Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why the IITs are Dying

It really breaks my heart to launch this vicious tirade "against" my alma-mater. I hope this assault is not viewed as ingratitude or malice. Because I had five of the best years of my life at IIT Madras, where I met the best people in the world and worked with some of the finest brains in Indian Academia.

There is a virus infecting the IIT system in India. And this virus is not Ramiah, everybody's punching bag. Neither is it Bansal nor Fiitjee. The whole thing goes much deeper. IITs are actually a very unique institution. They are Nehru's brainchilds, relics of a socialist era that India has left behind.

In a land with almost no quality educational options, IITs are a guarantee of a six figure salary - a guarantee of a life filled with relative prosperity. And it is this natural quest for money (and often, sadly, an American Job) that makes parents coerce their children into studying for a horrendously difficult exam. Crammeries such as the aforementioned Ramiah and Bansals abound - and with their draconian regulations, they "coach" the average student to "crack" the J.E.E.

In a land with over-whelming poverty, the very idea of "interest" is a luxury. It is often very likely that a certain student's major holds no passion for the student. Whilst a student might love finance, he might find himself working on Civil Engineering.

I am a Mechanical Engineer. I was in a batch of 75 students, most of whom are very intelligent. The top few in the batch were excellent mechanical engineers. They made their way into MIT, Illiois-Urbana and the like for a Masters Degree - and look! It now disgusts me to say that they have currently prostituted themselves into working for companies such as Capital One and Standard Chartered as business consultants. Why did the Indian taxpayers spend 5 lakhs per head on each of them? So that they can go to a foreign land and work on a foreign field? Return on investment, I don't think so.

But one must not blame the students entirely. Passion is a difficult emotion to cultivate - especially in the dog-eat-dog world of many, many Indians battling for the same scarce resources. In the U.S. even a waiter at McDonalds gets enough to live well. And since ample educational opportunities are available (albeit at a price) - a person interested in finance actually can pursue finance in the undergraduate years (change branches, if necessary). Not so, in India. It is either an engineer or a doctor - unless you are some sort of a nut.

And let's not let the teachers off the hook, either. I had a few miserable experiences back there at IIT (and I won't name names right now). [Though more than 60% were fantastic!]. I have issues with the kind of research they do there: philosophical and profound:yes, but realistic? That is debatable. In most good US universities, the industry funding model is quite robust - forcing a degree of realism. India will get there soon, one hopes.

I reallty don't see any hope for the undergraduates at IIT. Though there are a few students who do pursue PhDs in the long run, (and make a difference to society in the field they were trained to work on at IIT) - that percentage is dwindling - thanks to seductive offers made by those "investment bankers" in India itself! I think India should also upgrade its other colleges to IIT level. Nothing could be better than making all local colleges as good as IIT at the U.G level. (But where will be get the teachers from?).

The only hope for IITs is to reinvent themselves as good graduate schools. And the IITs have started work in that direction with the introduction of "dual degrees" (like yours truly). I wish them all the best in the future. And I also hope that they get some competition from the scary monopoly they have on talent.

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