Quo Vadis IIT: Where Is It All Headed?
'What would happen if the Computer Science B.Tech. program in IIT Bombay were suspended for one year?'
With the annual proclamation of the IIT JEE Advanced results, the well-established custom of toppers' photographs being splayed all over our newspapers has followed suit.
We continue our ritualistic national worship of gods known and unknown, telling ourselves that yet again we have identified one more batch of geniuses who will count amongst the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, and to those inclined towards more Bhāratiya heroes, Rishi Kanāda, Madhava, Bhaskara and Ramanujan.
These adolescents, we maintain, will reach pinnacles of glory, which will propel India to new technological heights. This yearly ritual worship of the new IIT entrants continues, even as only some of them will be able to resist the temptations of those precious green cards and dollar salaries, and stay back to restore India to her 'rightful' intellectual prowess.
The IITs, more than any other group of educational institutions, have come to epitomise the arena where we indulge ourselves in these flights of fantasy and phantasmagoria.
The feel-good factor drilled into us, and plastered all over our media, is inescapable. Even as we sit wretchedly in our individual pools of drudgery that characterise life in India today, while we worry about what an increasingly precarious future holds for our children, we see a set of seemingly incredibly focused youngsters who have subjected themselves to privations of the worst sort for many years, sacrificing an innocent childhood to surmount impossible odds and secure admission to the hallowed B.Tech. course in one of these IITs.
Indeed, the be-all and end-all for many young minds in India is to simply go through the hoops of the JEE by any means possible. Never mind that the interest of these youngsters in joining an IIT falls sharply after the seats in the five first IITs are completely filled. We like all of this. It makes us feel good. It's a curious mix of catharsis and delusion, where the permanent sequestering of young minds to memorise question-paper specific mathematical tricks is celebrated as a nationally essential conquest.
We feel that with JEE there is still hope for the middle and lower classes to jump to the upper middle class in a single generation. The thinking goes: what if you suffer to the point of physical and mental breakdown for five years if you can chill for the next fifty?
In an article I wrote 22 years ago in Current Science, I had stated, "All of coastal Andhra is dotted with residential outfits that train students to take the engineering and medical common entrance tests. Here the day begins at 4.00 a.m. and ends at 10.00 p.m. To my knowledge, the only other institution that worked successfully according to these hours was Auschwitz."
In keeping with the theme of Arbeit macht frei, the landscape is littered with suicides, mental depression cases, sleep deprivation, induced myopia, and considerable sociological and psychological trauma of students and parents.
For each IIT B.Tech. entrant, there are 100 unsuccessful candidates. What kinds of odds are these and what are the prevalent conditions which make so many parents subject their children to this hellish kind of Arbeit? What happens to the unsuccessful ones, and do the successful ones really witness a macht frei moment?
Above all, whither the toppers, the national heroes of yesteryears, after 30, 20, or even 10 years? How many of them reached that dizzying level of excellence that justified the annual polemics which come wedded with their JEE ranks?
I have had a ring-side seat in the Indian educational system for well nigh 45 years in two of the most well-known educational institutions in the country. I can assure you that one cannot entirely blame the parents for subjecting their children to the rigours of IIT JEE coaching, or their hapless wards who most often will listen to their parents unquestioningly. The absurdities of the IIT JEE, its corkscrew questions, the greedy coaching industry, and the hyper-anxious parents, whose behaviour sometimes borders on the tyrannical, are consequences of the complete failure of the education system of our country over 75 years.
The scandals surrounding predatory practices of coaching classes, which have erupted into the open in the last few years, are a damnation of the entire system. We fail our children, their parents, and the country year after year. And we still enjoy the spectacle. It is truly the Colosseum arena, not any old arena. Panem et circenses.
We have simply not invested enough in education. Any country that aspires for a higher quality of life for its citizens needs to put at least 2 per cent of its GDP to education and research, especially STEM research. Many countries invest more, even up to 4 and 5 per cent. In India it is a miserable 0.8 per cent, a number that has remained stagnant over decades.
Our education ministers have been incompetent to mediocre at best right from 1947 till today, no matter which political party is in power.
Our state universities, which should be providing at least reliable job-oriented undergraduate education for everyone, are a complete disaster, wracked by caste politics, so-called self respect movements, reservations, political interference, corruption, and are run by politician-led education mafias and conglomerates.
In such a scenario is it that difficult to believe that all students will rush towards central government institutions no matter how hard it is to get admission?
As for the IITs themselves, the first 20 or so years were smooth, and they produced solid engineering graduates who acquitted themselves honourably. This observation stands despite many of them being forced to emigrate because of a total lack of opportunities in India.
It was after 1990 that the trouble began. With liberalisation came a demand for software professionals and companies like Infosys, Wipro and TCS put such a high premium on an IIT B.Tech. degree that practically no one else could command a decent salary; even though these very companies spend millions of dollars every year to train and skill their IIT educated staff.
The rush towards the USA became frenzied with the rise of Silicon Valley, and examples of IIT graduates becoming CEOs of top US companies only added to the frenzy.
Let us note that no IIT graduate has become a Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. They ended up at best as CEOs of giant American companies which is not the same as being innovators or geniuses. Essentially, people who were trained to be technologically nimble became glorified managers for American shareholders. In such a scenario one can judge for oneself the credibility of the Indian media, who project as geniuses, today's 17-year-olds who have drowned themselves in the tricks of cracking the IIT JEE, and nothing more.
The prospects for Indian education are gloomy. We have had a history of repeatedly ignoring the excellent recommendations of education policy documents since the Radhakrishnan committee report of 1948 and the Kothari Commission report of 1964-66.
If the past is any indication of future events, NEP 2020 will gently waft into the dustbin. The problems of language and caste have not gone away. They have become worse.
We compulsorily need to conduct all our educational programs in our own languages, with English being an add-on wherever required. This is not happening.
Secondly, unless the elephant in the room, namely caste-based reservations, is done away with in its entirety, only despair and despondency among upper caste students will continue, leading to large scale emigration to strange countries. There is simply no room for meritorious students in India today. Is this not shameful?
In the meantime, the IITs will continue to flounder on. They have ironically become prisoners of their own much-vaunted B.Tech. programs.
No research is done by B.Tech. students. So all this social media hype about the 17 year old topper wowing the world with his or her research acumen is just that—hype.
In any event, all scientific research done in India is modest to above average at best. Even the avant-garde of Indian technological research is conducted under so-called "Global Capacity Centers'' or GCCs, where cheap Indian talent does backroom work for multinationals, with India owning none of the intellectual property being produced.
The research in the IITs in basic sciences is honestly done but it is carried out by M.Sc. and Ph.D. scholars along with post-doctorals, not by the Ubermenschen who have cracked IIT JEE.
IIT basic science research is, in any event, mostly not at the cutting edge of international competition. A handful of talented individuals in India who have attained international stature in STEM research are outliers. They are not even remotely representative of Indian STEM subject researchers.
The only ones who are benefiting today from this disgraceful situation are the coaching classes, who have rapidly grown into conglomerates toying with the idea of IPOs from being shady outfits run in the back-alleys of our major cities.
I like asking uncomfortable questions, and one of my favourite questions which I have asked to many fellow academics, especially in the IITs, is "What would happen if the Computer Science B.Tech. program in IIT Bombay were suspended for one year?". The best answer I have received so far is, "There would be a revolution".
Gautam R. Desiraju is in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He has authored 475 papers and has an h-index of 103, the second highest in India.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.