Posted by: Vikram | May 28, 2011

The other class

Union Minister Jairam Ramesh has created quite a furore with his comments about the IIT faculty. The simple fact is that the great strength of the IIT system is the all India entrance exam and not the faculty. It draws a huge pool of applicants from across the nation and has an astonishingly low acceptance rate. Ramesh’s comments have triggered an intense debate, and responses have ranged from the banal ‘well are our politicians world class ?’ to insightful analysis about the IIT system and its strengths and weaknesses.

At this juncture, I would ask the readers a simple question. Suppose Jairam Ramesh had instead commented,

“Mumbai University is mediocre and should be called third class”.

What do you think the response would be ? My own guess is that the reaction would be something along these lines,

Yeah. Who cares ? The professors probably dont even show up.

Many are actually pointing to the fact that most M.Tech and PhD students at the IITs are ‘non-IITians’. Apparently, this is evidence for the non-world classness of IIT research.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of India’s engineers will not be from the IITs. Virtually none of India’s doctors, nurses, economists, politicians, statisticians and journalists will be. But the kind of education these hapless, ‘non-world class’ folks might receive can be aptly summed up by this assessment of our university system,

In our collective experience of past two decades or so as teachers, we observe that the great Indian undergraduate education system, on the average, serves to effectively curb independent thinking, self-study skills, resourcefulness, intellectual maturity, academic confidence, and the very motivation to learn with excellence.

– Mihir Arjunwadkar, Abhay Parvate, and Dilip G. Kanhere, University of Pune, Current Science, October 2009

The question then is: Why does an offhand remark about the IITs generate more debate than an official report by three professors at the University of Pune ? Isnt this equally or even more important to our collective future than the ‘world classness’ of the IITs ? Perhaps, the current debate about the IITs reveals more about the Indian middle class than the IIT system.

A comparison with American public universities can point out how naive our discourse about higher education really is. IIT Madras professor PV Indiresan says,

Most teachers in the IITs are inferior to the students. And the reason is simple. Every IIT student is one out of 100 people who took the entrance exams. [And the teachers are not]

Now, lets take a look at the acceptance rates of some well known American public universities,
University of Michigan: 51 %
University of Illinois: 67 %
Purdue University: 65 %
The undergraduate alumni of these schools include the developer of information theory, the co-founders of Google, Oracle and the inventor of the wiki concept. So, America’s public universities had a pivotal role in the creation of the mobile, networked society we live in today. How did they produce a world class workforce without being anywhere near as selective as the IIT system ? Could we have done better with our own universities of Pune and Madras ?

Indeed, we could have. Ironically, India’s state universities had a pivotal role to play in the creation of something far more fundamental to Indians. India itself. Is no one alarmed by the palpable decline of the same Mumbai university that produced both Ambedkar and Gandhi ? What about the once proud University of Calcutta whose halls Rabindranath Tagore and Nobel laureate C.V. Raman roamed ? In fact, all of India’s Nobel Prize winners have been produced by state universities. The last one graduated from the University of Baroda in 1971.

Simply put, the debate about India’s higher education scene has been extremely narrow, centred around the IIXs and reservations. The fact remains that today, none of our state universities comes anywhere near the top 200 ranks of any list. In the last 25 years, India has produced almost no globally recognized mathematicians, physicists, economists or historians. But then again, who really cares ? Arent they building more IITs ?


  1. Vikram,

    You ask: “How did they produce a world class workforce without being anywhere near as selective as the IIT system ?” I can think of some partial answers.

    First, the 65% number is misleading when compared to the IIT percentage because I believe there is much more self-selection in the US. That is, there is more of a tendency for smarter students to apply to programs like Purdue, unlike in India where all students tend to apply for the IITs.

    Second, the type of selection in the IIT-JEE picks curiously one-dimensional candidates who are super-intelligent technically but not necessarily able to bridge the gap between calculations in their notebooks and things that work in the real world. The training, adulation and self-congratulation in our elite institutes reinforces this.

    The IIT selectees are bound to be successful because of sheer brain power, but if the IITs really wanted to select for real-world success they could do much better by looking at extracurriculars, communication, social aptitude, creativity and host of other soft skills in addition to the current JEE.

    Most of India’s nobel prize winners (indeed, most of the independence-era scientists who went on to become prominent in India) were quite political, well-connected excellent at selling ideas and maneuvering in the real world. (I’ve noticed this is true of many of the most successful current academics in the US as well.)

    • “First, the 65% number is misleading when compared to the IIT percentage because I believe there is much more self-selection in the US.”

      AG, I agree. But the question then would be, why isnt there enough self selefction for the IIT exams. And the answer perhaps isnt that hard, its much easier to go sit for a three hour test than prepare a thorough application that an American univ would need.

      “Most of India’s nobel prize winners (indeed, most of the independence-era scientists who went on to become prominent in India) were quite political, well-connected excellent at selling ideas and maneuvering in the real world.”

      AG, there are plenty of well known academics in the US who are from the IIT system. I think the issue is perhaps that the Nobel prizes are given for fundamental science contributions, and science is not the mandate of the IIT system.

      I think a huge blunder was made by not making the IITs comprehensive to begin with. The prestige of the IITs was always derived in major part from the All India Entrance. If they were comprehensive, we would today have a significant student body studying the sciences and other subjects at top universities.

