Smriti Irani, the new Union Minister For Human Resource Development is pushing for eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The move exhibits the inept understanding of the higher education sector by our political class. The United Progressive Alliance government went about making eight new IITs in their tenure and also advertised the same in their Bharat Nirmaan advertising campaign. A well-researched article in Open on September 14, 2013 tells us that IIT Indore has no hostels, IIT Mandi runs from a temporary premise, land acquisition is proving difficult for IIT Ropar and construction at IIT Gandhinagar and IIT Patna have been severely delayed. The faculty supply to these new IITs is low in numbers and wanting in standards. Latest reports do not indicate much progress either.
It is amply clear that UPA government faced huge infrastructural and logistical challenges in setting up new IITs. Major opposition to the move of the new HRD Minister is coming from bureaucrats made wiser from these experiences. The fact that the economy is in doldrums and requires huge expenditure cuts to remain afloat also does not support any such initiative. However, this does not form the bedrock of my opposition to the supposedly noble cause of setting up new IITs and letting more of our youth get the highest standards of technical education available in the country.
What if the next government can fix all infrastructure and resource challenges with a magic wand and set up new IITs seamlessly? Let us try to understand why this is not desirable – even if possible as well as affordable.
The Indian Institutes of Technology remain a top brand, but their standing as centres of excellence can no longer be stated as convincingly. The brand has also taken a hit with the increase in the number of IITs. Still more fledgling IITs would tarnish the brand further. Ask any current student (or a recent alumnus) of an “old” IIT, he/she will make the necessary distinction between the “new” and “old” IITs. The demographic dividend and our target of achieving 30% enrolment in higher education till 2020 (set by the UPA government) implies that we should look toward building a many more engineering colleges and not just some IITs in order to cash in on their brand name. Just like we had a private school revolution in primary and secondary education even in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, we require a private higher education revolution to ensure that we prepare a lot of skilled graduates ready to assume their role in the Indian economy.
The private higher education revolution does not merely mean building a lot of private colleges, it also means ensuring a modicum of quality. For that, we would need a firm regulator bereft of political predilections and interferences. The University Grants Commission in its current avatar fails to meet the required criteria. The exclusivist nature of private higher education can be tackled by introducing loans and scholarships on a large scale. We can borrow elements from the Browne report of Britain. Professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya quote the Browne report in their book, India’s Tryst with Destiny.
“The Browne report recommended that Britain eliminate the existing tuition fee cap of £3,000 altogether, with two key provisions to ensure access. First, students have to pay no upfront fees, with the government paying it to the university up to £6,000 per student. Institutions charging more than £6,000 should be required to pay a progressively rising tax on the margin. The tax should then be used to finance grants to students from low-income background to meet the living expenses. Second, after graduation, students should be required to begin paying back the costs paid by the government once their income reaches a threshold recommended to be £12,000.”
Those who remember the implementation of Other Backward Classes quota in IITs and IIMs introduced by the then HRD Minister Arjun Singh might also remember the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and André Béteille from the National Knowledge Commission following the contentious decision. Try to remember a little more and you would recall the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his resignation letter asking for more intelligent targeting for the disadvantaged sections of society. While the context is different, measures such as allowing foreign universities to open campuses in India, permitting greater and cleaner proliferation of quality private higher education institutions when implemented in tandem with measures enunciated by Bhagwati and Panagariya, will amount to a more intelligent targeting of the youth of the nation.
Now consider the egregious fact that Seemandhra has been promised an IIT as a part of the Andhra Pradesh bifurcation package. It is high time politicians realise that IITs are institutions that help build the character of the nation. IITs are not tools to be offered in appeasement packages and political trade without evaluating the costs and benefits of such expedient measures.
There are some private medical colleges which compete with government medical colleges on relatively similar footing. However, there is only one private engineering college, that is, Birla Institute of Technology and Science that comes close to competing with the IITs. The lack of domestic competition has resulted in depreciation in the output of the IITs both in terms of research output and “finishing” of the students. The core industry demands have remained low which has resulted in engineering students ending up as investment bankers and management consultants. The big packages that IITians bag every year is just one side of the story. The other side of the story is the IITs having to resort to ersatz media publicity to build salubrious market images for themselves. The only good story that has emerged is the proliferation of entrepreneurs out of IITs. This has also happened despite the system, and not because of it. Overall, brand IIT, though still on a high pedestal, is on the way downhill. We need to create enough quality private engineering colleges that give IITs a run for their money. Increasing the number of IITs, I am afraid, is not just a wrong prescription but also an inability to think beyond the obvious.