[Editorial Analysis] Too many IITs, unrealistic expectations

Mains Paper 2: National
Prelims level: University Grants Commission
Mains level: Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources.

Context:

• The recent decision of the University Grants Commission to permit select IITs under the ‘Institutions of Eminence’ category to set up campuses abroad could further weaken these already stretched institutions.

• It is time to rethink the changing role and mandate of IITs in order to ensure that quality and focus are maintained and by prioritising the needs of India, but with a 21st-century twist.

What the IITs are, are not:

• The original five IITs were established in the 1950s and early 1960s Four had a foreign collaborator: IIT Bombay (the Soviet Union), IIT Madras (Germany), IIT Kanpur (the United States), and IIT Delhi (the United Kingdom).

• Currently, there are 23 IITs. After setting up IIT Delhi in 1961, it took another 34 years to establish the sixth IIT in Guwahati (1994). Since then, 17 more IITs have been established, including several that resulted from upgrading existing institutions.

The IITs focused:

• The IITs focused exclusively on technology, innovation, research and engineering.

• They later added the humanities and social sciences, but these programmes were modest until the 2020 National Education Policy emphasised the IITs should focus more on “holistic and multidisciplinary education”.

The Human resource in IITs and issues:

• According to data available with the Council of Indian Institutes of Technology, the IITs are small institutions with average student enrolments in the five older IITs of around 10,000.

• Some of the newer ones remain quite small, with fewer than 400 students. The older IITs have faculties of around 1,000, while some of the new ones, such as those in Palakkad and Jammu, employ 100.

• Most of the IITs suffer from a severe shortage of professors. For example, IIT Dhanbad is approved to hire 781 instructors but only 301 positions were filled as of January 2021.

The IITs Offerings, students, faculty:

• The IITs started as undergraduate institutions; they gradually added small post-graduate programmers, but some are now adding significant post-graduate offerings. IIT-Bombay’s student enrolment, for example, was 58% post-graduate during 2019-20.

• The IITs were, and are, self-consciously elite institutions aiming at the highest international academic standards — a tradition which, in our view, is important but increasingly difficult to maintain.

• Around 7,00,000 students sit for the national engineering entrance examination for the IITs and several other elite institutions each year and a vast majority of them target the 16,000-plus seats available in the 23 IITs.

• The dropout rates at the IITs are infinitesimal and declining, from 2.25% in 2015-16 to 0.68% in 2019-20.

Things began to change:

• The IITs could not attract a sufficient number of young faculties to fill vacancies resulting from retirements.

• The emerging IT and related industries in India offered much more attractive salaries and exciting work opportunities, and many were lured to universities and industry in other countries.

• The government dramatically expanded the number of IITs, spreading them around the country. Most of the new IITs are located in smaller towns such as Mandi (Himachal Pradesh), Palakkad (Kerala), Dharwad (Karnataka), and others.

The Suggestion approach:

• It is important to provide educational opportunities outside the major metropolitan areas; top institutions are seldom located far away from urban amenities.

• Facilities and infrastructure are unlikely to be “world class.” It is, thus, inevitable that quality will decline and the “IIT brand” diluted.
• Another area is the lack of correlation between the local needs and IITs. Most of the IITs and other prominent “Institutes of National Importance” are ‘academic enclaves’ with little connection with their regions.

• The State governments most effectively utilising the presence of IITs in the local milieu through knowledge sharing networks involving universities, colleges and schools, and local industries and firms.

• There are few community outreach programmes. Such an approach could prevent disruption, such as that occurring in Goa, where local groups are resisting locating a new IIT in their region.

What needs to be Done:

• While excellent engineering/STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) institutions are more needed, they all do not have to be IITs.

• Perhaps 10 to 12 “real” IITs located near major cities are practical for India. Some of the newly established institutes can be renamed and provided with sufficient resources to produce high quality graduates and good research.

• A more limited “IIT system” needs to be funded at “world class” levels and staffed by “world class” faculty, perhaps with some recruited from top universities internationally.

• The Decision to liberalise the recruitment rules to attract more foreign faculty is a good step in the right direction.

• the IITs need to pay attention to internationalization beyond sending their brightest graduates abroad and recruiting Indians with foreign PhDs;
• Starting the overseas branches is a bad idea, but in-depth collaboration with the best global universities, and hiring foreign faculty, perhaps as visiting scholars, would yield excellent results, and further build the IITs international brand.

• The IITs need robust policies to attract international students. And, of course, adequate and sustained funding is mandatory both from government and from the philanthropy of tremendously successful IIT graduates at home and abroad.

Conclusion:

• IITs are institutes of national importance established and funded by the central government (MHRD), whereas IITs are funded both by the government and the private sector, and are usually set up on a PPP model. There are some IITs established by state governments, too. IITs provide courses in all kinds of engineering, management and even medical sciences need center –state coordination and co-operation.

• IITs are technical educational institutes, with an innovative governance structure that allows them to provide an exceptional education model; they have been set-up with the key objective of addressing the challenges faced by the Indian technology, innovation, research and engineering industry must be continued.

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