  2. […] post by Vikram var addthis_language = 'en'; Filed under Uncategorized ← Successful Iloilo […]

  3. Vikram:

    Re self selection, I think there are also fewer alternative paths in India (but this is changing) — so people apply to IIT even when they know they’re not quite right for engineering.

    Regarding the number of academics in the US who are from the IIT system: You are right about Nobel prizes — they are simply in the wrong field.

    But an interesting question is, what’s the odds ratio/relative risk of success between an IITian and a UMich student? Is the proportion of successful IITians much higher than the proportion of UMich students, measured by the same yardstick? And how does this relative risk compare to the 56% to 1% ratio? (The 56% ratio can be adjusted downwards to account for the self-selection.)

    • AG, one measure of success would be graduation rates. But given the strong stigma for even an extra semester in college in India and the fact that interning/cooping and taking a semester or year more is perfectly acceptable in the US, its perhaps not the right thing to compare.

      Perhaps another metric of ‘success’ would be admission rates to top-10 engineering programs. I dont have that data though. Here at my university, the Indian students (mostly from the IITs) definitely dont seem to be outperforming their American counterparts (from a mix of private and public schools).

      Btw, it is pretty rare to hear about an unsuccessful UMich engineering graduate.

  4. 1.) Most of students who get into IITs have their favorite subject ( which they want to study most) as Physics and Maths. These students fantasize research or at least that is the quixotic-an picture shown to them Now loosely speaking , they consider studying physics , solving maths doing research a ‘cool’ thing. Once they get into the IITs,many of them get to know the reality and become disillusioned and hence pursue their career in non-tech fields as MBA,IAS etc.

    2.) Syllabus wise if you compare Intermediate of India to corresponding exams elsewhere you will find that India is far behind. What a student of Russia gets to know in High school , in India its taught in Inter.( 10th class student here doesn’t know even d\dx(y=x)=1). ergo While IIT-JEE picks the sharpest brains from India , compared to world standards they are not that sharp. Hence lack of nobles in science fields.

    3.) The hallucination of IIT makes it sure that the best brains of India either go to IIT or some other engg college. Add to it the lack of investment in State Universities and hence the lack of nobles in humanities.

    4.) The coaching culture (which IMHO is unique in India be it IIT,IAS,IIM even BA entrance) makes sure that except a few , everyone is spoon-fed some basic tricks to solve the IIT questions and hence the grasp of basics is very low among those who qualify.

    • 1) Are you speaking this from personal reflection or something? Because this is one of the most nonsensical things I have ever heard about IITs. Comparable to the BS that ToI keeps spewing about.

      2) Where does Russia enter the picture? The syllabus of training in IITs is far more rigorous and advanced than one in any other undergraduate college in India.

      3) The “hallucination” of IITs is due to the excellent training they provide which is highly valued by academia and industries throughout the world. This results in better opportunities no matter which career path. There is no “hallucination”. People go for better opportunities if available — it’s as simple as that.

      4) This is the only sane point in your argument. The coaching culture is really worrisome and the JEEs are actually getting easier. They were ridiculously tough in nineties. Few years back, the government actually passed a directive informing IITs to make JEEs easier to make it “accessible to all grade 12 students across India” — defeating the basic purpose of IITs.

  5. “Many are actually pointing to the fact that most M.Tech and PhD students at the IITs are ‘non-IITians’. Apparently, this is evidence for the non-world classness of IIT research.”

    This is not true. The “non-world classness” of IIT research is pretty obvious when you take a cursory look at the quality and level of research which is done.

    Welcome Comrade. I agree that the shortcomings of the IITs are evident from the research output. I wanted to point out here that one of the metrics that was being quoted quite a lot was that few IITians do PhDs at IITs and hence the research there isnt world class.

    “The question then is: Why does an offhand remark about the IITs generate more debate than an official report by three professors at the University of Pune ?”

    Isn’t it obvious? Whose statement is going to make more impact – President Obama or some random faculty members’ report from University of Cincinnati. I don’t need to stress the position and power of Jairam Ramesh. His comments are worth much more debate and professors in Pune.

    Jairam Ramesh is Minister of State for Environments and Forests. As such, that doesnt give him any authority over the IITs and he is not accountable for their performance. But the fact that Ramesh would make such a comment and the subsequent reaction indicates that there is an expectation that the IITs are world class. I dont see why his comments are worth more than the faculty, if anything it should be the other way around.

    “Isnt this equally or even more important to our collective future than the ‘world classness’ of the IITs ? Perhaps, the current debate about the IITs reveals more about the Indian middle class than the IIT system.”

    Jairam’s comments are important than UoP professors and they are 100% true. The current debate about IITs arise from people clubbing together research and technology and not recognizing differences between two. IITs are meant for latter. IIT’s are NOT research institutions. lrn2wiki: “They were created to train scientists and engineers, with the aim of developing a skilled workforce to support the economic and social development of India.”

    Why are Ramesh’s comments more important than UoP profs ? Like I said, it should be the other way round. If we are to debate the state of the Indian army, whose comments are more important, a top general or the commerce minister ?

    “How did they produce a world class workforce without being anywhere near as selective as the IIT system ?”

    One word – cash. Think about it. The only reason why US universities have tremendous research output is because they are well funded. Pay IIT/IISc/CIMS/ISI professors 15 lakh salary on entry level Assistant Professor position. There will be orders of magnitude increase in research output from India. Hundreds of brilliant students from top graduate schools in US will return to India for research.

