I recently gave a lecture to
undergraduate students at my alma mater, Indian Institute of
Technology-Kanpur. A day before my lecture, the students had
arranged for a bull session at night with the residents of one
hall, where I stayed for three years during my undergraduate days
in the late 1960s. Most of them complained that after passing the
toughest exam in the world, called Joint Entrance Exam or JEE,
they felt let down since they were not challenged or inspired by
IIT teachers. The teachers said the students do not read or attend
classes and are just not interested in studies any more. I think
the truth lies somewhere in between.
A spate of news items have come up about how the IITs are slipping
and that IIT students are not up to the mark. A deeper analysis
will reveal that it is not the students' fault since they are not
being guided properly.
In the last couple of years, I have interacted with students not
only at the IITs, NITs, management institutes, etc, but also in
schools and colleges in rural towns. And everywhere I have found
bright kids who want to do something worthwhile. Being better
informed via the electronic media like cell phones, internet and
social networks, they know what exists in the world and want to be
a part of it.
An entry into the IIT is a passport to success. This is based on
the past history of IITians getting plum jobs in IT, banking and
other fields. The JEE is a great filtering mechanism. Passing it
is no mean achievement because even the faculty of IITs cannot do
it in the time allotted. Thus saying that most of the students who
nowadays get into the IITs are zombies is not correct. Yes, the
JEE can be improved by having an extra question paper on languages
and an aptitude test.
The reason why the IITs were set up was to create excellent
engineers and technologists for India. That basis has failed since
the majority of IIT graduates go for non- engineering jobs such as
management, banking and civil services.
The teaching in IITs has been deteriorating for the last 20-30
years and is quite mediocre, with most of the faculty not up-to-
date in engineering research. Research and teaching go hand in
hand because the excitement of new research is then passed on to
the students. Since the research quality in IITs is much below
world standards, the teachers are not able to inspire students.
The students therefore look for other challenges and opt for
Four years of IIT education is a sufficiently long time. The fact
that only a handful of students who pass out every year opt for
engineering or research careers shows that very little of good
engineering is taught.
The teenaged brain (most IITians are in this age group) needs a
huge amount of inputs to be challenged. Thus the onus is on the
teachers to provide it. And part of that comes by expecting
excellence and feedback from students. This can be in the form of
regular homework and exciting hands-on projects which most IIT
teachers do not give and, even if that is given, it is never
graded and supervised properly. Thus the student never knows
whether he or she has learnt anything in the course.
Almost in every IIT, around 50 percent of faculty positions are
vacant. The government in its wisdom thinks giving higher pay will
help attract good faculty. This is a myth because great teachers
are not attracted only by pay but by the scholarship environment
of doing good research and teaching. Thus this is an egg and
chicken story. Great institutes produce a good number of great
researchers, some of whom also become great teachers.
Also some of the problems with IIT education have been created by
IT companies. In the past, these companies have heavily recruited
from IIT campuses. In fact, not long ago there used to be a saying
"anything that moves in IIT gets a job in Infosys"! This resulted
in making most students complacent and bunk classes since they
knew they would be taken by IT companies, irrespective of their
grades. With this attitude it becomes very difficult for students
to learn anything.
It is not that all the existing teachers are bad. Quite a few have
inspired students to do great things. A recent example is of micro
satellite, Jugnu, designed and fabricated by undergraduate
students at IIT Kanpur that was recently launched successfully by
the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). About 35 students
worked day and night for three years to produce it. Besides, most
of the students working on it, after graduation, have opted for
careers in engineering and start-ups.
But these efforts are few and far between. Imagine what many more
Jugnu-type efforts in different fields could do for the country.
It will not only produce excellent technologies but also create
scientists and engineers that India really needs.
I also feel the IIT alumni should lecture students regularly.
There should be a mechanism whereby IITs actively seek and invite
successful alumni to lecture at institutes on a regular basis.
In survey after survey, IITs are nowhere in the top 200
universities of the world. It is a shame because some of its
alumni are top achievers all over the world. What is needed is
great teachers, researchers and inspirers to egg these students on
to do good engineering so that they can contribute to the society
Anil K. Rajvanshi is director of the Pune-based
Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI). He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org