This is the question that I get asked most often (second only to, "which college should I join"). And I know I disappoint my readers on this.
Most of the time, the question is asked in a way that they are really asking me, "are you with us or are you with them." And the answer is that I am with neither.
On one extreme, we have this group of people mostly those who have benefited from IIT education and brand and who hope to continue to benefit from the brand. Their viewpoint is that IIT brand is a result of their hardwork, and therefore, only they have a right over the brand, and the Government has no business diluting the brand. Often this group would grudgingly admit that there may be a slow expansion of the IIT system, perhaps a new IIT every decade. Another argument given is that if at all expansion is needed, existing IITs can grow (even that at a very slow pace) instead of establishing new IITs.
On the other extreme, we have two strong lobbies. One is a set of people who want the benefit of IIT brand, and think that the current capacity may not get them that benefit (read, admission to a program in an IIT). They, of course, have as much right to take advantage of IIT brand as anyone else, and hence IIT system should be expanded quickly. The other lobby is that of politicians who would want to have an IIT in their backyard to reap electoral benefits from this, or they genuinely believe that having an IIT in their state/region would help in development of that state/region, even though there is very little evidence of that happening with the older IITs. Both these groups want 10 more IITs in the next one year. The slogan of one IIT in every state is just the beginning. Once we have 25+ IITs, they will point out that UP has two IITs (unless UP is bifurcated by then), and hence all large states should have two IITs.
The anti-expansion group points out that the new IITs started in the last 6 years have not been able to attract quality faculty, and no new IITs should be opened till all existing IITs have a reasonable fraction of faculty on their respective rolls. This group also talks about supporting other engineering colleges and bringing them up to the level of IITs. If at all, new high quality engineering colleges have to be opened, they can be given different names.
These are inconsistent arguments, and the only thing they are saying is that the brand value of IITs is important to them, and that should be preserved at all costs. Otherwise, if new IITs have not been able to hire faculty, how would new high-quality institutes with a different name would attract faculty. How would additional support to NITs would help them attract faculty. I can understand an argument which the planning commission has given - the sudden large expansion of the entire higher education system has spread ourselves too thin and hence we should consolidate before going for further expansion. But to argue against expansion of just the IIT system and support expansion of higher education in general is inconsistent, or elitist. It is essentially saying that they don't care about the quality of education in general. Let everyone in the country get poor quality higher education - they are not bothered - but let the quality education remain restricted to people like them. Sorry, can't agree with that.
I think we need to put our heads together and figure out how to expand high quality education, how do we attract faculty, how do we encourage more of youth to go for PhD and academic careers, and how do we take advantage of technology to offer quality education to larger numbers. May be encourage more philanthropy, may be higher budgetary support, tuition decontrol along with options of loans or subsidy which has to be paid back as higher income tax or whatever.
The pro-expansion groups are too much in a hurry. They would just want that an institute be declared open and the admissions should take place without even the first faculty member being on roll. The labs and classrooms can wait. Note that the government won't allow any private sector player to start a college like this. In fact, this is patently illegal, not just wrong. But then who can read the law to the law makers.
I can not possibly side with such a group either.
My own view is that we should consider expansion of IIT system. This expansion can partly come from expansion of existing IITs and partly from creating new IITs. However, any expansion should be well planned at least in terms of financial inputs and infrastructure. Before a new IIT is announced, it should be ensured that the land has already been allotted for it, just to give one example of planning. Most new IITs had to delay their construction work for years because the land was not available. Temporary structures can be built very quickly in one part of that land. A full time Director should be recruited at least a year before the first admissions take place. The first few faculty members and staff should focus on building infrastructure and creating processes in the new institute, along with very few students, perhaps only PhD students. The larger admissions (particularly, under-graduate students) should happen only after the Institute has finished construction of temporary buildings.
The idea that most expansion should come from existing IITs and not from new IITs is based in the logic that creating incremental infrastructure is easier than building something from scratch. However, the data does not support this. In April, 2008, all IITs were told to go for 54% expansion forced by an act of Parliament. Six years later, how many IITs have built infrastructure to handle that 54% expansion. Perhaps none. Certainly IIT Kanpur is nowhere close to completing that expansion and may take another 3 years at the very least. I am sure most if not all new IITs would have sufficient infrastructure for their first 1000 students by then, even when it took them years to get full possession of land.
And finally, the issue of branding. First of all, Government of India has an important stake in that brand, and not just alumni and faculty. So a claim like it has been built exclusively by the hard work of faculty and alumni is denying credit to the Government, which has generously supported the Institutes for over six decades. I believe that each institute should try to create its own brand, and compete with other IITs. If one promotes a pan-IIT brand, then of course an entry of lesser quality IIT would dilute that brand. But if there was no pan-IIT brand, but an IIT Kanpur brand and an IIT Bombay brand, then these brands would not be so easily affected by the existence of a poorer cousin.
Above all, the issue is not about opening new IITs but how to expand high quality segment of higher education in India. I am all for planned expansion of IIT system as the branding will make it easiest to attract quality faculty and other resources. (And planned should not be confused with "slow" - I suggest a minimum growth rate of 3 percent per year in size, higher than the growth rate of the population in the country.) But this should be done in parallel with significant increase in financial support and granting autonomy to other engineering colleges and looking at bottlenecks that they face in improving the quality to IIT level and even beyond.
And finally, is there nothing that I find wrong with expansion of IIT system. Note that I was one of the few faculty members within the IIT system in 2008 voicing support for IIT expansion and I do feel that while there were a lot of problems that new IITs have faced and continue to face, and that a slower expansion of one IIT per year (and not one per decade as some would demand) would have been better, the quality that they offer today justify their existence.
But what I have noticed as a negative fallout of the same is the following: The IIT Council has expanded and now has 16 Directors and 16 Chairpersons of the boards, besides other members. Such a large group can not have any meaningful discussions. Considering that Minister chairs these meetings, the time for the meeting is quite limited. In a large group, there will always be people who would want to please the Minister and the Ministry officials, and would tend to speak in favor of Ministry's agenda. Given that the meeting times are short, alternate views don't get expressed as strongly as they used to be earlier. Sometimes the minister may be benevolent and allow things which individual IITs want, but it is much simpler to have common policies across the Institutes. And it has become easier for ministers to have their say in the IIT Council. We need to really think about how to safeguard our autonomy in a large system, and without autonomy, the quality will necessarily go down.
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