    Comrade, if only life was that simple. The typical entry level assistant prof at an American university gets about $ 60-70,000. In engineering fields, people who become profs would typically earn about a $ 100, 000 or more. And this should actually be compared with a post-doc, since thats what one will typically do after a PhD to join academia. Needless to say, typicals post docs pay even less. Its not just about money.

    “Could we have done better with our own universities of Pune and Madras ?”

    Possibly. With funding, of course. And keep undergraduate education and research separate please.

    The second to last paragraph is highly confusing. What does Ambedkar and Gandhi and Tagore have to do with anything? While you are at it, thrown in Bhagat Singh as well. You don’t need any kind of technical/scientific training to achieve what they have achieved.

    I am trying to point out that our existing universities produced stellar alumni in a variety of fields before the IITs came in. CV Raman in physics, Ambedkar in law, Tagore in literature. There is no reason they couldnt have done the same for engineering. In fact, Anil Kakodkar (former director of BARC) and RA Mashelkar (former CSIR head) are from Mumbai University. Why did we need special institutions for scientific/technical training ?

    A better alternative perhaps would have been to provide funds to upgrade our existing universities, contingent that they admit students on the basis of an all India exam. This would have ensured a very talented applicant pool and a good technical training environment.

    I don’t even understand what the debate is about. IITs are NOT research institutions. Why in the world do you expect “world class” research output from them? Those who actually choose to do such kind of research, receive world class graduate training from US universities and then the indeed proceed to actually do research.

    Comparing IITs with UMich is simply not fair. Look at the funding the latter receives. Oh by the way, it’s pretty rare to hear about an unsuccessful IITian as well.

    IITs are doing exactly what they are intended to do – train good students to make them world class technicians. That India is not able to retain them has to do with globalization and better opportunities being available elsewhere.

    • Comrade, this article about UDCT in Mumbai shows that funds need not be a hurdle. UDCT comprehensively outperforms the IITs despite getting 1/10th the budget,

      • Thanks for the reply, Vikram. Really appreciate it.

        Point 1 (Jairam Ramesh):

        Jairam Ramesh has studied at IIT, CMU and MIT. I would imagine he would be a good candidate to listen to when pointing out differences between the education in respective institutions. He has held several important positions in the government and has shown abundant intellectual capability – enough for me to take his statements seriously.

        I don’t know which UoP professors you are talking about and what report that is. I don’t even know what the claims are made in that report. Have you read it? What does it say? Could you please point me towards it?

        Comrade, I believe the report I am quoting and Jairam Ramesh’s statement actually have nothing to do with each other. Its just that one was about the IITs and one was not. On both this post and the second to last one before this, I have tried to comment about the broad higher education system in India. Yet, all the responses seem to center around the IIT. I really dont care whether the IITs are world class or not. What I am trying to point out is a serious anomaly in our thinking, where we debate matters that only affect 0.5 % (Recent Kakodkar report) of our college going population.

        The report is linked in the post, it pertains to a particular centre in UoP. Page 26 pertains to the general state of higher education in India. This paper by PB Mehta and Devesh Kapur further illustrates the point,

        Speaking of reports, are you aware of the report prepared by Rick O’Donnell for the University of Texas? I’ve read that report (meaning I spent about 10 minutes on it). IIRC, it has around 100 citations and make a strong case for reducing emphasis of research in UT system and instead replacing professors with cheap lecturers who will train undergraduates. I am going to bet that you are aware about it, and have vehemently opposed it.

        Point? Don’t read too much into reports. There is absolutely no reason why there should be any weight attached to report prepared by unknown professors as compared to comments made by minister in GoI who has prestigious education background.

        So a guy with a ‘prestigious education background’ can comment on whatever he wishes to, and his opinions matter more than people who are directly involved in this system ? What do you actually think ? That our undergraduate education is excellent and these profs are just making things up ?

        Point 2 (Money as critical factor):

        Actually, life is indeed that simple. Money buys happiness. Princeton researchers say so. I find the arguments very convincing –,8599,2016291,00.html. That cutoff can be achieved whether you are in academia or industry.

        Academia and industry are parallel careers in US with the average payoffs for both being roughly same. There is a chance for extremely high compensation in one, whereas there is chance of extremely high job satisfaction in other. This is not the case in India where a career in academia is just a way to “chill out”.

        I disagree. Take a look at this table,

        The average professor at a top public university seems to make about a 140,000 $. Typical incoming assistant profs at top public schools make 85,000 $ and they usually do a postdoc for a few years before that usually pays substantially less. Compare that to starting salaries for PhDs in industry. And we are talking about top publics here, the average university pays substantially less.

        Point 3 (Tagores and Ambedkars):

        While you give examples of what people NOT from IITs have achieved, have you ever looked into what people FROM IITs have achieved? Again, lrn2wiki: This is what they have achieved. To claim that these people would have achieved it “anyways” while being in the standard University model is pure wishful thinking.

        Again, giving examples of successful people not from IITs to blame the IITs is textbook strawman argument.

        I am not blaming the IITs for anything. The only point that can be thought of as a remark against the IITs is the comparison with top public universities in the US in terms of selectivity. But even that point is to indicate the naivety with which we evaluate our universities, thats all.

