Friday, 4 August 2017

I went to IIT. Let me tell you why it's not great

We really need to build world-class liberal arts colleges in India so that bright minds interested in history do not end up studying mechanical engineering.

In case you are looking at the headline and thinking it to be a case of sour grapes - let me put your mind to rest at the outset.

I did study in an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) myself. I studied electrical engineering at IIT Kharagpur and then got an MBA degree from IIM Ahmedabad. After a stint in the corporate world (I was co-head of Irevna, an S&P company), I now run a school which has been celebrated for its innovative methods of teaching.

Now that my bio-data is out of the way, let’s think about this contradiction: our IITs select less than 1 per cent of the students who apply. But their own ranking in world university rankings is nowhere in the top 100. In the latest QS World University rankings, IIT Delhi ranked at 172, IIT Madras at 264 and IIT Kharagpur at 308.

Before we trash the ranking in the spirit of patriotism, let’s examine the scientific contribution of IITs vis-à-vis the western universities that rank at the top of the list. Very recently, Narayana Murthy, in his convocation address at Indian Institute of Science, mentioned how MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ranked number 1 in the QS list) helped transform the world because of some of the biggest inventions of the last 50 years - the global positioning system, bionic prostheses and microchip all emerged from there.

In the same speech, he also mentioned that almost all modern inventions such as computers, internet, wifi, MRI, laser, robots and many other gadgets and technology came about thanks to research by western universities.

Compared to the Western universities, he goes on to add, there has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that has become a household name globally, nor any idea that led to any "earth-shaking" invention to "delight global citizens".

But you may say, hold on, our IITs may not have created great products, but at least they created great people – the IITians who went on to become very successful in many fields, ranging from politics to academia to the corporate world. But that argument is clearly flawed.

If you are taking in the top one per cent of the population, of course, there will be quite a few among them who will be exceptionally successful. The great success of IITians just proves that the input was great. It proves nothing about the value-addition done to the input. IITians who have achieved spectacular success in life did so in spite of the mediocre education at the IITs, not because of it.

What exactly is wrong with the education offered at the IITs? Firstly, most students are not interested in the discipline that they choose. They aren’t really interested in even being engineers – they are just there because their parents, peers and society told them to take a shot at IIT, because if you are good at academics, then how is that you haven’t proven it by taking the IIT-JEE exam?

Top ranking MIT has helped transform the world because of some of the biggest inventions of the last 50 years. Photo: Reuters
As a result, we begin our scientific education by the most unthinking, unscientific approach towards choosing careers. The brightest minds who are supposed to think independently make a beginning by following the herd.

Secondly, the curriculum is overloaded with obscure theory. Too many courses are crammed within a semester. Other than choosing the stream, students do not have much freedom in choosing the subjects.

The IITs are supposed to train students for a professional career, yet other than a perfunctory psychology or an economics course, there is hardly any well-thought out curriculum to develop the soft-skills of students.

At the point of entry, IITs are burdened with the weight of Kota-trained students with low social-skills and zero social awareness who study physics, chemistry and maths from 6th standard, at the exclusion of every other skill – and the four-year stint at IIT does not really improve that.

After IIT, most people choose one of the three paths – an MS abroad, a stint as a software engineer, or an MBA degree in India. Most of those paths do not require any knowledge of electrical engineering or metallurgical engineering or whatever else they specialised in.

They do require reading skills and thinking skills (GRE, CAT and software company aptitude tests), and people skills (interviews and getting letters of recommendations) – so the IITians now start frenziedly learning the skills that they hitherto neglected. But that learning does not happen inside the classrooms, and IITs themselves can claim little credit for it. However, being talented individuals, most students do master those skills too, over time.

I can go on. The conditions of the hostels do not behove a world class institute. The projects that the students do are hardly original. Classes are mostly uninspiring and do not break any new ground in pedagogy. The tradition of ragging – well, it is sad to see people at the premier scientific institutions believing in tradition, that too something as silly as that.

Why is there still such a craze for IITs? Why do we see full-page advertisements in newspapers by IITJEE coaching centres? To answer that, we need to look at the ranking of our liberal arts universities.

Calcutta University and University of Mumbai rank below 750. Compared to them, the IITs seem to be doing well. We really need to build world-class liberal arts colleges in India so that bright minds interested in history do not end up studying mechanical engineering.

Another reason behind the craze for IITs is that our minds are rooted in the past. There was a time when engineering and medicine were the only sure shot routes to a job after graduation. But thanks to liberalisation and the subsequent economic boom, after the 1990s, one does not need to be an engineer or doctor to get a job after graduation. But the minds of most middle-class parents are still stuck in the 1970s-80s, when engineering was one of the very few options guaranteeing a job.

We need to open these minds. We need to open the minds of parents and children to the unlimited career options that are there in today’s world. We need our best minds to study whatever they are passionate about. But before that, we need to stop believing in the myth of IITs being the best. We need to start building institutions which are really world-class.

(Source: DailyO)

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