of the meetings in the HRD Ministry at the end of which they come to conclusions as mentioned above. But something tells me there are no meetings as such or any thought process either. Just a flash in the pan decision to create a flutter in the urban media and buy over specific constituencies which would suit the purposes of the honorable HRD minister.

How does reservation come in to the picture where competence should be the only benchmark is something which has been plaguing the minds for a long time. Has here been any instance where a proficient teacher was not given an opportunity because of his caste? Has there been even a single recorded instance of a professor from a disadvantaged background being sidelined by the administration? Is it viable to sacrifice quality in the name of social up liftment which will effect the minutest of percentages? The answer is not in the affirmative for any of the one above. But in turn it will definitely end up making the faculty slowly become conscious of their identity and before long a sense of division will slowly creep in. A system as proposed will wreck havoc with the academic structure in the IITs. Sample this. In a curriculum heavily dependent on the concept of electives, the strength in the class of a particular faculty member depends on his ability to deliver. Never does a student bother to inquire about his or her background. But a reservation facilitated induction may bring in questions regarding the credibility and aptitude of the individual concerned. So we may actually have brilliant Profs trying to justify their right to be in the institute just because they may be from the weaker sections. The chances of that happening are very remote but if there is even one such case; it would be an indelible blemish on the social fabric of the wonderfully heterogeneous IIT campuses.

Reservations restrict brilliance. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of social engineering. Hence it should be used as a policy not indiscriminately but in specific areas. Our research institutions and defense laboratories have almost 50% reservation and as a result countless posts go unfilled which would otherwise have been taken up by skilled individuals. Unfortunately the achievements of those very institutions leave a lot to be desired. If we want to push the IIT education structure in to the same well, then one would really have to doubt whether the hearts and minds of the country are at the right place. Reservations were incorporated to assimilate various sections. Misuse and overuse has resulted in the opposite. It has created sense of identities where we wanted to dissolve those lines of division.

It is very heartening to see the administration stand up to the government in opposing this draconian step. Inspite of all these regressive steps, it is hope that keeps the chins up in the campus. Hope that the government will realize its follies just at the last moment. Hope that the illustrious alumni will convince the authorities of the perils involved. Hope that the students and the faculty will stand together to uphold the sanctity of the institute. Hope that complete autonomy will be decreed and it will unshackle the IITs from the government’s whims.

8 comments:

Vikram said...

Nice Blog. Excellent handling of each issue. Though, it begs an important question - How the hell did you get enough free time to write such a long blog? :)

Debanjan said...

You couldn't have been more precise as to the exact issues ... You have just written what was in my mind for a long time ... and was making me feel like an idiot thinking that we could do nothing in the face of this madness ... probably expressing opinions is all what we can in the end do ...
why so reckless indeed !!

Kripal Pais said...

I think you should read or have already read Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged talks about the very problems you mention here. The only way out is the strike of the Men Of Mind. :)

There has been lots of criticism and lots of articles, but the men in power, continue to run it which ever way they fancy.

you prat ! said...

Hi, found you've put in quite a bit of effort/thought in the post. I have some rebuttals .

You say...

" But IITs don't make people clever. They just provide the finishing touches to people who are already very smart. ... By having a few more buildings, we won’t end raising the IQ of the people occupying them. "

Naha.. but it is exactly not that.Like you said its not getting dumb people and teaching them. It is finding people who are smart and training them. So this clever statement (no offense, sounds so much like Chetan Bhagat's) of raising IQ by raising more buildings, actually has no grounds, and doesn't actually make sense. As, nobody is doing what you say they are. It is just not raising new buildings, they'll get more staff, more facilities etc and probably a newer method of education.

As some IITians (though any reasonably well-educated, intelligent, experienced person would do) have mentioned that the JEE exam does not really have everything in it to identify intelligence/creativity etc holistically. I do agree the exam is quite demanding and rigorous in terms of how much effort a person puts in, how he tackles new questions in basic science etc. But, it does not test other important aspects like creativity, innovation and other things which India is crying for lack of. These aspects too are related to 'success' (which they say IITians are surrounded by). So if to be successful you don't really need to be an IITian, and if you have 'potential' .. and by good training you can reach the problem solving ability and good IQ like IITians.. why shouldnt the govt open more IITs.. call it exactly that, and have more 'capable' people as you call them?