        In fact, the University model in India has failed miserably. IITs have had their undoubted success thanks to great model which is also seen in several other universities like CMI, ISI, NIT, etc. Not to mention it is being copied by others like IIIT, VJTI, UDCT, etc. Your alternative of upgrading the existing universities would have failed miserably as it is evident from the current state of affairs in those.

        How do you know this ? In my opinion (as pointed as the central theme of the post), the current state of affairs are a consequence of sustained neglect. So what do you propose we do with our existing univs ?

        Point 4 (UDCT and funding in general):

        You do realize that IITs have tens of departments OTHER than Chemical Engineering? In fact, it’s mentioned in the article itself! Furthurmore, you do realize that that quoting an exception is not an argument against the norm? Even if you give me examples of successful non-IITians or successful research done in a non-IIT, it means nothing. Ever heard of Sidney Weinberg? Google him. Dude dropped out of high school and was advising FDR on how to revive the US economy during great depression. Does that mean a college education is not necessary to be successful? Does that mean we should all not go to college and become janitor’s assistant instead?

        Let me guess, you are getting funded and the funding comes from NSF/NIH? Isn’t it the same for your colleagues? Is there a single person in your vicinity whose funding is not more or less assured and who is doing research for “sake of humanity”? My guess is that most are very well funded and those who are not, are doing research because it can offer them better career opportunities/more $$$ in future.

        If you cannot see that funding is the single most important driver behind academic/industrial research, you are being extremely naive. If you think research is a noble pursuit in which money has little importance, you are being extremely naive. Research is a business and it needs money to thrive. Sometimes it produces Nobel prize winners, sometimes not.

        Comrade, what I see around me mostly is folks who could have easily taken 80-100000 $ jobs but are instead choosing to live on 20000 $ to do research and earn this thing called a PhD.

        Sorry for the rant though.

      • Well, then if the report and Jairam’s statements have nothing to do with one another, then it seems your only beef is the media attention that his statements are gathering. You would rather have attention directed towards this report simply because it concerns moar people. In that case, I don’t have anything to add to it.

        Yes, the guy with ‘prestigious education background’ can comment whatever he wishes to. So can you and I. Last I heard, India was a free country. However, expecting that yours or mine comments garner more media attention than his because we address a “greater population” is simply ridiculous due to the very facet of human nature. I personally think that our primary schooling and graduate system need far more attention than the undergraduate system. But that’s just my opinion.

        But I am not talking about you and me, and I am not saying their opinion matters more because they address a bigger population. I am talking about university profs and I am saying their opinion matters because they are professors at universities.

        Dude.. 140k is ridiculously high salary which counters your own argument. Also, what sense does it make to quote just the salary of professors while not quoting and simply assuming the salaries of PhDs who do not pursue academia?

        US Census Bureau says that the median individual income of a 25+ male with a doctoral degree is $75,853. This, of course, includes academia and industry. And you just gave an example of a set of professors whose income is TWICE of that.

        Similarly, if you glance through the numbers in the first link, it is abundantly clear that the salaries of PhDs in academia and industry are _comparable_. Your really need to reasses your thinking that pay in academia is far inferior to pay in industry.

        140 K is the salary of a professor at a top public university. You typically dont become a prof till you are in your early-mid 40s. And its pretty rare for a PhD to become a prof at a top school. Starting salaries in academia are much lower than industry and this remains the case, unless you are working at a top school. I think you are thinking of a very narrow subset of academia. The 75K figure includes academia and PhDs in all fields. PhD salaries in industry would be comparable to those with professional degrees, and the mean salary there is about 90K.

        “How do you know this?”

        Well, I know that because I have stayed in India for all my life. Why do you think the UDCT was converted to UICT? Why do you think VJTI was made autonomous? Why do you think both these institutes changed to GPA system for grading? Why do you think that IIITs set up followed the IIT model exactly? Why do you think that the NIT Act of 2007 deemed the RECs as “Institutes of National Importance at pat with the IITs”? I think you might find the answer to your own question here.

        I think this above paragraph would also help you understand the media uproar behind Jairam’s comments. When so many institutions are adopting the model of IITs, it is but natural to reassess the role of IITs in Indian education. They affect far more than the students within the campuses.

        “who could have easily taken 80-100000 $ jobs but are instead choosing to live on 20000 $”
        Total respect! Why don’t they do it for a lifetime?

        They dont want to. Thats why the bulk will join industry after receiving their PhDs 😉

        As regards to Dr. Ramanan’s comment, you don’t need to quote myself. What I have given is actually the norm. In real life, people rarely stick to their undergraduate major throughout their life, especially outside academia.

        Actually becoming an academician in a major other than your undergraduate major is quite rare, as you yourself acknowledge. And yes, I know engineers often go on to become managers, but thats about it.

      • Sure their opinion matters. To you perhaps. I just read through it. Pure opinion without any kind of backing by facts. And that “report” is nothing but an advertisement itself for the center. Expecting that such kind of opinion garner media attention according to one’s wishes is the textbook definition of self righteousness.

        Comrade, that report is to the UGC outlining the operations etc of a particular center. Again, I am not trying to imply that this particular report be highlighted. There have been numerous reports including the one by the Yashpal committee that have been barely talked about with the ferocity of the recent IITs are/are not world class debate.

