Saturday, June 10, 2006

Twenty new IIITs?

Here is a news report about the inflation in the number of IIITs in India:

An Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in each state is the ministry of human resource development’s latest ambitious plan to improve the quality and quantity of technical manpower in the country. The proposed 20 institutes will open their doors from July next year, as per the ministry’s plan.

The ministry’s detailed project report will require funding of Rs 3,700 crore over a period of six years. The plan, submitted to the Planning Commission, says Rs 2,500 crore will be by way of plan expenditure. The government’s plan has also been endorsed by NASSCOM.

While I have nothing against the IIITs, I have to admit that I am outraged by this loony idea. Creation of specialized centres that are marked out for pampering by the federal government has been the bane of the higher ed system in India. There once were CSIR labs; then came the IITs; current fashion seems to be IISERs and IIITs.

At the state level, too, there has been a shady kind of consolidation that favours formation of universities that cater to focused areas such as technology, medicine, etc.

These trends are bad, since (a) they kill the benefits that would flow from a diversity of approaches to education (in engineering, medicine, etc) and (b) they build a wall around disciplines, and make it difficult -- if not impossible -- for cross-disciplinary research, which is really where a lot of really exciting ideas bubble up.

The alternative to specialized centres is most certainly not creating more of our hub-and-spoke universities. This model has its own problems, the most important of which is that UG students are taught in the affiliated colleges ('spokes') with no real input from practising researchers who are concentrated in the 'hubs'.

What we lack is a modern research university -- like Stanford (in the private sector) or the University of Illinois (in the State sector) in the US -- that does both cutting edge research and undergraduate teaching. The Banaras Hindu University is the only place that I can think of which comes close to this ideal. Instead of creating such multi-disciplinary 'real' universities, we are repeating the mistakes of the past by creating specialized centres of higher education such as IISERs and IIITs.

A broader question is: what is so special about IT? Or, for that matter, science, engineering, or medicine? Sure, our country needs good, well-trained engineers, doctors and scientists. But, don't we also need good, well-trained sociologists, economists, historians, linguists and anthropologists? Aren't we better off getting our future leaders in all these fields trained by leading researchers in a real university?


  1. Anonymous said...

    Dear Professor,
    I am a student of one of IIIT Hyderabad and to a extent I agree with your views. Any research institute does require core areas to begin with; interdisciplinery research is of later concern. A bare minimum requirement would be a group of mathematics proffs, which we find missing over here.

    Although I agree to your views only partially because CS initself is quite a vast field...Take Databases, Computer vison, AI, Robotics or Natural Language Processing...there are a zillion unsolved problems... It's not that one narrows his focus when one thinks only in a single domain. At IIIT we don't do those engineering design and other things in our first year, but we enter into computers right in the first year(and you might call it wrong). We specialize into a subdomain by the third year and many of them who are enthused continue their research after their BTech. (almost 15-20% convert to dual degree...)

    Regarding the report you mentioned through your link, I guess even you might have laughed at it. Isn't it? Even if they open these bunch of IIITs from where will they get proffs for the same? Good Proffs dont grow on trees. It has been 10 years to our institute and with all our advantages and lucrative positioning and a decent mission we keep looking for faculty in certain domains.

    I am sorry I have no idea about material science...was never enthused by it since i was a kid; and so might be I can never appreciate your line of thought. But research as the way I have understood is never holistic...You take a zillion things to solve and you will end up with nothing. I therefore see no wrong if I chose to confine my domain to CS ans since thats also too broad I further drill down to computer vision, data engineering, robotics or might be even something as vague as graph mining or something which interests me.

    Whether all IIIT's are following it or not is another question;Atleast mine does and I fully support it's Vison. Yes constraints are there...but they are always with any institute. Isn'it?

    (I am sorry I use a anonumous name for this comment)

  2. Anonymous said...

    I am sorry I got my facts wrong...we are not "indians" ;) and IIIT-H is not "Indian Institute of Information Technology".(we don't support reservations) .You might delete the above post.

  3. Abi said...

    My critique of the policy favouring specialized institutions is not based on whether the field is broad enough. Physics is a vast field too! And so is biology. Universities thrive on cross-fertilization of ideas made possible by the proximity of all kinds of departments. Social sciences, humanities, engineering, sciences ... The presence of so many different departments also helps ensure a diversity of experiences, with each person choosing a different set of courses, and ending up with a diverse set of skills. If we are creating new institutions, I would just like them to be real universities.

    Your IIIT is also not State-funded, I presume. So, my observations don't quite apply to your institution ...