Sunday, December 16, 2007

Brain rain at IITs? Good for them! But ...

Pallavi Singh's report in the Indian Express has one central idea: It's good times again at the IITs; faculty are flocking to them. The report features short profiles of a few IIT-D faculty, who give us their reasons for choosing academic jobs even though other options are seen by our society as more attractive: being one's own boss, being a part of a vibrant academic life, setting one's own pace, presence of high tech labs here, etc. Also among the reasons is housing inside safe, pollution-free campuses.

All of that is pretty positive, and I would heartily recommend this article to anyone who's considering an academic job in India as an option.

But Pallavi Singh goes overboard in reeling off statistics, some of which is quite vacuous. Consider, for example, the breathless claim that "more than 20 per cent of [IIT-D's] most experienced faculty would retire in the next seven years." WTF? If you assume an academic life that spans 30 to 35 years (on average), you would get about 20 percent attrition through retirement in any seven year period!

With all that fluff out of the way, let me turn to the key problem with Singh's report: its relentless hype of the rather meager measures by the IITs. Don't get me wrong; if these measures have led to hiring of more faculty, well, it's good for them! But this sort of hype is pointless: the only thing it achieves is a general feeling of smugness all around. And when IITs still face substantial faculty shortages (as much as 40 percent at IIT-Roorkee) and when we are in the process of creating several new IITs, IISERs, IIMs, and Central Universities, smugness is the last thing we want!

Why do I feel that Singh's report is full of hype? I'm glad you asked. The long answer is here, but the short answer is that IITs should do better than what they have done to create conditions for setting up their junior faculty for professional success. In operational terms, this would translate to things like a 10 to 20 fold increase in start-up grants, generous travel grants (Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year, for example), a spiffy, individual lab for each faculty member, a world-class research infrastructure (no power cuts, for example), and a faculty-friendly administration. Taking additional steps to attract and retain excellent graduate students would also help!

Why do I keep harping on these steps? Remember, I am not even talking about salaries! There is a reason: these non-salary measures are far easier to implement, particularly in this era of institutional affluence and alumni generosity. More importantly, they are under the direct control of the IIT administrations. If the IITs have been tardy in implementing them -- and I believe they have been tardy -- the conclusion is clear: their whining about faculty shortage is an empty PR exercise to deflect the blame from themselves.

In any event, the enhanced salaries for junior faculty through fellowships (Rs. 1 lakh for five years at IIT-D) or signing bonus (Rs. 3 lakhs at IIT-B) are nothing to write home about. The best you can say about them is that they are better than nothing.

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Thanks to Sharath Rao for the e-mail pointer.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Here is a report by the ASEE's PRISM which doesn't portray such a rosy picture for the engineering education in India.

    And Inidan express report may need to also think about the state of education in other branches excluding engineering like humanities and science which don't have the incentive of the industrial sector at all. It will probably be more difficult to attract Ph.D> students in those fields

  2. Amit Saha said...

    For some reason, most people with higher degrees, thinking about returning to India, want a red carpet laid in front of them before they would return to Indian research establishments. I see very few people commenting that a few good men can make a lot of difference in any research establishment. Unfortunately, there are but a handful of people with the guts, zeal, and the ability to make a difference, in spite of the current condition in Indian research establishments.

  3. Niket said...

    Abi: I guess I had my umbrella out and I missed the brain rain.

    Anon: Just betting IITs/IIIT to be Stanford/MIT in 20 years is wishful thinking. "Market forces" have placed greater demand on "cyber-coolies" (an extremely unfortunate term, IMHO) and educational institutions are springing up everywhere to meet that demand. The aim is to get an IT job. From what I have seen so far, the situation (for S&T research) is more grim than what the article portrays.

    Amit: Give one example from *academics*. Its just one of the things that is accepted irrespective of the reality.

  4. Anonymous said...

    "If you assume an academic life that spans 30 to 35 years (on average), you would get about 20 percent attrition through retirement in any seven year period"
    Not strictly true. You have to wait for a time equal to at least the residence time (30-35 years) after the institute is set up.
    IIT D was set up in 1961 and so, if the bulk of the recruitment of fresh faculty at the starting level would be in the 60-70s. Add to that the 30-35 year time frame, and you have the current situation.

    In fact, Prof Ananth says the same:
    "The faculty was recruited some 30 years ago. Only a few years ago, we realised the fact that many of them would be retiring,"

    In fact, I think the recurring retirement scenario is unlikely, i.e., once the bulk of the faculty who joined 30-35 years
    ago retire, there is unlikely to be any significant number of retirements.