Wednesday, April 23, 2008

P.V. Indiresan's bad arguments against creating new IITs.

P.V. Indiresan (ex-Director, IIT-M) has two articles -- Does India need more IITs? and IITs: Quality only because of exclusivity -- on the government's decision to create new IITs (together with new IIMs, Central Universities). I'm not a fan of Indiresan, and these two pieces do nothing to make me change my opinion. His articles demand some serious fisking, but I don't have the time for it. Let me just take a couple of his arguments.

To counter the argument (which he attributes to some IIT alumni) supporting the creation of new IITs since there is so much demand, he uses this absurd analogy:

Extending the argument, as many more people want to become MPs, should we increase the size of our Parliament indefinitely? Similarly, is it desirable to expand the size of the Cabinet?

Implicit in the demand for engineering seats is the demand -- backed by India's fast economic growth -- for well-trained engineers. It is the latter need that drives the creation of new institutions. I'm sure Indiresan knows this, but why acknowledge it when you can use a cheap analogy that serves the purpose -- however illegitimate -- of winning the argument for you?


Nanopolitan bleg: Indiresan talks about a blog run by IIT alumni who argued strongly for creating new IITs. Does anyone know which blog he's talking about?

* * *

Indiresan then proceeds to dazzle his readers with some stuff about Nyquist's theorem, and uses it to argue thus:

... [T]he essence of Nyquist’s theorem is quite simple. Its philosophical import is: it is not possible to build a system that never makes mistakes; it is best to correct mistakes after they occur rather than attempt a system that never makes mistakes.

On that basis, it is acceptable to increase the number of IITs even if it is a mistake. However, the Nyquist theorem explains also that not all systems are correctable; only certain designs are stable. In the case of IITs, once poorly trained students flood the market, their brand image is liable to suffer, quite like Humpty Dumpty — not all the government’s ministers and not all their money will be able to get its reputation back again.

Thus, his fear is that since not all IITs can ever be the same, some of the new ones may not be up to snuff. Fair enough. But, he then conflates this fear with the potential erosion of IITs' brand image.

The short answer to this silly (but popular) complaint is: University of California (or, any other state university system in the US with multiple campuses). No one (at least, no one that really matters; since Indiresan is so high on exclusivity, he should be able to understand this) would confuse UC-Irvine with UC-Davis, or UCLA with UCSD, and none of these with Berkeley.

Similarly, each IIT is essentially on its own -- IIT-Patna is going to swim or sink based on how well it manages its affairs: selecting and nurturing its faculty, its pedagogy, its relationship with industry, its research credentials, etc..

But, why should that institution in Patna be an IIT, and not Jagannath Mishra College of Engineering? In other words, what is the big deal about IIT at Patna? The big deal this: since it will have the status of an IIT, it starts with huge probability of success. Why? The argument is fleshed out really well in an article by S.C. Chaudhary, a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-M). While I'm sure you too will love this article's opening sentence ("IITs are good colleges" ;-), here's the relevant part:

The credit for the excellence of IITs should go to the system underlying it. This system has two pillars — complete autonomy, and relatively generous funding.

Let us take the funding first. For about 5,000 students and 400 teachers, IIT Madras gets nearly Rs. 100 crore per annum. Even if put together, all universities in Tamil Nadu or in Bihar, with several times more students and teachers, get less.

Besides, IITs earn through consultancy and receive donations from their alumni. They also attract international funding. IIT Madras may not be rolling in money, but it can meet its needs and some fancies. Its faculty may not be getting salaries as in Massachusetts, Singapore, Tokyo or Toronto, but their working environment and the autonomy they enjoy make those salaries a less important factor in career choice. For conferences and researches, they can go abroad. They can buy a book or a laptop.

The other pillar of the IIT system is its autonomy. Reporting to the President of India, Visitor or Chancellor to all IITs, IITs have managed to escape politicians. Ministers have tried to interfere, but the Presidents have used their position and the trust reposed in them to save this their sacred charge. The IITs, therefore, work unhindered; and so do all their departments, laboratories, hostels, libraries, every unit and individual running them. They know their rights and duties, privileges and responsibilities, and enjoy those privileges and discharge those responsibilities without fear or favour.

Coming back to Indiresan's suggestion that "it is folly to increase the number of IITs without enough competent teachers to teach," which institution do you think has a better chance of attracting competent teachers: IIT-Patna or Jagannath Mishra College of Engineering at Patna?


