Monday, March 30, 2015

IITs are a waste of public money if not reformed

Discourse on IITs in India is absolutely fascinating. They are a set of public technical universities set up after independence by a visionary Prime Minister to herald industrial revolution in India. The same Prime Minister also absolutely ignored public primary education causing us much grief ever since. But IITs have come to mean so much more to the middle class Indian family. Get into one and suddenly you are the Shehenshahon ka Shehenshah (King of Kings) in the family; a Pole Star who will be the beacon for the future generations. In India, your wisdom will be trusted by everyone. Even if you graduate from an IIT in Assam in Chemical Engineering, your opinion on everything from politics to health to terrorism to education (especially education) is sought after and valued. Any little mishap is reported widely in the media. Placement seasons need to be covered on front page of national news. This doesn't happen to other elite universities like IIMs, Law universities, JNU and others.

IITs are funded more lavishly than any other public institution. They take a substantial amount of our higher education budget. This has also led to a strong debate about spending public resources on those who go on to earn many times than average Indians and sometimes not even in India. The most recent being this article on Scroll titled - "Dear Smriti Irani, stop giving my money to IITians." As expected, it provoked an article in response titled - "No, Smriti Irani is not wasting your money on the IITians." The response article is one of the poorest responses I have read.

I have studied in an IIT (not sure if that gives me more authority or just makes me guilt-ridden). My facebook feed was filled with outraged friends who think they have contributed significantly to nation building. They are the 'cream' of the population, have made it completely on their own and owe nothing to the society or the country.

The unfortunate part is that criticism against IITs is true to a large extent. There is a need for a major structural reform. Sadly, a lot of the debate is around money - cost to the exchequer, salaries of IITians etc. No self-respecting, elite university in the world is self-sustaining from the fees of its students. It depends on the grants from various bodies. It's important to frame the debate in a wider perspective and see a university as a knowledge hub which is central to the needs of the area in which it is situated. And that is where our IITs, and possibly other elite universities, have failed.

Prof. Milind Sohoni has written about it extensively using data and mathematical models in some cases. To avoid technical details, I just want to present the important points from two (1 and 2). He has also suggested reforms. Do check out his page for papers, videos and presentations on the same.

Role of the university
Historically, the university, i e, an institution of higher education and research, has been a key site for knowledge formation within society. Europe proudly (and rightly) claims the modern university as its primary contribution to civilization.

Disconnected Research
The Indian university now functions as two disjoint sets of institutions, the elite and the regional institutions. The elite universities, which admit 2%-3% of the total student population, aim to be counted as members of the global knowledge elite. This overriding criterion defines their academic and research programs. These regional institutions who teach the bottom 97%, follow curricula and a research agenda that is largely influenced by elite institutions.
As a result, there is neither an indigenous tradition nor an empirical basis, such as a needs analysis, for the curricula followed by either the elite or the regional university. Moreover, there is little systematic research or practical training in important developmental areas such as groundwater, cooking energy or sanitation, or socio-economic areas such as district-level planning, panchayati raj, or the cooperative sector.

Poor selection criteria based on 'fair' exam
The 'fair' IIT-JEE used by elite universities rejects 99% of exam-takers. Sadly, it is this, rather than their training, which connects students to high-paid global service sector jobs and in turn, determines the elite university.
Unfortunately, the competitive exam also serves to define and measure the outcome of school or college education. Thus, a student’s learning of a subtle, cultural, plural, and practical skill such as science is tested by a time-bound, objective, multiple-choice exam in which most students must fall in their own esteem.
These ingredients of “elitisation” leading to poor relevance, the absence of the regional or the vernacular, and the aspirational dysfunction caused by competitive exams, constitute the current crisis in higher education.

Placements do not benefit India

University-Society Connect
Is the population from the University serving the society?
Through data, most graduates of IITB do not choose jobs, which directly benefit the Indian economy, nor are they in the field of engineering and technology (ET). Many choose to work for global companies and/or for global markets and largely in the service sector. These global service companies pay substantially higher than core ET companies and are largely oblivious to the training that these students have received.