Also, assuming you are an IITian, maybe you wouldnt be in IIT if the govt had not constantly increased the no of seats. :) . And then maybe you wouldnt be defending it so passionately.

"We do not have twelve Stanfords, fifteen Oxfords or twenty two ETHs."

But Stanford is not the only university in its cadre, there's Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Caltech, MIT, Princeton, and many others who are good in a particular fields. MIT is certainly not the best for everything. In Europe, there's not only Oxford, there's Cambridge, St.Andrews, EPFL, ETH, etc... So India having the population of US and UK combined(nearly!) should do a favour for her children and open more such universities ! Can't you see the imbalance??

Actually it does not really matter so much, whether they open more IITs or not. But it certainly isnt a bad idea.

Don't be so selfish and think in terms of market value of yourselves. You clearly don;t want more competition out there. If you are getting good education and its possible to extend it to more people, don't you want that? What kind of breed is India raising in the name of IITians? I don't know.

Selfishness is way over-rated. Somebody shoot Ayn Rand. Wait. She's already dead. I guess we'll have to invent a time-machine after all, to back in time and kill her.

Sayan said...

@prat:

Hello,

I apologize in advance for the short response. This is a topic which can be discussed till the cows come home.

"It is just not raising new buildings, they'll get more staff, more facilities etc and probably a newer method of education."

More staff from where? Will they be qualified enough? No, for they would have filled the huge number of vacancies in the old IITs already. That was my whole point. facilities from where? The condition of labs in the best IITs are despicable to say the least.Newer method probably yes.

"But Stanford is not the only university in its cadre, there's Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Caltech, MIT, Princeton, and many others who are good in a particular fields. MIT is certainly not the best for everything. In Europe, there's not only Oxford, there's Cambridge, St.Andrews, EPFL, ETH, etc... So India having the population of US and UK combined(nearly!) should do a favour for her children and open more such universities ! Can't you see the imbalance??"

Little unfair statement. I said I was all for new institutions. I used this statement to attack calling them by the same name. I did not attack their reason for existance. Not quite the same thing.

I personally will not be competing with the batches from the new IITs. And the market is ruthless. It doesnt see which IIT the student belongs to. It will select the best and throw out the lesser mortals. Attend the placement sessions in any IIT to see it for yourself.

But I do agree that we all are selfish. But thats not just the IITians. Its a trait which runs through the whole generation.

you prat ! said...

"Little unfair statement. I said I was all for new institutions. I used this statement to attack calling them by the same name. I did not attack their reason for existance. Not quite the same thing."

I agree. I take that back. But with all the arguments about how IIT status is getting diluted, I read it as you not wanting more IITs.

So you are okay with them opening other institutions, but not calling IITs. Now lets consider this case: What if they do, and make them better than IITs? Or you don't mind, as the students from those institutions will graduate much later than you, hence won't compete with you?

I agree, that the issue of most prominence that should be solved is that of the teachers/professors. The latest Pay Commission has increased the salaries by nearly 70-80%. Hopefully, that will work. Among other policies to improve facilities.

Anonymous said...

got here via prats blog. I think hes been very kind to you. Let me go a step further and call your article stupid and ill-informed. Youve touched alot of arguable topics and i am going to take them up in this massive post!

To start with, IITs have always ben lucky to attract the best right from their inception. They were Nehrus legacy, intended to create indian engineers who would rebuild a country from scratch. Thus, becoming the place to be in, for the then patriotic youth (as opposed to the now I MUST GO TO THE STATES youth) from the word go. So cut the decades of churning out great professionals crap!

Although, again i would beg to differ on the OBC issue, I too shall not delve on it.

Calling new institutions IITs short-sightedness! What do you suggest they shud do to attract fine young men like you? and more importantly good faculty? I think it is a great start. Also, dont forget, this means a lot more seats on that coveted entrance I never gave! To pick 1 person out of every 100 on an average is absolute bullshit. Every single quality institution in the world looks for reasons to pick people. Not for reasons to eliminate! Its a flawed system. Denying opportunity to millions who could do as well as or better than you sir!