        I’m not going to get into salaries argument again. While you give qualitative statements such as “salaries in academia are lower than in industry”, you do not provide any numbers which clearly show that on an average this is true over many years. Even if this were true, the difference is marginal and the reason why people do this is the freedom and intellectual satisfaction that academia grants. My whole point is that the difference, if it exists in US, is so vast in India, that it becomes really difficult to pursue academia as a career choice for many PhDs.

        Comrade, the question one has to ask is whether Indian academia grants the freedom and intellectual satisfaction that American academia does, this is the critical point, not the salaries.

  6. Some factual discrepancies: Gandhi was not “produced” by Mumbai University. Kakodkar and Mashelkar belonged to VJTI and UDCT respectively, engineering institutions under Mumbai University which have adjoining campuses at Matunga, Mumbai. Both the institutions are now autonomous academically. Even when they weren’t, their academic cultures were more or less independent of the Mumbai University. Hence, to say that Kakodkar and Mashelkar came from Mumbai University is incorrect.

    • Abhinav, Mumbai University’s wikipedia page does list Gandhi as an alumnus, although usual caveat about wikipedia applies. It is likely that he studied at an affiliated college. We can obviously debate specifics about the education of individual alumni, but the broader point remains, India’s universities had the capability to produce outstanding alumni and now they dont seem to.

  7. 1.) Just talk to people who are really into IITs and question them , Whats the intellectual level of faculty? You will get an idea. You are clear about my answer I guess.

    2.) “advanced than one in any other undergraduate college in India.” Thats the exact point, no one doubts it and hence all other college aspire to get to the level IITs. But if you compare the syllabus of 12th(which is pretty much the syllabus of IIT-JEE) in India to the world standards you will see that it clearly lags behind substantially. So by the time a student clears 12th here hes full 2 years behind from say some one in Russia and if you add 1 year of coaching/preparation (Thankfully its reduced now) that makes it 3 years behind.

    3.) I dont find any reasons to assume that a person excellently ‘trained’ in chemical engg can find that training helpful in MBA Finance or software industry et al. Hardly any IITian pursue his\her career in the respective core subject. Again ask the answer from any graduate from an IIT. Its just not logically feasible that training in an IIT makes you secure for any career path, especially when IIT are notorious for lack of humanities in their syllabus.

    4.) Glad you agreed on 1 point.

    • Thanks for the reply, pega.

      1. Umm.. I’ve spent roughtly 20% life in an IIT. The intellectual level of faculty follows a Gaussian curve as anywhere else. I am not going to get into the reservation argument, but it is a strong factor as well. I would say, more than half faculty members are highly intelligent people who are capable of doing fantastic research, but are not able to do so because of one or more of these reasons: a) Funding b) Poor quality of graduate students c) No pressure to do it d) They just don’t want to do it. This is just my opinion.

      2. Well, if you are suggesting making the syllabus tougher, I’m all for it.

      3. You are sorely mistaken on several levels, my friend. I took five courses in humanities in IIT – three compulsory and two by choice. I would say all of them were simply fantastic and two of them have a profound effect on my identity as an individual. I am thankful for all of those courses. That an education in IIT does not automatically secure your career is definitely true, but then it is trivially true for almost everything in life and so, is a moot point. It provides a solid “undergraduate education”. Period. That education is a fantastic investment and helpful in any walk of life. Did you ever think that an undergraduate training in Chemical Engineering would “help” someone become a professor in Mathematics in one of the best schools in US? Did you? I’m tired of hearing these arguments revolving around “You are meant to pursue a career in field that you majored in”. High quality BS I say.

      Quoting from your comment above, “you do realize that that quoting an exception is not an argument against the norm?”

      4. Oh well, since I actually solve the JEE exam every year I should know better 😉

  8. Vikram I am not able to comprehend the second post (top to down) from comrade.
    It seems their is some sort of debate going on between 2 people out of which one is comrade and one is you. Can you please elaborate?else I think I am a neophyte in blogosphere.

    • Pega, the italic and bold text is mine. The regular text is Comrade’s. Hope that makes it clear.

  9. Comrade, the average salary of a postdoc is around $ 45000 ,

    Are you saying that industry pays PhDs less than the average income of the US ? I would agree that in the long term the payoffs for being a prof at a top school are abt the same as industry. But most PhDs dont become top notch academia.

    In any case, the point of this post is to highlight the terrible state of our state universities and the apathy of the middle class towards this state of affairs.

    And your IIT,IIT,IIT response just underscores my point.


    • “Are you saying that industry pays PhDs less than the average income of the US ?”

      When did I ever say that? Either you need to read carefully or interpret data better.

      “I would agree that in the long term the payoffs for being a prof at a top school are abt the same as industry”

      That’s what I have been saying ALL ALONG.

      Not quite. You said that academia in general and industry have about the same payoffs. Like I said just now, and said earlier this parity is only true for the very top and prestigious institutions. Now IIT profs might not get compensated in parity with industry in India, but I dont know and thats not the point of this post.

      “In any case, the point of this post is to highlight the terrible state of our state universities and the apathy of the middle class towards this state of affairs.”

      Not really. The only place where you show concern is by quoting a single paragraph from a report. You haven’t told why exactly you think the state of state universities is “terrible”. Why do you think that the middle class is apathetic? From media? Seriously? Does media reflect the thinking of middle class? Seriously??

