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.