  • Only about a quarter of the UGs and about half of the PGs take-up engineering jobs. This accounts for about 33% of the total number placed. 
  • Global companies serving global markets (GGs) employ more than 60% of all graduates and pay more than 75% of the total salary awarded to graduates. 10% placed abroad.
  • Indian companies serving global markets (IGs) pay the least and are not a major employer of IITB graduates.
  • Global companies working for Indian markets, employs about 8.3% of the total number of students placed and about the same fraction of ET jobs. Thus, companies which possibly transfer technology to the Indian economy, employ a relatively small fraction of graduates.
  • Indian companies serving Indian markets (IIs) employ about 18% of IITB graduates and yet pay only about 10% of the total annual salary received. These jobs pay the least across all profiles, barring the IGs.

Irrelevance of University Education

For all programs, and across all (major) sectors, ET is not only the least paying but also the salaries decrease with an increase in the number of years of training, i.e., from B.Tech., DD to M.Tech.
So salaries are determined by the initial pecking order as opposed to University studies, which indicate a failure of the same.

Indian engineering companies hire irrespective of CPI indicating curriculum's relevance to Indian needs and engineering practices.

So there is limited relevance of institute's education when highest paying sectors are finance, consulting and IT which require generic skills. So student's preferences are at odds with the institute's mandates and research interests of its faculty. 

Most importantly,  For most UG students, the training received in their programs, as measured by their CPIs (GPA), is either irrelevant to their sector of employment, or if relevant, it is largely
inconsequential. Selectivity at the time of entering the institute has a substantial influence on sectors and on salaries. That means that your performance in 12th grade (17-18 years of age) plays a larger role in deciding your salary than 4-5 years of university education. That is a dangerous sign for a university!

And a lot of this is connected with our excessive focus on 'merit' as defined by JEE. In fact, in a stylized globalized world, an identification of excess merit within the less developed society poses certain allocation risks. This in turn, may lead to higher initial wages, but eventually to lower wages, higher inequality and a loss of entrepreneurial skills within the less developed society. (the current tech boom is a small, negligible fraction of India's problems - I would say the most meaningless also.) 

To sum up, IITs and other universities need some major reform which needs to start with a change in our vision. Only then will they be really worth the taxpayers money. Producing graduates who pay more taxes or identifying creme-de-la-creme of the vast Indian population is not a valid argument for a public institution meant to build knowledge for India's needs and challenges.


Anonymous said...

Bro, while I understand that IITs were established with a vision which is not really the outcome we see,
there are many fundamental flaws in what you have said.
1) It is easy to say the word reform but reforms do not happen as a result of a noble thought. Reforms in institutional settings (universities, big companies, governments etc) happens when it is too late to course-correct. As long as IITians and professors are happy (which I think they are), noone is going to call for a reform.
2) The way IITs are right now are a result of the way IITs have evolved over the last 50 years. Let us assume when they started, (This is all a guess) they would have focussed on India's problems and would have realised that there is no significant peer group which the research world offers. India would have had a shortage of true experts in research fields at that time. This ofcourse means you have too look outside India for a peer group. Which then impacts the kind of research you do.
3) You cannot solve India's problems while being inside India. This is what we tried until 1991 and we almost went bankrupt. The same happened with China too, but they have recovered now because they had invested in a few things that India had not.

Manufacturing/creating something that has a market is the only way to improve your life (economics 101). The same applies to countries, and in that case "the people" are outside your country. You cannot progress faster than the rest of the world without offering the world a surplus. Sadly, we did not have the skill set for a long time because we had a closed economy (are you getting this now?)

Good news is that today we have more than a few crore engineers and a phone in the hands of most Indians. Maybe we can do something good with that? So let us focus on that?

-Fellow IITian

Reisender said...

I disagree with 1). I don't think professors are happy.
2) is exactly the contention of the commentary.
3) Who is talking about being a frog in the well? But at least we should be solving India's problems right?

Market need not necessarily be outside India. Export driven economy is not the only solution. China is not very high on equality and Human Development Indices. In areas of human development where they are better, it has been due to focusing on own problems and own solutions.

Our few crore engineers are mostly unemployable and have degrees not even worth the paper they are printed on.

I would just recommend reading the complete papers by Prof. Sohoni. One is this -
Other is this -

Anonymous said...


IITians score big salaries = don't subsidize the cost of study. Edu loans would work fine.

IITians don't work in India = Freedom of Choice. Can't force them really.

India needs to excel in tech = free market tech not concentration camp scientists please.

Bottom line? = let the brightest Indians pay from their own pockets, period.