Technical Education-A View Point
M. A. Pai
Engineering--A Brief Look Back:
India has had a long tradition of research in the physical sciences starting from the pre-independence days. In the engineering or more broadly in the technical education field, it really started in a big way in the 50's thanks to the vision of Nehru. The Sarkar committee created the five Indian Institute of Technologies and each of them produced excellent engineers through state of the art curriculum. Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur gave the lead in terms of a new approach to technical education through the introduction of a semester system, course wise promotion, integration of science with engineering, production of indigenous textbooks and finally starting the B.Tech, M.Tech and Ph.D degree programs in computer science. Needless to say these activities have had a big multiplier effect nationwide and have become the norm. Education being primarily a state subject, has seen phenomenal growth in Indian engineering colleges, and like in any other industrially advanced countries, we also have engineering institutions that can be calibrated in terms of quality. In the 50's, the vision of Nehru together with men like Bhabha, Sarabhai and Bhatnagar created the infrastructure of space, atomic energy, national as well as defense laboratories which have legitimately made India a self reliant country. Events like the Pokhran, Agni or the ISRO satellites are ample testimony to the high level of Indian expertise. It is also noteworthy that the success of these technologies relied very little on the graduates of the IITs. For example, Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) had its own in-house training program for the Bachelor degree holders in science. There is an important lesson to be learnt from this. The basic background of most of those seeking admission to degree-granting engineering schools is good. The successful and the well-prepared ones for the entrance examination get into the IITs. The rest get into other technical institutions. This is somewhat similar to the U.S., where there is fierce competition to get into the Ivy League or so-called elite schools. Recent research has shown that those graduating from these elite schools are better "connected" and have "peer" competition. In the long run they do slightly better than equally good students going through not so elite schools.
In India, those graduating from IITs have definitely a better chance of getting into post-graduate studies abroad in good schools. However, noting from the success of Indians in the Silicon Valley, there are a large number of non-IIT people who are equally successful. Assuming that an IIT student stays in India, it is difficult to guess whether in the long run they have an edge over other students. This is a point that authorities must consider before allocating resources to technical education.
Choices, Solutions & Strategies:
For one reason or another there has always been an opposition to the increase of admissions to IITs since the 70,s. If one looks at he space utilization of the class rooms and labs, one can easily make a case for increasing enrolment by incremental investment. If one cannot increase the intake to IITs what are the choices left? There are several that one should consider. Apparently the fees are increasing at the IITs and they are encouraged to find funding from industries or the alumni. This is a welcome move. But this increases their "eliteness" even more. It is also argued that it is difficult to recruit faculty with Ph.Ds in IITs. This problem has always been solved by taking top ranked M.Techs who teach as well as work for a Ph.D. In a country of one billion people, there has to be more of the institutions of the quality of IITs.
The key factor that distinguishes an IIT from other schools is the undergraduate curriculum and of course the quality of faculty. The non IITs must upgrade their curricula. This is beginning to happen in some schools. In the early 70's through the Quality Improvement Programs (QIP) many faculty from non IITs got their Ph.Ds from the IITs. This has resulted in some improvement of the curricula. However, more needs to be done to bring many of them on par or even close to the level of IITs. Human Resource Developmen (HRD) Ministry must allocate proper resources and monitor the performance through an accreditation mechanism. The discussion so far has been restricted to undergraduate curricula only.
Stressing Post-Graduate Education-need for a Paradigm Shift:
The question is can the existing IITs deliver? Given the current scenario, only the IITs can increase the output of M.Techs and Ph.Ds. One possible solution, though drastic, is to convert IITs into post-graduate institutions only, just as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has done. IITs can take good talent from engineering schools and concentrate on R&D and postgraduate training. As indicated, this is a drastic solution and perhaps may not be welcomed by many. The other alternative is to have QIP type program for the industry. This is particularly needed for the engineering and software industry if they have to graduate to the level of producing products instead of services and collaboration. Academic institutions also need these products for maintaining their excellence. IITs & IISc must take a lead in Distance Education (DE) at the post graduate level where many foreign universities are already making their presence felt.
 R. J. Samuelson, "The Worthless Ivy League?", Newsweek, November 1, 1999.