Ultimately every state should have an IIT and an IIM. That would mean more seats, more opportunities and leveraging the current brand names to the max. And there cannot possibly be a loss of quality simply because there are so many great students in this country who deserve better than one or maybe two shots at this jackpot called JEE. You have seriously ¨misunderestimated¨ indian talent. I called it an ill-informed article because we as a race have faced a shortage of opportunity not smartness. I hope I can dismiss this as pure snobbishness. Else, you are plain dumb no matter how much math you can do in under a minute.

¨Yes, IITs are elitist. That’s because they were meant to be. ¨
No, they are not and were not meant to be. Uh, please do refer to your (I mean an IITs) mission statement once in a while. Have you ever gone through the archives on IIT you referred to earlier.

¨The gestation period for these new IITs will be quite a few years and in all probability the students passing out would not help in building the IIT brand further.¨

You aren either. See my point??

¨please pay attention to the problems faced by the current IITs before establishing half a dozen more? There is a massive crunch in faculty in all the IITs.¨

Do you have any clue of the amount of funding IITs get. Do youy even know your student/teacher ratio. In most current IITs (probably guwahati excluded) the student/faculty ratio is lower than most engineering colleges in india. The cost to company (government in this case!) per student for an IIT student is the maximum among all engineering students in India. So shut up with you current problems IITs face argument. You have no idea how educational institutions are run in this country. Do you??

¨Recruitment of an IIT faculty member is no mean task. The applicants have to go through the strictest of screening procedures before making it as an assistant professor¨

I happen to be related to 3 IIT faculty members. ECE, MSM and Chemical Engineering at Delhi, Bombay and Chennai. I know their credentials inside out. Besides, the research output of an IIT is next to nothing. IITs are never counted among well-known research institutions. Look at the citations per faculty data if you will. I have this data through THES. So shut up. Current IITs (the faculty i.e.) are underperforming tremendously. And the only criterion for an assistant proffesorship at an IIT is a PhD degree from the states these days.

¨Experts believe, but then aren't they always wrong, that to run a world class institute it is a good thing if there are actual classes, labs, machines, hostels present in the campus.¨

The only thing we might agree upon. I am delighted! Yes, decision was late and the implementation premature.

¨Curiously enough right now a survey of the standard of IITs among students will place IITG at the bottom.¨
Curiously enough they also publish the most in chemistry and have probably the 3rd best centre for nanotech in India and alot of funds. Ill-informed?? You bet.

¨then in a few years we would have over 10 IITs producing brilliant engineers and this decision will be hailed as a masterstroke¨

This isnt as unlikely as you make it out to be. If thought of in context and with some objectivity.

¨This government consulted no one, did no preliminary survey, and took no IIT in to confidence before proclaiming this new idea.¨

Why should they?? You give yourself too much importance. They have the money, the will and probably the nous to pull it off. Why would they consult an IIT??

¨Hope that complete autonomy will be decreed and it will unshackle the IITs from the government’s whims.¨

faculty wont want that. For then, theyĺl have to work! Private funding comes at a cost unlike government funding!

One final question from me to you?
If you have bothered going through all this, then also bother to answer this one.

What is the country getting out of an IITian today?? Yes, the IIT brand is helping us in many ways. But how is an IITian? Does he work in the country? NO. Does he work for the country?? NO.
He follows the formula. Some good souls still give the IAS, get in and do good. But how then, does an IIT help this cause. It does not.

I dont see many in the Parliament or in the civil services these days. Why not spend the money, on say Delhi University. Thus enabling/enriching alot more people to contribute directly. Btw, last time i counted at least a 100 MPs out of the 540 odd seats were from Delhi University. Alot more civil servants too.

The bottomline is, Is it worth spending so much on an IITian now?? Is Nehrus IIT vision now obsolete??
You explain to me why the government should spend money on you.

Phew,

Sridhar

Sayan said...

Why the government should spend on us?

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/
India/File_IITians_contribution_to
_economy_is_Rs_20_lakh_crore_
Study/articleshow/3752658.cms