      Please glance over this paper,
      I highly recommend it. Also, I wrote a post a couple of weeks back on why I think Indian higher ed has some weaknesses.
      Warning: Post contains some criticism of the funding model of the IITs.

      “And your IIT,IIT,IIT response just underscores my point.”

      This statement doesn’t even make sense. What is this supposed to even mean? Read your own post carefully and see how many times you refer to the IITs. Pot calling the kettle black?

      Yes, I do refer to the IITs. But I do that to emphasize that the middle class seems to care more about a select band of instis that educate 0.5 % of the engineering students. And I point out the fallacy in thinking that students are ‘world class’ simply because they went through a selective entrance test. This is true of Indian higher ed in general, everyone has there own entrance test which they say is super selective.

      Unlike you, I have already clarified my position on the state of affairs several times:

      1) Primary schooling and research is far more important than undergraduate education — which in my opinion is fine.

      Of course, primary schooling is more important. Significant rethink is needed there from the policy perspective as well. As for undergraduate education, perhaps this statistic from the paper by PB Mehta will help you understand the problem,
      Expenditure by Indians on higher education abroad in 2000-01 : $ 95 million
      RBI estimate for 2005-06: $ 1.06 billion
      Authors estimate for 2005-06: $ 3.5 billion
      Source: Page 9

      Now please dont tell me that Indian middle class etc has expanded 10 times from 2000-01 to 2005-06.

      2) To improve undergraduate education, follow an autonomous model adopted by numerous successful universities/institutes I have mentioned repeatedly. The graduates from these institutes (not JUST IITS) are highly sought after.

      The graduates are sought after because the Indian economy is expanding rapidly and there is a serious shortage of skilled labour. And btw, I am not arguing for the retention of the affiliating system. I am asking for everyone to start a debate about out state universities where most of our students study. I am not making any recommendations, just pointing out an anomaly.

      3) Stop pretending that media reflects anything. Do not expect Indian media NOT to harp upon anything juicy they find.

      Comrade, it wasnt just media. There was a huge response from the blogosphere and across the middle class.

      4) If you want to improve research output from any institute, pour funding into it since it is abundantly clear that it is the primary driver of research.

      I will quote from my comment on my previous post about the weaknesses in India’s higher ed,
      “What India needs to do is to develop an ecosystem for research, this requires making a large number of independent, autonomous institutions capable of decent research, i.e. make them capable of producing decent PhDs. What the unfair funding practices seem to have done is to deprive state universities of the capital needed to achieve this.” I will add to the unfair funding practices, general apathy and extensive political interference.

      • Yes, that is a report concerning operations of the center and the “undergrad system woe is you” is nothing but a passing remark. Now you mention there are “other” reports.

        Comrade, here is the report by the Yashpal Committee setup to review India’s higher education system.

        I will quote from it,
        “We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines.”

        The committee recommends the expansion of IITs into full fledged universities. I vouched for the same in my last post. And what I would say is that perhaps we need to think of similar expansions for our state universities.

        The IIT sytem is far, far from perfect. But it’s the best we got.

        There really is no disputing this. But we must examine the overall environment in which the IITs have achieved this status. The IITs are good but being the best in India really doesnt mean much given the current state of most of our universities.

        It’s the one that is being successfully emulated.

        Comrade, the model of the IITs is the general model usually followed by centrally funded institutions. Like I have said before, I have no problem with this model as such, I only have an issue with the segregation of disciplines and uniform mode of entry. And for the last time, the point of this post is not IITs, its the neglect of state universities.

        It’s the one that is internationally recognized — for various reasons. You can either keep on harping on imperfections of “teh IIT model” or actually understand what made it so successful and try and improve other universities.

        Where am I harping on the imperfections of the IIT model ? In fact, in this post, I am pointing out the problems in the non-IIT universities and our apathy towards them.

        Yes, the Indian academia does grant freedom and intellectual satisfacton to quite an extent. Not in many institutions, but several of them. The primary inhibitor for research is money – funding and the salary.

        If we apply a crude approximation that the overall median salary of a professor is the average of overall medians of the salaries of assistant, associate and full professors (a pretty reasonable assumption), then the overall median salary of a professor is $75,849.
        The mean individual income of a 25+ individual with a doctoral degree is $70,853.

        If you assume that roughly 30% PhDs go into academia, then a simple calculation yields that the average income of a PhD in non-academia is $68,711.If you reduce that percentage to 10, the figure increases to just $70,298.

        Go figure.

        Thank you for the effort of making these calculations. But I would rather rely on real data and analysis,

        Quoting from that article, “Our numbers indicate a big disparity in industry versus academic salaries. Average industry salaries exceeded average academic salaries by 50% in Asia and by 40% in Europe and North America”

        So on an average, industry does pay substantially more even in the US. Think about it this way, people join academia for the freedom and intellectual excitement it can provide, but the counterpoint for industry is it pays more.

        I glanced over the conclusions of the Kapur-Mehta report. What’s the point? The education system is not perfect and it needs reforms? Okay, Sherlock.

        No the point(s) is(are):

        1) Our higher education is undergoing extensive privatization due to the neglect of state universities.
        2) Our universities no longer perform pedagogic functions because of their decline.
        3) The elite and the middle class are seceding from Indian higher education leading to a huge outflow of capital and talent from the country.

