Saturday, 5 March 2016

Perhaps a more balanced view (Institutes of Science and Technology / Universities)

We have IITs and NITs (which can often be perceived as essentially being institutes of technology which also have science departments) and IISERs (which are out and out science institutes with no technology component). What we need instead, in my opinion, is "ISTs" (Institutes of Science and Technology) [or better still: universities; more on that later in the post] which emphasize science and technology equally. One way to do this would be to rename all our IITs, NITs, IISERs and NISER as IISTs (Indian Institutes of Science and Technology) and design their academic programs in a manner aligned with this spirit. [More on why I am proposing a clubbing together of IITs and NITs under one umbrella in paragraph 6 below].

I would also include IIITs in such a move. These institutes are in a very strange situation in my opinion : they are constrained by their very definition to essentially only two departments: Electrical/Electronics/Communication Engineering and Computer Science/Engineering. This limits the scope of their growth tremendously. I honestly don't understand the rationale behind setting them up. These departments, or the subject of Information Technology, could well have been emphasized more at existing institutes if such a need was felt. Why create institutes which are limited in their definition instead? I think what I am proposing above can be extended to IIITs. Rename them as IISTs as well, and redesign their academic programs accordingly.

Another approach, which would be better in my opinion, is instead of having a "chain of institutes" with the same overall brand name, we have individual brand names.

For example, say one of the IITs was renamed to "CV Raman Institute of Science and Technology". Then that would be a brand name in itself and it would be the responsibility of the institute to keep its brand name strong. It would not have the luxury to think of itself as good just because it is called an IIT. Plus consider this: Aren't all institutes in India Indian?

Such an approach would (a) bring respect and acknowledgment to people who have done well in science and technology from within the country, (b) serve as an inspiration to budding scientists and engineers in our country and (c) break the tendency of any particular set of institutes being considered better than others just because they are named in a certain way.

To understand point (c) better, think about new IITs that are opening up. Automatically, without even having put in the effort to build themselves up to a certain standard, they will have a brand strength stronger than some of the NITs which have been around for a while but are "defined" to be "second tier". This is hardly fair and has a sense of casteism about it: higher or lower by birth / family. I think we need to question this. Maybe its better to create a level playing field and let institutes earn their respectability based on the quality of knowledge generation and transmission.

To take my emphasis on the desirability of increased generality one step further: Instead of having institutes focused on science and technology (with a presence of Humanities and Social Sciences departments), it is perhaps better to move to the idea of Universities. That will allow for a far more flexible paradigm within which places of learning can evolve in potentially more diverse ways. An immediate benefit of this would be students having opportunities to explore a more diverse range of subjects, interact with a wider spectrum of academics and grow in directions in which their interests consolidate.

[Note that this can be done without foregoing the safeguards built into the Institutes of Technology Act. By no stretch of imagination am I suggesting a migration to the UGC paradigm.]

So to revisit Paragraphs 3 and 4 above: Maybe IITs, NITs, IISERs, NISER and IIITs need to move towards having individual brand names such as C. V. Raman University, Aryabhatta University, etc. and move forward in a more academically comprehensive and rich manner.

In addition I think it's about time to challenge the "government universities are necessarily better than private universities" mindset. To drive home my point I simply point out that Cornell University as well as Stanford University are private universities. We need to see a similar emergence of high quality private universities that are committed to academic excellence from India.

[I have expressed some views regarding undergraduate engineering education here]

I think what I'm proposing here achieves many objectives.

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