Monday, March 21, 2005

Chidambaram, Budget-05, IISc, 100 Crores

In this year's budget speech presented to the Parliament on 28 February 2005, our Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram devoted an entire paragraph to IISc! Here it is, in the the subsection titled "Institutions of Excellence":

92. On January 6, 2005, the Prime Minister spoke about his intention to set up a Knowledge Commission to look into the issue of building quality human capital. Government believes that investments in institutions of higher education and Research and Development organizations are as important as investments in physical capital and physical infrastructure. What we need are world class universities, and we must make a beginning with one institution. We must have a university that will be ranked alongside Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Stanford. I am happy to inform the House that we have selected the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, which enjoys a high reputation as a centre of excellence in research and development. We shall work to make IISc, in a few years, a world class university. I propose to provide an additional sum of Rs.100 crore as a grant for this purpose.

Here are my views as an IISc insider (I do plan to post my views as a citizen a little later). Needless to say, I am thrilled that IISc has been given extra money, because I do feel that there are important things that need to be done in our Institute that cost money -- for example, infrastructure: quality of electric power, internet connectivity and bandwidth, and housing for faculty and students. A second and rather indirect benefit is that this recognition of our academic excellence by our pay-masters will also help us in attracting good students and good faculty. This will start a virtuous cycle that could take the Institute higher and higher still.

After listing some of the benefits for our Institute from this 100 Crore grant, I must point out here that I resent the comparisons to Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against these great universities. IMHO, every institution -- ours is no exception -- should constantly strive for greater levels of excellence, without worrying too much about where it is in some pecking order. To evaluate academic performance based on a silly worldwide comparison is just that - silly. Similarly, I think the sentence about making IISc "a world class university" is also silly. To me, what really matters is, not whether we are world class, but whether we make concerted efforts to become better than what we are today (See [1] below).

Finally, let us turn to this question of how the media and the common folks have responded to this special treatment of the IISc? I have not done any exhaustive search, but the print media have been either gushing or gently positive about our Institute. This Outlook story really gushes. This story at ZDNet India (originally from Business Standard) says some good things, and draws important connections between attracting good students, and the emergence of MNC research centres in India (GE, GM, Daimler Chrysler, etc). Times of India, on the other hand, has carried a series of generally positive short reports about various facets of our Institute (Sorry, I have only two links! Their website is so poorly organized, I have not been able to get the links to the others). However, these Times reports contain egregious factual errors! For example, one of them said we don't have an electron microscope and the 100 Crore grant will help us get one! Another gave generously inflated numbers for (a) our annual expenditures and (b) our research publications! See footnote [2] below.

What about the others, including the common man and woman? I suggest that you check out this blog post by Amit Chakrabarty (and the readers' comments) over at the Zoo Station and the comments at the end of the Outlook story. There are quite a few negative remarks there. For example, Amit ends the post with this:

A more meaningful criticism of the IISc is what I alluded to earlier: it's been far less successful at building its brand name than the much younger IITs. As a very young prof working far away from India I can hardly lay claim to knowing the solution but it's clear to me that the 100 crore gift can only help. For starters, perhaps the IISc would consider hiring someone to create a professional website for the institute that actually announces this generous gift? Come on, IIsc! It doesn't take Nobel prize winners to get your website up to Oxbridge standards.

For some (justifiable) envy and disdain among our brethren in our country's grossly underfunded universities, take a look at this Indian Express story (which probably appeared in its Pune edition). Here is a rather understated quote from this story:

While most agree that it is but befitting that IISc get the first crack at upgradation, the reluctance in putting a finger on university-strengthening measures hasn't gone unnoticed.

Let us be clear: all our actions, not to mention our academic performance, will be keenly watched. Any misstep on our part will be used as a stick to beat us (and the parties of the present Government) with.

Finally, I hope our Government will get its act together and start making serious efforts to improve our education system at all levels: primary, secondary, higher secondary, college and research. Particularly in the last two categories with which I am most familiar, our Government should really ensure that institutions, and undergraduate institutions and universities in particular, get adequate funding to make education at these levels modern and truly "world class". Now, that is a goal that our Government should really like!

[1] This editorial Economic Times (7 March 2005; unfortunately, you have to keep clicking next page, until you get to page 3 that has the third editorial titled "Style over substance". See footnote [3] below.) is another example of such silliness. According to it, the recent achievements of Sania Mirza and Narain Karthikeyan are all really not worth celebrating. These editorialist worthies do not seem to realize that these people have achieved what no other Indian has achieved so far, and that, by itself, is a great cause for celebration. I would really pity the sons and daughters of these editors: if they adopt the same standards in their personal lives, their children are probably getting pained by them for not doing anything "world class".

[2] For the record, according to our own internal documents, our budget for the financial year 2004-05 was about 82 Crores of non-plan and 27 Crores of plan expenditures, and about 40 Crores of externally funded research projects. Similarly, our publications number about 1200 per year, and is about 10 % of the national figure for all of India in the fields of science and engineering.

[3] Can you imagine a newspaper website that cannot even separate individual articles in a day's editorial? Indiatimes does it: it puts all the editorial articles in one single page; and asks you to keep clicking "next page". These guys don't know a professional website from a horse's behind; I promise you that I will not buy their shares when they do their IPO!