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Opportunities and Roadblocks Facing Tier I Indian Engineering Institutions

E.C. Subbarao
August 2, 2009

Like the Big Ten or the Ivy League in the U.S., there are ten to fifteen engineering institutions of similar excellence in India. These Tier I institutions include the older IITs, such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. After that, there are about fifty Tier II colleges, which include most of the National Institutes of Technology (former Regional Engineering Colleges) and some of the older engineering colleges. Tier III includes over a thousand engineering colleges, some of which are government funded, though most of which are private.

Each tier has its own special role and responsibility. For example, engineers from Tiers II and III colleges implement critical missions in government departments of Atomic Energy, Space and Defense. Of the quarter million bachelor’s level engineers produced in India each year, about five thousand and fifteen thousand emerge from Tier I and II institutions, respectively, with the rest from Tier III colleges. It is often said by impartial observers and potential employers that only 10 percent of engineers graduating in India are employable for challenging tasks. This is a very strong indictment and calls for critical evaluation and urgent remedial steps, particularly by Tier I institutions which have a special responsibility to tone up the entire engineering education system.

Tier I institutions possess many strengths. The quality of incoming students is outstanding. Of the over four hundred thousand students who appeared for the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (IITJEE) in May 2009, less than 2 percent gained admission. By comparison, typically one in ten applicants enters such prestigious institutions in the western part of the world. If IITJEE, together with high school performance, serves as the common entry point for all engineering institutions in India, students are relieved of much strain and expense.

The engineering curriculum of Tier I institutions is broad-based with components of sciences, humanities and social sciences. The curriculum itself has evolved and is periodically reviewed by its own faculty in response to an exploding knowledge base and changing industrial needs. Faculty in these institutions have received one or more degrees from the best institutions in India and/or from around the world, thereby gaining an exposure to academic excellence in course work and research. These institutions have avoided, or at least minimized, the academic in-breeding that is so common in Indian universities.

Most Tier I institutions are funded on a liberal scale by the government, a benefit not awarded to all other engineering colleges since primary and secondary education are national priorities involving major government investments. In addition, the brand image and handsome donations by the alumni are inestimable assets of these institutions.

Tier I institutions face several opportunities as well as roadblocks. These institutions are to be role models and mentors for Tier II and III colleges, much the way MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Cambridge and Oxford have long since been global guideposts for academic excellence. The fact that newer IITs are to be mentored, or even housed initially, by older IITs is a great opportunity to embed a culture of excellence in teaching and research in much the same way that the older IITs were assisted by leading institutions in U.S., U.K., Germany, and Russia. Teachers from Tier II and III institutions can be deputed to pursue doctoral programs in Tier I institutions under expanded Quality Improvement Programs (QIP) so that they can carry the curricular, pedagogic and research ethos to their parent institutions. This will provide the needed postgraduate students to Tier I institutions, while ensuring a steady stream of qualified teachers to the Tier II and III colleges. Investing in expanded QIPs is worthwhile for the government and a win-win opportunity for all.

The most crucial and attention-demanding issues facing Tier I institutions however, are the shortage of faculty, the quality and quantity of cutting-edge research, and an increasing erosion of autonomy. In 2004, the Ramarao Review Committee on IITs drew attention to the serious shortage of faculty in IITs reaching up to 60 percent compared to the sanctioned strength (with an average of 27 percent). This estimate was made before student enrollments began to be enhanced. An aggressive recruitment has to be undertaken without compromising on quality. In the 1960s, five IITs managed to add a large number of first rate faculty, mostly from abroad. If this could be done at that time, based only on promise and challenge, it should be much easier now with improved facilities, established reputations, and the shrinking of the universities abroad. Improved compensation packages, at least for the best performers, could serve as a carrot. The monetary supplement to the top teachers and researchers under the JC Bose scheme is a step in the right direction. Handsome cash awards for the best teaching, top-rated publications, largest R&D grants, and maximum patent income build a sense of internal competition. Other incentives can include annual salaries distributed in nine paychecks, leaving summers to supplement income from research grants, industrial consultancy and assignments abroad.

The present level of doctoral research in terms of quality and quantity does not qualify Tier I institutions as major research institutions in comparison to the elite ones abroad. This major lacuna needs serious attention. The postgraduate students who are the workhorses in this effort are not sufficiently enthused by the faculty mentors. The Ph.D. output of the IITs alone is about 0.3 per faculty member per year, which reduces to less than 0.2 in the case of engineering departments. IIT Kanpur awarded forty-five, sixty-one, forty-two, eighty-six and one hundred and one Ph.D. degrees from 2004 to 2008 respectively, with a faculty of about three hundred. This is distressingly low compared to one Ph.D. per faculty member per year in established research universities. Unfortunately, some engineering faculty members do not produce a single Ph.D. in an entire decade. The enhanced Ph.D. output should be ruthlessly enforced, even if a few non-performers have to leave voluntarily or otherwise. A short stint in a research university abroad or in the industry may enable laggards to recharge their batteries enough to get back on track. The industrial liberalization policies of the government are making the Indian industry feel the pinch of competition and wake up to the need for meaningful, in house R&D for newer products, and for innovative manufacturing methods for improvement of product quality, efficiency of energy and plant usage, and environmental concerns. The intellectual prowess coupled with lower costs has begun to attract major MNCs, such as GE and GM, as well as smaller but technologically more agile companies to set up R&D centers in India. All of these factors open up challenging and rewarding opportunities to more well-trained postgraduates from Tier I institutions. This is what will propel India into its rightful place in the global knowledge economy.

There has been an increasing government-based erosion of autonomy within these top institutions in recent years, whether in terms of quotas for student enrollment or faculty recruitment, or alumni donations. While equal opportunities and equity are essential in any democracy, they should be coupled with a commitment to quality. Emphasis on quality should start in school education, whereby equal opportunities will then naturally emerge. A council on higher engineering education, composed of the chairmen and directors of these elite institutions, with a few leaders from industry and scientific institutions – with minimal government representation – should guide the growth of Tier I institutions to international stature.

E.C. Subbarao was the first Dean of Faculties at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and later Founder-Director of Tata Research Development and Design Center, Pune. Email: ecsubbarao@yahoo.com

 


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