Oct 8, 2011

Response to NRN's comments about IITians

Receiving criticism isn't new at all to IITs and their alumni. Is it a coincidence that such criticism almost always comes from people who did not go to IITs themselves? I think not. Anyway, when someone as eminent as Mr. Narayana Murthy speaks on a subject like this, people pay attention. To be fair, he did raise a few valid points. However, most of what he said was BS, and it is simply unacceptable for someone who is considered a potential future President of India to make such strong statements in public forums without thinking everything through.

Let's step back and examine some facts.

In the 60s and 70s - the time he talks about - the IIT JEE was taken by less than 50,000 students, for less than 2,000 seats in 5 IITs. 
The complexity of questions asked in exam was very high. 
English was one of the subjects candidates were tested on. 
There were virtually no quotas or reservations. 

In reality, this meant that you only had a shot at getting through if you'd been schooled in a good, private, English-medium school. Which in turn meant that you had to come from a family of some means, and probably from one of the bigger cities.

In other words, the IITs in that period were as elitist as they could be. Most of the students went on to join the Civil Services, or moved to the US and never came back. They did well for themselves, and went on to build a strong 'brand IIT' in places like the silicon valley. But for the govt of India - which had provided these people a good, subsidized education - the ROI was questionable.

This led to the policy shifts witnessed from the early 90s onward. The govt created some new IITs and upgraded some other existing colleges to IIT status. The intake was also increased at each institute. English was discontinued as a test subject at the JEE. Quotas were introduced for SC/ST candidates etc. The result is that the IITs now take in around 10,000 students each year, and the admission criteria are not the same as they used to be.

Now, you don't need to be a genius to realize that there will be some drop in quality when you admit the 'top 10,000' rather than the 'top 2,000'. With the revised exam pattern and admission criteria, you will also end up admitting more students from smaller towns and modest family backgrounds and they will not be as articulate or fluent in English as past generations used to be. This may not please Mr Murthy but the policy-makers have chosen to go this way, and they have good reasons for doing so.

India's priority is not to have one or two institutes that can compete with MIT on quality & prestige, but to have enough institutes to satisfy the demand for quality graduates in our growing economy. To facilitate 'inclusive growth', an IIT education has to be made more accessible to kids across different social strata and from all regions. People who resent this and complain about 'dilution of brand IIT' and 'drop in quality' are being unforgivably elitist. Mr. Murthy is one such person. If he didn't like the policies or their consequences, he should have taken it up with the appropriate authorities. Instead he made harsh, sweeping statements that could demoralize young IIT students. The kids who have worked hard to get into IITs and are doing their best to secure their future in a competitive economy certainly deserve better.

Next, let's consider the coaching institutes. These are being blamed for the drop in quality of students joining IITs. I don't really understand this argument. Is it being suggested that the candidates being admitted to IITs don't really deserve to be there, and are there only because of coaching, at the cost of other, more deserving candidates? Whoever says this - please provide some evidence to back it up. I'd like to remind such people that the JEE is one of the toughest exams to clear in the whole world. This is followed by a rigorous 4-year B.Tech. course which includes a relentless series of & exams that are equally difficult to pass. If you want to disregard the achievements of people who survive all this, and give all the credit to the coaching institutes, your arguments for doing so need to be really solid. So far, nobody's offered any.

More to the point, coaching institutes help candidates prepare for an exam. What is wrong with that? If public schools were functioning well all over the country, these institutes wouldn't be required. But as things stand today, a candidate from Bhiwadi, Bhusawal or Bihar has little hope of getting into an IIT without the help of coaching institutes. They fill the gap that the govt has created through its poor performance in providing good school education to all, and level the playing field to an extent - which I consider a good thing. Of course, the increasing presence of kids from Bhiwadi, Bhusawal and Bihar does bother some elitists.

Murthy also said that 'Coaching classes teach aspirants limited sets of problems, out of which a few are asked in the examinations.' Again, I fail to understand what is wrong with this. The JEE coaching classes are supposed to prepare you for an exam, not teach you salsa dancing or how to appreciate Mozart. If they are thorough, rigorous and focused, why is it a bad thing? In any case, students take these classes for a year or two. This is preceded by 12+ years of school, and in case of successful JEE candidates, is followed by at least 4 years at IIT in a full-time residential program. If the students lack the ability to think creatively, communicate effectively - or whatever Mr. Murthy wants - at the end of all these years of education, the blame should lie partly with schools and mostly with IITs, and it is wrong to place all of it on the coaching institutes.

It is also sad and pathetic that he chose to criticize the IIT students and the coaching institutes who are merely participants in a system they did not create and do not control. What about the IITs themselves - the institutes where these students spend so many years after JEE, and where the buck should stop when it comes to the quality of admissions as well as end-output. Shouldn't they be held responsible, especially with their huge reputation? What about the government that takes major policy decisions that affect 'brand IIT' and 'quality' more than anything else? What about the Industry that contributes virtually nothing to the processes of education and research, unlike in countries like the US that he is using as a benchmark. Does Mr Murthy not realize any of this, or does he not have the courage to go after people or bodies that might hurt his future presidency hopes?

Another theme we hear frequently is the lack of 'research' at IITs. Mr. Murthy points out that the IITs produce few PhDs compared to the US universities and even China. I feel it's a case of putting the cart before the horse. Engineers don't go for PhDs in India as there is simply no incentive. Even the few who do, complain about the absolute lack of suitable jobs. I have batch-mates from IIT who went to the US for further studies and are really keen to return to India but they simply can't find any good jobs here. The reason for this isn't hard to find. Engineers with PhDs are needed for advanced R&D, which in turn is driven by the (manufacturing) industry. USA is the most developed industrial nation in the world. China is becoming a global manufacturing hub. India still hasn't witnessed an industrial revolution, and some suspect we might never see one! We might just skip from agriculture to a service economy and rely on imports of manufactured goods from the likes of China.

This aside, the fact is that not many Indian companies invest significantly in R&D. We don't yet have a culture of entrepreneurship or innovation that could be compared to the US. Till this happens, there were be no demand for people with advanced degrees, and consequently no supply. The industry and the govt need to turn this situation around before they start complaining about lack of research or PhDs at IITs. As it is, we have millions of people with college and post-graduates degrees doing jobs that are done very well by diploma holders in other countries.

In this context, one has to question if producing more advanced degree holders - particularly PhDs in engineering - is even required by India today. Even if it is, where does it lie on our priority list? In a country where we are not even close to universal literacy, quality of public schools is appalling, and there aren't too many decent post-graduate jobs, the answer is obvious. All this talk about R&D and PhDs is reminiscent of Nehru and his 'temples of modern India' - symbolic but useless. I hope we learn from history.

I could say a lot about Mr Murthy himself. How about looking at the profile of new hires at Infosys, evaluating their 'quality', and how it has evolved over the years. If he's not happy with the quality of IIT engineers at Infosys, perhaps he should look at the farcical hiring process Infosys follows there, rather than JEE. How many PhDs does Infosys hire, where are they hired from and what are they paid? How many research projects does Infosys fund and where? Perhaps Mr Murthy should think about what he and his company are doing to improve the situation, rather than being critical of smart, hard-working 17-year-olds or the people helping them get into good colleges.