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Why IIT can’t fly

Latest face-off with HRD ministry shows how tough it is for institutions to take off.

Written by M Balakrishnan |
Updated: January 2, 2015 8:36:18 am
At that stage, we were deeply disappointed with the HRD ministry for clipping our wings. At that stage, we were deeply disappointed with the HRD ministry for clipping our wings.

I am sure that by now even the prime minister has been made aware of the grave “violation” of the Institutes of Technology Act by IIT Delhi, which helped set up the International Institute of Technology Research Academy (IITRA) Mauritius. As the prime architect of IITRA Mauritius, who conceptualised as well as steered the memorandum of understanding in its early days, it would be unfair if I sit on the sidelines while completely baseless allegations are levelled against the director of IIT Delhi.

Here are the facts of the case: The seeding of the Mauritius institution did not happen at IIT Delhi at all. The then human resource development (HRD) minister, Kapil Sibal, and the Mauritius minister of tertiary education, science, research and technology, Rajesh Jeetah, agreed that India would help Mauritius set up an IIT-like institution in March-April 2011. Both the HRD ministry and the ministry of external affairs were in the know then. As follow up, the IIT council sought the help of IIT Delhi to set up the institution. Two letters related to this, dated July 11, 2011, and August 26, 2011, reached IIT Delhi even before the current director (Professor R.K. Shevgaonkar) took charge in September 2011. After he took over, I was assigned the responsibility of conducting a feasibility study. A delegation of six professors visited Mauritius in February 2012 and formulated the unique approach of establishing a research ecosystem first, before undergraduate teaching commenced. This is the strategy being followed at IITRA now.

The initial draft of the MoU envisaged the establishment of an IIT Delhi research campus (for PhD/ MSR programmes) in Mauritius, which could then evolve into an autonomous International Institute of Technology, with full-fledged BTech and MTech programmes. Once it was decided that the MoU would be signed in the presence of the then HRD minister, Pallam Raju, the ministry took a keen interest in vetting it. After hectic email consultations between the HRD ministry, IIT Delhi and the Mauritius Research Council, the draft MoU was completely modified before the ministry gave its approval. The nature of the institution to be set up as well as its governance structure was completely changed. Now, the revised MoU envisaged the setting up of IITRA Mauritius with assistance from, and not as an extension campus of, IIT Delhi.

Both the MoUs have many commonalities. All the costs of setting up and operating IITRA Mauritius would be borne by the government of Mauritius. The faculty and staff would be on the rolls of IITRA and paid by it under its terms. Research students (PhD/ MSR) would be admitted and enrolled at IIT Delhi but would be paid their assistantship by IITRA. They would follow all the academic norms, including coursework, of IIT Delhi. This would be followed by research at IITRA, with access to IIT Delhi facilities. IIT Delhi would provide academic mentorship to this institute so that it evolves into an “IIT-like institution” over the next five years.

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A key aspect of the final MoU was that, contrary to the original proposal, administrative and financial control of IITRA would not rest with IIT Delhi, making it that much harder to bring up a quality institution. At that stage, we were deeply disappointed with the HRD ministry for clipping our wings even before we could attempt to fly. This was around the time that newspapers were full of stories about an amendment to the higher education act, permitting foreign institutions to open campuses in India. In hindsight, I am profoundly thankful that the bureaucrats at the HRD ministry knew the rules — no one is allowed to fly in this country, especially if you are funded by the government.

A key innovation in the setting up of IITRA must be highlighted. Some of us feel it is worth emulating when new IITs are set up. The older IITs differ from other engineering colleges in one key respect. Their faculty, even if they are assigned undergraduate courses, are active researchers and typically teach courses in sub-disciplines in which they are aware of current trends. This is only possible if an institution has a critical mass of faculty members in any given discipline — 10 to 12, at least. In most engineering disciplines, it takes many years to reach this number if one is committed to quality. Once you have a full-fledged undergraduate programme in any discipline, you need to cover the whole range of courses.

So either you compromise on quality while recruiting faculty or allot courses outside of their specialisation. With little movement of experienced faculty across institutions within the country due to social factors, most faculty is recruited at a very young age — either freshly out of a PhD programme or with a couple of years of postdoctoral experience. These young people are full of research ideas and would love to pursue them. But instead, they are forced to invest a lot of effort in teaching courses, especially outside their area of specialisation. Many of them either look for opportunities to join older IITs or research institutions in the country and abroad. If they continue in institutions that teach a large range of courses, they quickly become mediocre researchers in their fields.

Based on this experience, we proposed a novel solution for IITRA — first build a research ecosystem and then, once a critical mass of faculty in each discipline has been reached, start with the undergraduate teaching programmes. It took us more than six months to convince the Mauritius government that such an approach would likely help build an “IIT-like institution” much faster. The Mauritius government was keen to start undergraduate programmes from Day One. Our approach was vindicated by the faculty selection at IITRA, where many expatriate Mauritians, active in research in Western countries, applied to it because of its research focus.

I am quite confident that, in the case of IITRA, we did not violate the “no-fly zone” thanks to the “maximum government” in place. The only disappointment is that this country believed in the prime minister’s “minimum government, maximum governance” call and thought that he would devote his energies to enable people to fly and not to try to enforce 60 years of “no-fly” regulation. I hope he can hear presidents of foreign universities laughing at our plight, knowing that they are not governed by rules drawn in another century, when QS rankings of universities was yet to be born.

The writer is professor, IIT Delhi and was deputy director (faculty) when IITRA was initiated.

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