Saturday, May 05, 2007
Who will man the additional IITs?
M A Pai, [4 May, 2007 l 1530 hrs IST]
In recent months at least two new institutes named as Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) modelled after IISc have been inaugurated. This is justifiable since science education and research badly needs a good boost as the country produces enough PhDs in sciences to staff these new institutions.
In addition, an equally important decision has been taken in recent years, namely to open three more IITs with plans to create 20 more in the next 5-year plan. With regards to this decision, however, several questions need to be raised. Specifically, do we have enough trained and qualified manpower to staff these new IITs as well as the requisite infrastructure in new facilities and services?
In a resource-constrained country like ours, we need to optimise our resources and be effective especially in technical education, an issue addressed in this article.
It is well known from the U R Rao committee report, which unfortunately is still not widely known to the public, that there is a tremendous shortage of PhD’s in engineering to man the existing engineering institutions.
There are more than 1,000 of them in both the public and the private sector. All the seven IITs have PhDs in their faculty in the ranks of Asst Professor and above. The extension of the retirement age in IITs seems to have come at the right time to relieve the teaching load crunch.
Starting a new IIT, from acquiring land to having a full fledged teaching and research institution, however, takes anywhere from 4-6 years. Additionally, recruiting faculty with PhDs in adequate numbers will be a challenging problem in itself. The production of PhDs in engineering in the country is about 900 per year in all disciplines with perhaps the lowest in Computer Science, a scant 50.
With these constraints and challenges in mind, herein is proposed a dual strategy that is called for to deal with the problem of IIT expansion.
The first priority should be for the existing IITs to step up the production of PhD’s in same way as China does. The present student to faculty ratio of about 10 in IITs is very small, and even if we account for about for 20% of Math, Physics, Chemistry and Humanities faculty for the service courses in engineering, the figure is still about 13, which is well below the 20+ figure in a public university in the US.
There is a case for pruning unnecessary courses to optimize faculty time, including the use of internet to be used effectively to communicate with students about problem assignments, solutions, etc. The practice of having tutorials, if it still exists should be done away with. The released time here can be devoted to research and the training of more post-graduate students with proper accountability. There are numerous ways of increasing post graduate enrolment.
In terms of addressing the lack of residential facilities to accommodate an increase in numbers, students must be asked to share rooms up to the level of PhD. The released space can be used to admit more students. The author has always felt from IITK days that space utilization i.e., classrooms, labs, etc., has been consistently very poor.
Since coursewise promotion is the norm more students can be admitted with multiple class sections and also students can be admitted even at the UG level in both semesters. This assures us that classes are run in the morning as well as in the afternoons till 4 PM, which is the norm in all US public universities. Without mentioning any institutions by name one can walk through buildings in the afternoons and find the classrooms empty!
Secondly, elevate selected institutions, such as BHU, Indian School of Mines (both of which admit students via JEE), VJTI, Jadavpur University, Anna University (Guindy campus), etc., and a few NITs to IIT status, along with a reform in their curricula just as University of Roorkee was upgraded with no committee work.
Many of these schools have earned a right to be in the same league as the IITs by sheer quality of their undergraduates. It appears some of them wish to retain their regional identity to serve needs of the state in which case others can be given the IIT status. At least 50% of the faculty must have a PhD and all future faculty members must have PhDs.
As has been argued earlier, this upgrade increases the admission base to IITs by perhaps four to five folds, something that will automatically solve the perennial quota problem by widening the pool of qualified applicants. At the end of the day, one must recognize that that engineering disciplines require hard work in math, chemistry and physics-oriented disciplines, and merit should be the only consideration.
Another aspect to consider is the constitutionally mandated SC/ST student quota that needs to be addressed separately. Over the years, there has been much hype about the IIT brand just as there is hype in this country about the Ivy League schools. The biggest benefit of such brand name schools is networking, and it has worked through the alumni system of investing money in their schools, etc. In a country of over a billion people, there are many things to be done beyond networking such as having more quality schools. Good students and an equally good track record in research is what counts. The tremendous success of ISRO as well as AEC with perhaps a marginal involvement of IITs and no Mandal effect has shown the country how pockets of excellence can be created.
Before we draw grandiose plans in a resource-scarce country like India, let us think of simple solutions at hand first. Money is needed for education at primary level in a big way. Much as we wish, the private sector is not going to enter into the education business on a large scale and perhaps for the right reasons.
(The author is Professor Emeritus of electrical and computer engineering at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and was on the Faculty of IIT Kanpur 1963-81.)