Saturday, 13 January 2018

Why this brand name mania (IITs / NITs / IISERs / IIESTs / NISER / IISc) is all wrong.

It's a binary in this country today: Either you make it into one of these institutes (IITs / NITs / IISERs / IIESTs / NISER / IISc) or, barring obtaining admission in very few other institutes such as BITS Pilani, BIT Mesra, etc., you are (incorrectly) condemned as being second rate.

This is stupidity.

And this stupidity has seeped deeper into our psyche than you would imagine. We have entire generations obsessed with somehow getting admission in these institutes and getting their brand names stamped on their foreheads instead of focussing on the real and relevant stuff: What subjects does one enjoy? What profession does one want to take up? How best can one be of service to society? Does one even want to be in the field of science and technology in the first place? And if so, which field motivates and inspires one the most?

Parents are not to be left too far behind. One hears ever so frequently: Hamein apne bacche ko IIT karaana hai. Note: "IIT karaana hai", not "Engineer banana hai". What does "IIT karaana hai" even mean? Aur aap sure hain kya ki aapke bacche ko engineer banna bhi hai?

This "brand name mania" is like a rusted nail that has penetrated the individual and social psyche in this country and is doing immeasurable harm.

The sense of casteism inherent in defining institutes as being "great" by birth and family is of course hard to miss. And it stinks. To understand this point clearly: Think of the new IITs that have opened up recently. Automatically, without even having put in the effort to build themselves up to a certain standard, they have a stronger brand strength than some of the NITs which have been around for a while, have done well, but are "defined" to be "second tier".

But this is not going to be a post with empty rants. I suggest an alternate modality that I believe is healthier and more comprehensive:

An approach that would be better in my opinion is instead of having "chains of institutes" with the same overall brand name (IITs / NITs / IISERs / IIESTs / NISER / IISc), 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 being good just because it is called an IIT.

[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 - that has hurt academics and education in India beyond measure and probably needs to be just thrown out of the window and replaced with something wiser.]

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.

In fact, we can go one step further: Instead of having institutes focused on science and technology (with a side presence of Humanities and Social Sciences departments), it might be better to transition them to being Universities that are academically richer with a more diverse spectrum of disciplines. 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.

[Again, note that this can be done without foregoing the safeguards built into the Institutes of Technology Act.]

So consider our IITs / NITs / IISERs / IIESTs / NISER / IISc being renamed to C. V. Raman University, Aryabhatta University, etc. This would not only be a more academic comprehensive approach to educate the next generations of students but also: (a) cast aside this meaningless obsession with brand names in one swift stroke and allow everyone to focus on what's really important once again: Knowledge and (b) end this casteist mindset of defining institutes as being first tier, second tier, etc. by birth and family.

In addition, I think its about time to challenge the "government universities are necessarily better than private universities" mindset. To drive home my point I simply point out that MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, Caltech, Princeton are all private universities. We need to see a similar emergence of high quality private universities that are committed to academic excellence from India.

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