Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Book review: The IITs -- Slumping or Soaring?


The IIT system is under massive strain: its autonomy is being eroded; its physical infrastructure is wearing thin; laboratories are getting outdated; faculty is depleting (sic); and the competition for admission is pushing aspirants into an unhealthy grind. IITs fortunately have a major strength in their alumni -- they want to see their alma mater excel.

That's from the back cover of The IITs: Slumping or Soaring?   by Prof. Shashi K. Gulhati who served on the faculty of IIT-Delhi for forty years. [Thanks to Narasimhan for alerting me about this book]

The premise for Gulhati's book is familiar. Having succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in their core endeavour -- teaching top Indian students -- the IITs are being asked by a demanding nation and an even more demanding family of alumni to elevate themselves to a higher realm: excellence in research. But there are several obstacles. According to Gulhati, the obstacles are (p. 97): 'not-very-bright' graduate students, a dwindling faculty, inadequate infrastructure and erosion of autonomy.

Earlier, he had identified the government -- represented by the Joint Secretary in the HRD Ministry in charge of the IITs! -- as the chief villain responsible for the present (and allegedly sorry) state of the IITs [Gulhati hates the government so much that he does not credit it with creating the IITs; in the very first chapter (p. 6), he says, "the IITs were established with aid from abroad"!]. So, the solution he suggests involves making the government a minority share-holder (yes, you read it right: share-holder), with the IITs tapping "other sources" for funds. Though he doesn't specify who these other sources might be, it doesn't take much to guess that they are probably people like Kanwal Rekhi, a man who "once offered to buy out the IITs from the government" (p. 81).

His preferred solution fits in well with his diagnosis. But is his diagnosis correct? In other words, is the government really -- and solely -- responsible for the ills of the IITs? While criticizing and ridiculing the government's real and imagined follies, Gulhati doesn't seem to have given much thought to what the IITs themselves could have done -- but failed to do -- to improve their lot.

For example, if research was identified as a major new thrust area for the institution, what prevented the IITs from going out and getting research grants? Similarly, when faculty recruitment became a key issue, who prevented the IITs from raising resources for providing new recruits with generous start-up grants, travel grants, better administrative support, larger and better lab space, and lower course load? Is it fair to blame the Joint Secretary in MHRD for the IITs' inaction on these issues?

In Gulhati's story, there once was a golden era, and it was in their first two decades of the IITs' existence. There they were: brand new institutions, a governance structure that gave them unprecedented autonomy, young and idealistic faculty, and very bright students. The rest of the story is one of steady deterioration -- a process in which the government played a huge role, and the IITs played a supporting role as passive, helpless victims. While it makes for gripping narrative, this story has very little basis. For example, in terms of research, the IITs are in a far better position now than they were in the 'golden age' when most of what they did was UG teaching [You don't have to take my word for it; Gulhati himself quotes some prominent alumni on this point].

Sadly, Gulhati's book fails in its chief task, which is an honest, realistic and coherent appraisal of the present state of India's flagship institutions. It makes no effort to imagine multiple alternatives for the future of the IITs. It also makes no effort to convince us that its proposal will work well; we are just asked to accept that this is the best solution. Coming from an engineer -- who also headed the public sector Educational Consultants India Limited -- this book is deeply disappointing.

4 Comments:

  1. Subrahmanya said...

    Abi:
    A general notion is that many faculty members at IITs, when promoted as a Full Professor, stops his/her research, and satisfies just bare-minimum reserach output required, for the rest of professional life. This leaves only a handful of Full Professors who are active with research. That means, a faculty, having reached the highest level in the ladder, lacks motivation for research.
    I think one has to find the truth behined this notion by conducting a scientific survey of research output at various levels- Assistant, Associate, and Full professor, followed by an action plan, if the notion is true. This could improve the research output and promote external funding, I suppose.

  2. Phani said...

    The tone of the book, written by someone who spent so much of his life at an IIT, is disappointing. I donot agree that the current state of affairs is so bad that one has to panic. I feel the situation is not a simple one to just give a one line solution and be done with it. Eg., do the IITs have a clear cut thrust defined for themselves? The thrust seems to shuttle between UG teaching, research, technology development, industrial consultancy and continuing education. The social scenario today is not the same as two decades ago eg. MNCs, the IT phenomenon, increased population and the resultant desperation in the rat race and its side effects etc.,. The high percentage of research funds that continue to pour from the govt. and the global trend in funding agencies that would rather fund a sophisticated equipment than help upgrade a basic facility do play a role. We all know that it is easier to buy a TEM (thanks to nano or whatever) than a state of the art optical microscope. Ahh... its getting complicated. Well, what is the problem, BTW? :-) I mean, why not one problem and its various solutions at a time?

  3. Wanderer said...

    I would argue on the contrary, regarding the government's role. Nowhere in the world does government sponsor PhD students, like they do for higher education in India. In the US, it is the professor who usually has to put fight for grants and pay his students a salary.

    During my undergraduate years, what I found missing, more than anything else, was the "drive" to do new research, to make new things, to discover new phenomenon. Even as a student, it doesn't take much to feel the vibrations of politics which haunt our departments. You want promotions, and after that, research is the PhD student's albatross.

    Annual review of publications, praise-per-publication, and closer interaction with industry need to be encouraged. Funds should not be taken for granted, funds should be generated by a drive.

    As for the quality of students, bright minds look for 2 things:
    1. A passionate, creative workspace
    2. Reward for performance

    The IIT culture does not excel in either.

  4. Niket said...

    "what prevented the IITs from going out and getting research grants? Similarly, when faculty recruitment became a key issue, who prevented the IITs from raising resources for providing new recruits with generous start-up grants, travel grants, better administrative support, larger and better lab space, and lower course load? Is it fair to blame the Joint Secretary in MHRD for the IITs' inaction on these issues?"

    Is IISc really different from IIT with regards to what it can do to attract more people? I have been to a couple of faculty meetings. I don't play the blame game; but the blame does not wholly lie with us.

    We are playing kabaddi with one hand tied behind our backs... and for sure it wasn't us who volunteered for this.

    You can criticize us for not using the other hand more effectively; but at least acknowledge that we are playing with a handicap.