IITs have lost their Vision

The prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology were founded nearly five decades ago with the objective to provide technological leadership to a new and growing India.

The question of whether they provided technological leadership to India or not is still debatable. This is due to the fact that their large numbers of (under)graduate students have migrated abroad or shifted to non-technical careers.

India has deviated substantially from Nehru’s vision of having science-led development in India. The undergraduate education at IIT and the academic culture inside the institutes are being reshaped to an unparalleled degree by factors that operate at points of entry and exit to the institutes— the former related to the joint entrance examination (JEE) and the latter arising from placement patterns dominated by non-technical jobs available in the market.

The principal challenge at the entrance level has to do with the evident and understated effects of coaching institutions that are mushrooming and operating like factories. Students are often enrolled for four to five years of coaching, beginning as early as in the middle school. This results in loss of creativity, much greater burnout and eventual loss of interest in science, though coaching helps overcome the multiple loopholes of school teaching in India to some extent.

However, the cons of these coaching institutes come to light when students enter high school and succeeding in competitive examinations becomes the ultimate goal. The sheer volume of work leaves little time for other interests and the joys of a normal adolescent life. Moreover, the devotion to solving large ‘banks’ of problems leaves little room for curiosity or creativity.

Students become proficient at learning how to answer questions but are at a loss on how to ask questions. The fierce competitive pressure creates an atmosphere which generates severe anxieties and often a deep sense of insufficiency and disgrace.

The first question students confront is why and what should they learn. Almost everyone plans to take a job. And the jobs they aspire for, are in finance, software, consulting and usually, ‘managerial’ positions. Such jobs rarely have any subject-related technical content but their pay packages are substantially higher than for technical jobs. Plus there are far fewer openings for core technical jobs.

Most job offers come from business analytics firms and finance companies where the role is to crunch numbers. On one hand, companies in these service sectors are usually satisfied with their IIT recruits, and on the other hand, students are happy to do this kind of a job and usually enrol in an MBA programme later on.

From the small number of students who end up taking core jobs in their technical branch, usually most of the students are often poisoned about the lower paying and lower status technical jobs. There is little point in mastering technical material relating to mechanical, civil or chemical engineering or even physics or chemistry.

Seniors in the colleges provide ‘wisdom’ to these students and they rapidly pick up tips on what kind of jobs pay the best, how the scientific and technical material is irrelevant, how to navigate the academic system with minimal effort and the importance of participating in all kinds of personality development activities. The legendary tales of how an alumnus made so much money in his first job or for how many millions a particular start-up was sold for, further lures away the students from learning technical subjects and basic fundamentals science subjects. Students, from their second year onwards only, start writing business plans or plan to do some project or short course in business school.

In the end, only those few students who have not been affected by this discourse retain the ability to continue building their technical knowledge. Poor teaching and uninspiring faculty have also contributed to this apathy.

In the outside world, the IITs have managed to retain a glow because every graduating student finds a placement as students rarely remain unemployed. However, the reality is that these institutions are producing engineers and using large amounts of public money and these engineers rarely use the knowledge acquired in their IIT education.

One can argue and say that a large number of students graduating with engineering degrees in the US also end up in non-technical fields and are prized more for their analytical skills than domain knowledge. But, unlike the US institutions, our IITs have shown very little will and the means to tackle student disinterest and faculty apathy.

India’s policymakers need to ask some tough questions to themselves. Can a more interdisciplinary restructuring of the undergraduate programme reignite interest in academic work?  If the IITs are to regain an ambience that generates a zest and excitement for learning and knowledge creation, how many science and engineering graduates does India need in the classical engineering disciplines?

The questions are even harder for the long term: How does the country drastically overhaul primary and secondary education, given that what happens upstream is bound to affect the flow downstream? How does India build a more dynamic manufacturing sector that will facilitate better use of the immense technical talent the IITs were set up to provide?

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