New Paradigm for Education is needed

TV Mohandas Pai was a Director at Infosys until recently. He is a Chartered Accountant, but his views as a well-informed outsider to the IIT system, are quite relevant. The article was published in The Economic Times.

IITs may become less relevant

By Mohandas Pai

The IITs have completed 50 years and have helped build India. They were set up for producing high quality technical human capital for India and have met their objectives. But, as is the character with such institutions, they have not changed with the times and are not providing India with what she now needs. They have remained largely teaching institutions , as they were set up, not transforming into research based, innovation driven agents of change for the India that is now emerging.They seem unwilling and unable to change – overburdened by work, driven by a small vision, starved of adequate resources and owned by an apathetic master. They seem to be in a state of perpetual decline though there are some bright spots, but not large enough to meet the needs of time.Very recently, a Union Minister made a statement that IITs are known for their world class students and their world class alumni, of which he presumed himself to be one but not world class faculty. Partly true, but forgetting that he and his ilk are largely responsible for this outcome. The IITs today enjoy substantial academic autonomy but lack adequate administrative and financial autonomy . The IIT boards and the directors are unable to take any financial decision which they deem fit without the approval of the government . Even for an overseas travel of the director or the faculty, permission is needed. They are subject to austerity measures of the government, a perfect situation to emasculate an educational institution.

The demand for an IIT seat is enormous and has spawned a tutorial industry that earns more revenues than the IITs themselves. This has resulted in large number of students spending up to two years of their youth going to cramming schools learning pattern recognition, forgetting the art of thinking and problem solving knowing that their lives are made once they get entry into the hallowed portals. Today about 60% or more of the intake is from the coaching mandis. This has also resulted in many bright young Indians deciding not to undergo the ordeal and go overseas for higher education. 250,000 of them study overseas, over 110,000 in the United States, about 45,000 in the UK spending about $ 6bn on fees and costs annually, depriving this country of much needed resources for education and talent, adding to the wealth of those countries. The IITs too have steadfastly refused to change. They remain small by global comparison . They are between 6,000-9 ,000 students in size, with an annual intake of about 500 PhDs, and about 1,000 undergraduates.

Overall , the 15 IITs graduate 7000 undergraduates, 6000 post graduates and about 1700 PhDs annually . Sadly only about 2% of the undergraduates go on to their masters and PhD in the IIT system. The IITs hold fast to the idea that by squeezing input they can get a quality output, an idea that has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Increasing the scale and size can give them the diversity of talent, the resources, the ability to have more quality faculty and the depth and width needed for an elite educational institution. Even the current increase in size was forced on them because of social initiatives. Contrast this with China. China today has about 1,000 universities, each between 25,000 to 40,000 students, running fully residential courses, turning out over 50,000 PhDs annually . China may, in the next 20 years, it will overtake the United States as the world centre of higher education.The Top Five Chinese universities , in the global top 50 now, have between 25,000-35 ,000 students and about 7000 PhD students each. China has invested for growth through quality institutions while India has lost out and is oblivious to it. Even in comparison to the engineering education system in India the IITs have become insignificant today. 10 years ago the IITs made up about 10% of India’s engineering output of human capital. Today they are less then 2% and declining further. India currently has about 3800 engineering colleges with an annual intake of 1.2 million, a size to rival China. Yes, about 50% of the colleges are of indifferent quality, some rank bad; but they are offering an answer to India’s youth. About 1,000 of them are of reasonable quality , very many have improved over time. No university or college was founded great, they evolved over time, so there is hope for India that these bad colleges will provide the sinews for India’s growth and answer the need of India’s young.In the meantime, the IITs will live in their ivory tower and possibly become less and less relevant to India’s need as neither are they meeting India’s need for more human capital nor producing the kind of PhDs India needs. What needs to be done to change this? The government has all the answers setting up many eminent committees, the latest of which is the Anil Kakodkar Committee of which the author is a member. The solutions are known to all, the government, the policy makers, the academics and the intelligentsia .

Total autonomy to the IITs, driven by a board of governors with a new vision, accountability through public opinion and transparency. Yet there is resistance to change, from government for the fear of losing control, from some part of academia because they become more accountable and lose the shelter of blaming the government for all ills and for inadequate performance and from some opinion makers who believe that the existing feudal system should continue since they have a disproportionate influence on them.

The best solution is to open up the education system and allow competition, the dreaded word in academics, to come forth. India should revise her educational policies and allow the private sector to set up “innovation universities” granting them all that they need. Full autonomy, academic, administrative and financial to chart their own future. Some safeguards are needed, as this is a public good. A large corpus of say Rs 100 crore, an open merit based admission policy, a faculty compensation policy based on minimum UGC scales and an assurance that they will aim to be amongst the top 100 in the world over the next 25 years. To ensure access to the merited we need a national scholarship scheme which will fund students. India needs to trust the genius of her citizens to create institutions that are world class and not look at them through myopic eyes with suspicion.

India’s future is too important to be left to the benevolence of an apathetic, insensitive government which has destroyed academic excellence over the years, driven her young out and even today shows callous indifference. See the state of our universities today, so many have fallen from the high standards they had, see the state of the Presidency Colleges, it is indeed sad! Most policy makers and leaders have solved their personal issues by sending their children out to get a good education, so they are not impacted by the poor quality of higher education in India. It is the middle class and the poor who suffer, because they love their country more and see their future here; maybe they too want to take flight but do not have the resources to. As the saying goes “Yankee go home, but take me with you.” But will competition work? Yes, it will indeed.

The engineering colleges have opened up, very large numbers set up by political influence and plain bribery but they have served another purpose. Today there is a flight to quality. The bad colleges are dying since students have a choice, they are voting with their feet. The good ones are expanding and seeing greater demand. The market mechanism has worked, not by design but by serendipity. So there is hope. Look at various other sectors today. Bharti has made BSNL redundant and has given us a choice, Jet has overtaken Air India and given us a choice, the power system in Mumbai is still the best, and in education the Indian School of Business has turned our IIMs inside out. The IIMs actually want reform, expansion and are concerned about their future .

Competition and an open liberal environment for higher education will work . India’s best higher education institution, the Indian Institute of Science , was started by a private citizen many years ago and is still the best we have. India’s needs in higher education are too large to be met by the government , they need the genius of India’s citizens to meet them.

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  • vinaire  On June 17, 2011 at 6:01 AM

    This is an article that inspires one to come up with a new paradigm for Education, not just for India, but for the whole world. There is an opportunity here for India to take the lead.

    I have a feeling that Internet may be a future vehicle for self-learning, after which one may apply to research institutions set up in abundance by private companies. Any selection must be merit based.

    The key issue is how does one go about self-learning after basic schooling? Maybe the basic schooling should be followed by education (courses and exercises) in how to look, observe, think for oneself, and learn.


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