x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Minister attacks research standards at India's prestigious IIT colleges

India¿s environment minister says 'there is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs', sparking row with opposition party but bringing agreement from many academics.

Every year, more than 450,000 students take the Indian Institutes of Technology exam, hoping for entry to the hallowed public engineering institutes. Slightly more than 13,000 passed in 2010, a 3 percent success rate. Saurabh Das / AP Photo
Every year, more than 450,000 students take the Indian Institutes of Technology exam, hoping for entry to the hallowed public engineering institutes. Slightly more than 13,000 passed in 2010, a 3 percent success rate. Saurabh Das / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // A cabinet minister's blunt criticism of the work of the faculty at India's most prestigious educational institutions has set off a storm of controversy, and also brought into debate the quality of scientific innovation and research in India, particularly in the government-funded Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

Last week, Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, told reporters: "There is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs. The faculty is not world-class; it is the students in IITs who are world-class. So the IITs are excellent because of the quality of students, not because of quality of research or faculty."

There are now 15 IITs, universities focused on science and engineering, in India; Mr Ramesh graduated from the IIT in Mumbai in 1975 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.

Ever since the IITs' establishment, they have been synonymous with India's ambitions. In 1956, the then Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking at the convocation of the first IIT, saw the institute as "representing India's urges, India's future in the making. [It] seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India".

Of the 400,000-plus candidates who take the IIT entrance examinations every year, only the top 13,000 or so are selected. The IITs have acquired a reputation for academic rigor and for producing intelligent, well-trained undergraduates. Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, once called India's IITs "an incredible institution".

This close association of the IITs with India's stature has been augmented over the past decade, as the graduates of these institutes have started to power the intellectual economy.

Mr Ramesh's criticism thus drew a sharp response from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "The BJP wants to say categorically that it is proud of our IITs," said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a party spokesman. "There is hardly a Fortune 500 Company which is not headed by or has somebody in a senior position who is a former IITian or an IIM (Indian Institute of Management) pass-out."

Such was the unpopularity of Mr Ramesh's remarks that, three days later, his own cabinet colleague, the human resources minister, Kapil Sibal, issued a rebuttal and an explanation.

"The discourses on these premier institutes should be based on evidence and not on perceptions," Mr Sibal said, adding that he had "complete trust in the creative potential of the faculty of IITs. While the US spends $250 billion [Dh918bn] on research, India spends around $8 billion. Is this the fault of the faculty?"

But commentators have also used this occasion to point out that Mr Ramesh's opinion on the quality of the original research conducted by faculty at these institutes was fairly accurate.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Sandipan Deb, an IIT alumnus and the author of the book The IITians, pointed out that Mr Ramesh was "merely articulating Indian higher education's worst-kept secret".

Recalling working with a government committee trying to improve the IIT system, Mr Deb wrote: "There was not much interaction — one committee member was repeatedly dozing off — and the same problems were discussed: faculty, faculty and faculty."

According to a survey in 2009 by Thomson Reuters, the number of research publications out of India increased from 16,500 in 1998 to 30,000 in 2007.

But in comparison to China, India's quality and quantity of research appear weak. Last year's Science and Engineering Indicators report, published by the National Science Foundation in the United States, ranked India 11th and China second in terms of publication output. In 1995, India was ranked 12th and China 14th.

"Funding has a lot to do with it," said T A Abinandanan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the author of Nanopolitan, a popular blog focused on higher education. He pointed out that Johns Hopkins University in the United States gets close to $2bn of funding for its research, whereas the IITs share a pool of about $160 million.

"In addition to this funding," Mr Abinandanan said, "the IITs can apply for further research grants from the government." But the total of such available grants works out to an annual $450m; the remainder, out of Mr Sibal's figure of $8bn, is allocated to government research organisations in atomic energy, space, agriculture and defence.

M S Ananth, the director of the IIT in Chennai, also sees an interface between academia and industry as crucial. "Almost every university in the US has a research park, and China is in the process of building more than 100 of them," he said. "This is where ideas are exchanged, and it helps to keep research relevant."

The first research park in an IIT has just begun to operate on Dr Ananth's campus. "There are 37 companies there now, and I can already see a difference," he said.

Dr Abinandanan said that the emphasis in Indian institutions, for faculty members, weighed more towards teaching and less towards research. He pointed to a paucity of good graduate students, "so research becomes difficult, and we have to do a lot more handholding".

A government-appointed committee also noted that the schools have a dearth of graduate students. "The IITs graduate about 1,000 PhD scholars per year now," said a report issued by the committee this month. "The number of PhD students graduating in India in engineering and technology is around a factor of 10 less as compared to China and USA."

The IITs don't get these graduate students, said Dr Ananth, because most students go abroad for their doctoral degrees or move into full-time corporate employment. "The economy is doing well, and the salaries out there are much higher," he said. "You can't blame them for that choice, but it is true that the backbone of research has to be a doctoral and post-doctoral system, and we don't have that."

A comparison of the IITs with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Cambridge or Caltech is, Dr. Ananth said, an invalid one. Those universities have had much longer to build their research cultures, and they are funded "almost two orders of magnitude better" than the IITs.

"A better comparison would be with the average state university in the US, and in that respect, I think we do quite well," he said. "Speaking for the five original IITs, we publish on average three papers per faculty member. In Purdue University in the US, a very good state school, that number is 1.8. So I'm not worried. I think that research has picked up tremendously, and that we're being unnecessarily impatient."