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 ?