        “But I do that to emphasize that the middle class seems to care more about a select band of instis that educate 0.5 % of the engineering students”

        This is where you are completetly missing the point. It’s NOT about 0.5% of the engineering students. It is about taking clues of what is right about the system. It is required to have a PhD to become a professor in IIT. Not a single class is taught by someone without a PhD. The entrance exam is “decent” – at least it requires a basic grasp of the concepts as opposed to the standard board exams. The syllabus is often open ended and is very close to the stuff that is taught in best universities in the world. The amount of rote learning required is nothing compared to some of the stuff that goes on in state universities. Is it possible to take whatever seemingly ‘right’ stuff and apply it to state universities? That is why the debate. That is why there was massive uprorar when reservations were upped in IITs and IIMs. The answers to your original question on how to improve undergraduate system _might_ lie in the IIT system itself, at least partially. You cannot talk about one without considering the other.

        Surely you’re joking, Mr. Watson 😉 If you think our middle class cares about the IITs because it thinks they are some kind of model for state univs, you would be quite wrong in my opinion. Middle class response to Ramesh’s statement was driven by a sense of anxiety and perhaps hurt national pride. Do we really need the IITs to tell us that rote learning is not an effective way to learn ? You seem to agree with me mostly, you just seem to think that the IITs are the solution. I am saying that we must debate what the solution is.

      • Here is the complete paper by the three authors of that report,

    • I don’t have a whole lot to disagree except of the salary issue. You are clutching at straws here. Did you even take a look research methodology? You “rather rely on real data and analysis” of a survey to which participation is voluntary, restricted to some “email lists”, and the surveyors “attempted” to address the bias inherent to the careers of the recipients of the email?

      But you simply discard the data shown by the US Census Bureau and analysis generated by common sense? That is not real data and analysis for you? I mean.. this seriously raise other questions but I won’t go there.

      Comrade, your previous analysis was incomplete for two reasons:

      1) You were comparing average earnings for all people with PhDs (which included people who were not working) with income of faculty (who are working by definition).
      2) You were not separating the income of faculty at public and private institutions. Remember, we are talking about public universities here.

      On correcting these, we see that median earnings of 25+ PhDs working full time (25-64) in the US was $ 79,401. In contrast, the average income of faculty at public institutions was $ 71,362. Thats a difference of about $ 9,000. And remember, the gap is much larger when one starts their career in academia. It is instructive to look at percentiles of incomes here,
      An assistant professor lies in the 70-75th percentile of earners.
      An associate professor lies in the 75-85th percentile
      A full prof in the 86th-90th percentile

      We see that early on, academia is not a lucrative career at all and later it becomes comparable to top industry for full professors at the top publics.

      As I said, your main beef is with the disproportionate media attention given to an offhand remark by a minister about the IITs and that you would rather have debate on issues that affect greater. I, personally, don’t find anything wrong with what is happening. Also I have no idea where you get this point from: “Middle class response to Ramesh’s statement was driven by a sense of anxiety and perhaps hurt national pride”. I think IITs are the only solution, but certainly are a good candidate.

      My vacation is over and this will be my last comment. Hopefully you get a boost in your page views from this discussion 😉 Peace out!

      Thanks. Hope you enjoyed your vacation !

  10. comrade,

    The syllabus can be made ‘tougher’ only if you make the syllabus of 12th comparable to world standards. IMO using the word ‘tougher’ shows the ‘coaching mentality’ and the exact ‘you-cant-do-it-without-us’ picture the coachings show of IIT-JEE.

    Not pursuing the career in the subjects of your major should be the exception not the norm. And of course it is considered as a major mis-management of your career ,anywhere in the world, which can obviously be attributed to the ‘bhed-chaal’. It doesnt help either that one gets good rank by solving ‘chemistry'(You must be knowing what I mean ,especially when now the ‘cutoff’ for each subject is a joke).

    What this bhed-chal does is that it hallucinates other students who ‘might’ otherwise be interested in some other subjects which in the case of IITs is the norm.

    “They just dont want to do it.”
    Look if anyone is given a chance to challenge the best in their respective fields of study I dont think that he will ever ‘dont want to do it’ (Basic Oedipal complex). ‘Poor undergraduate student’, well you wont find better students in India than IItians.’No pressure’ , well again I think no research can ever be done under any pressure per se .’Lack of funding’ , yeah may be but I dont think that they are that much poorly funded.

    According to me ‘they dont want to do it’ because they are smart enough to know that they are not intelligent enough or either they have tried it in vain and hence no point doing it again.

    Off course there are exceptions but those ‘exceptional’ teachers are not even remotely close to the best in the world.

  11. Let me be modest. I am not able to comprehend your notion of intelligence.

    I am compelled to ask you that who else, except the IIT faculty, you consider among the ‘highly intelligent people’?

    Tell me even a single IIT faculty who is regarded world over among ‘highly intelligent people’.

    and I am not alone it seems

    • You’re the one who asked me the following question “Just talk to people who are really into IITs and question them , Whats the intellectual level of faculty?”

      What I know is that IITs are probably the only places where it is necessary to get a PhD to become a professor. Maybe CMI/ISI. If there are any other, please let me know. It is also proved that people with PhDs have an average IQ of around 125.

      • Dont forget that the ‘PhD’ is also given by some Indian Institute and in most of the cases that teacher is not an IIT-ian.