  1. Anonymous said...


    I think we should start twittering. You should probably start it and all of us could follow suit. this would help all us royal followers of your blog.


  2. Anonymous said...

    Not clear why there should be more IITs, it is enough to just rename all the NITs as IITs, and give them autonomy and money. This is enough because there is nothing special or innovative about the IIT pedagogical **system**. They have interesting faculty (though there are really crappy ones too), and NITs have a good chance of getting access to such people once they get IIT status.

    NITs already share with the IITs the most distinguishing factor, the JEE sieve, which is what makes all the difference. The interesting output of students from IITs is driven by the highly selected input, the IIT process contributes almost nothing, because there is no special IIT process, as different from other top engineering institutes/colleges.

  3. Anonymous said...

    But why spend so much money on someone who will be joining some investment bank or consultancy job??

  4. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abhi,

    Why the low billing to UCSD in comparison with UCLA? These institutions are pretty comparable at this point. (Full disclosure: I am, of course, a UCSD alum).

  5. Anonymous said...

    Not important, but any way: Students get admitted to NITs through AIEEE exam and to IITs through IIT-JEE.

  6. jimmy said...

    @anony1: NIT's are intended to serve the state purposes. The purpose of NIT's is lost if you conduct a JEE kind of examination and induct students in.
    @abhi:Nice review. Let me quote from my memory, certain points from Dr.MS.Ananth's lecture on 'higher education in India', delivered at IITMadras. Dr.Ananth is the Director, IIT Madras.
    'Our visionaries have opened five IIT's and given them to the people of the country. After that we all slept for the next fifty years, and then came out IIT Guwahati. Now, we are again getting back to the sleeping mode. Let us all wake up.'
    Adding to your points, quality was never an issue. If the US with comparatively low standards of primary education can produce tons of 'good' undergraduates, why not we? There is no dearth of talent in India. The fact that a student could not answer a certain organic chemistry problem in JEE should not imply he/she makes a bad engineer.
    I am from IIT Madras and endorse every line of your post.

  7. Anonymous said...

    hey.. how hard is it for all you idiots to realize that its not the institution but the students in the institution that make IIT a brand that it is now!

    establishing more IITs would only reduce the good standard of students entering the institute!
    @jimmy.. i am pretty sure you are an mtech student!

  8. jimmy said...

    @abhijeeth: in the trap! i am a btech student!! but all this gyan because i found better engineers than me/some of us in less privileged institutions...

    'hey.. how hard is it for all you idiots to realize that its not the institution but the students in the institution that make IIT a brand that it is now!'
    not at all difficult to realise. inducting in more students is not going to cause harm was the point. refer to my points on jee...too lazy to quote them again.

    'good standard': what defines this? jee??

  9. Anonymous said...

    "which institution do you think has a better chance of attracting competent teachers: IIT-Patna or Jagannath Mishra College of Engineering at Patna?" - Wow!!! What a brilliant justification for creation of new IITs!!! Are you saying that in this country, the only way to attract competent teachers is to have an IIT name? Instead, why don't we free up our institutions from political interferences, give them autonomy (or should I say respect) and nurture them as any civilised society should?!! That way, it may take a while, but sooner or later, even Jagannath Mishra college will attract bright minds. Pray, can't we at least *start* this job soon than spending our energy on attacking Professor Indiresan (or whoever) ??!!

  10. Anonymous said...

    I don't care what you name it - IIT or Jaganath college of engineering. As long it can give a tough competition to other institutes that is great. More IITs mean more competition to other IITs and local/gov. univs and that is good.
    In the same vein I hate when academics crib abt losing talent to hard engineering. Whatever be the metric/parameter (money maybe in this case) IT is give a tough competition to other engineering professions. So other engineering profession either learn to fight and survive orr die. This should be espcially true for urban, English speaking middle class. Maybe can be relaxed for other segments of the country.
    As far not having resources and good teachers that is a lame excuse for not opening more institutes when there is demand, need for quality and more competition as a means for improvement.

  11. Vishnu said...

    Prof Indiresan is right. YOu just have no idea of IITs. Did u clear JEE or u too were a failure and thats why u want more IITs so that blockheads like u can be accommodated in IITs.... Answer iff u cleared JEE