  12. Vikram ,

    ‘The elite and the middle class are seceding from Indian higher education leading to a huge outflow of capital and talent from the country.’

    This according to me is another curious phenomenon found among Indians ie obsession with everything foreign especially ‘white’ foreign. While its entirely true that research facilities in India is not to the mark but ‘culinary course in Australia’ anyone? Sounds so hip , yo!

    It will be highly interesting to know that how much of the ‘capital outflow’ actually goes to the reputed institutions and how much goes to the not-so-reputed-Culinary-course esque institutions and finally how much to fraud institutions like ‘Tri Valley’ et al.

    • Pega, I believe Indians are going abroad to a full spectrum of institutes. One way to see what kind of institutions they are going to in America, would be to look at the number of Indians in the US for undergrad, unfortunately that data is not available anymore (for free).

      But I feel that the main reason for this flight from Indian higher ed is the declining quality of India’s own institutions. I wont be surprised if the flow to the scam institutions is actually quite small.

  13. You see imho their are 2 types of Institutions.

    1.) You have to give some sort of basic entrance test (GRE et al), show your credentials as in the number of papers published etc.

    2.) Every other institute where you can buy off a degree .

    Fraud institutions are obviously very low.

    With regards to 2nd types ,the Indian middle class mentality of saying ‘humara ladka bahar hai’ (Our boy is in some foreign land) ostentatiously has a lot to do with it.I dont have any data , just my experience. Lets wait till some minister comments on this also.

  14. Vikram, I have entered the debate quite late but am going to stay away from the IIT part of it. Actually I would like to answer the possible response to Jairam Ramesh making a statement like “Mumbai University is mediocre and should be called third class”. I think the biggest and loudest response would come from local saffron brigade as a attack by an outsider. Maybe some distinguished alumni would rue about the good old days. That’s about it.

    Our universities are not the hallowed or inspirational areas for students. They vomit out graduates with bookish knowledge and no appreciable skills year after year. And this includes the IITs as well. It is only a few who are able to rise overcome this environment.

    • Sudha, you are worryingly spot on. I cant imagine the long term consequences that the current higher education environment will have on our society. Our capacity to produce knowledge seems lower than it was 40-50 years when our universities were still strong.

      Perhaps, an alternative will emerge, but at the moment that looks unlikely.

  15. Vikram: This may be relevant to the broad thrust of your argument – the elite/non-elite divide. I recall the time when Japanese industries were doing very well and the US was forced into protectionist measures. A Japanese delegation was visiting the US and was asked the reason given the fact that the US had such a superiority in cutting edge research. I found the Japanese response very telling. It was to the effect that academically the top 20% in the US were better trained than in Japan but the bottom 50% in Japan was an order of magnitude better trained than in the US.

    We can’t ignore the relevance of the bottom 50%, the non-elite, to the productivity of an economy. For the developed economies there are two caveats: Outsourcing (to China where the bottom 50% seems to be pretty good) can make up for some of the slack and, as the Japanese case proves, the politics of the macroeconomics can outweigh sector-specific excellence.

    • Dr. Altaf, sorry for the late reply. I agree, in fact I think if India does not educate its overall workforce better it will find itself in a trap. It will not be able to achieve the sustained levels of growth that were seen in Japan and Korea.

      Not to mention the reduced social mobility that will result because of an imbalanced higher education system.

  16. An Indian Postgraduate student in a Tier 1 University told me – There are many IITians in my class. I could not get admission in IIT, at-least I have the privilege of being in a class with them. So I don’t see the difference between the IITian and myself ! — That’s the insecurity that people have – when they compare them self with an IITian , that they are NOT an IITIan and they want to bridge that gap some how !!! They are constantly COMPARING – O boy, see the insecurities ..

    Vikram , you write about IIT’s more in your blog posts when it comes to education. Am I seeing sour grapes here ?

    • Welcome Sneha. The roots of the insecurity are obvious. In a hierarchical society like India both stigmas and associations last forever. From my interactions with IIT alums in America, a similar hierarchy exists regarding the different fields of studies within the IITs themselves. This is just an outcome of our education system.

      As for sour grapes, I do feel bad about not clearing JEE but thats about it.

  17. I know many of them who cleared JEE in the first 100 and most of them took – Computer Science/Electrical Engineering – Now in hindsight everyone would have opted for maths – but these guys came from extremely middle class populations with mothers/fathers as school teachers/gov. institutions – Their eye was on a job/Schol to the US. They took what was the best that they could think as 17 year old.

    And talking about stigmas / associations – this is one of the hindrances of growth in India. If you do not keep up the performance , getting into IIT/MIT does not really matter. Also along with time, you have to keep contributing , not just learning. Become pioneers, look outside the conventional box of existing theories, not get bound by them.

    societies where individuals are given second changes grow in leaps and bounds – This is why America grew – That Attitude is a concept foreign to India.

    • Sneha, I agree, learning is a lifelong endeavour and not simply a matter of getting a degree.

      I would say its more than just about second chances. Its about developing systems that cater to an entire spectrum of individuals (in terms on both interest and aptitude) than force unnatural compartmentalization.

  18. Read Second changes above as Second chances.
    On another note – You should be pretty happy where you are . Not getting into one, has helped you getting something better perhaps in hindsight. good luck

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