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A new season of IIT aspirants, a new bunch of wide-eyed, anxious parents, a new set of questions regarding the credibility of “IITs” as a system, a new range of doubts about pay-packets and lack of student interest….Somehow, we do not tire of talking, writing or thinking about IITs.

At least I do not….I will not give facts and figures in this article, will just debate the gossips from the grape-vines of academia. It’s been a three month long break from Iris. Have missed connecting with you all over this long hiatus.  Someday if time and space permit me and if I am really able to narrate, will narrate the stories of the past three months.

All through my life, I have been a rather boring talker and more of a curious listener who picks-up bits and pieces of drawing room conversations and sometimes weaves stories of them. There are no doubt a lot of valid points in these drawing room chats — some of which are meant as harmless gossips to be heard and forgotten. These drawing-room conversations are not always baseless — they are symptomatic of deeper issues that people would perhaps not discuss in a formal setup.

As someone who has been on both sides of the table: as a student and immediately after graduation as a faculty in the IIT system (believe me it hasn’t been any easy :)), mostly I am in a state of confusion when writing “objectively” about a mega-system like an IIT. Let me confess my own subjective biases for the system even before I start writing. This article is a refusal to defend — but I would like to present my own picture of the glossy and not-so-glossy side of this system as I have experienced it as a student and then as a faculty.

Recently, in one of the drawing-room conversations, a friend pointed-out that IITs are “not” the best in education and that “these  engineers” are lop-sided and often “superficial” in their views and overhyped. They are not aware of social, and cultural issues, and it’s only the money that keeps them glued to whatever they are doing.  Additionally, there is the lack of “sheen”  in IITs. There is a dip in the pay-packets and students are unnecessarily pressurized from school days to get into the IITs by parents. Further, there is a lack of interest in students to read and learn — the pressure of “making” into an IIT is so high, that the post-burden of courses and education weigh high upon them.

There are no doubt some valid aspects of these points.  However, I have a strong disagreement with some of these points. Especially, when people in responsible positions including bureaucrats talk about these issues without giving the psychological dimensions a thought, it portrays a sad picture of the story.

I did not bring myself to argue in the drawing room scenario deliberately, but was making mental notes of these points so that will be able to discuss them on Iris. These points  might be also doubts that come into the minds of a bulk of our population.

The first aspect that comes to mind is the young age that students start preparing for IIT-JEEs. Perhaps, class 8th or 9th and for some it is class 6th or 7th. We come across this issue of parents forcing their children to make into IITs and after that being extra-possessive about their daughters/sons when they graduate.  While there is a lot of truth in these statements,  let us not forget that IITs are perhaps singularly the only system that have catered to the dreams of an average “middle-class” or “lower-middle class” Indian family to give a high-end education to their children.  Some of their children graduate to be the who’s who of Silicon Valley while some get into graduate studies at the best places of the world, including the majority of Ivy league colleges. The amount that a young IIT graduate earns at the age of 24-25 (including those with the least pay-packets) has been beyond the dream of some of their entire family’s income collectively put together. The gap of pressure and performance in IITs do not in my opinion come from parents only, it comes from the gaps in the economic standards of two generations. Moreover, the lack of public awareness for education, the complete ignoring of some of the promising pedagogic disciplines that have gone into disuse over time, and the lack of interest in alternative learning systems account for this excessive obsession that Indian population has for IIT admissions.

What is the average pay-packet of IITians? In our conversation people discussed the “low” pay-packets and the dipping placement scenario. I would say — that is pure fiction.  Those of us who have been through the grind and who have witnessed the  depressing placement seasons at IITs (I mean depressing because friends suddenly turn competitors during these seasons) are made to realize time and  again the value of money. IITs have been a few among institutions that have survived the onslaught of  recession. The average monthly income of an individual in India is Rs. 3000 (Courtesy: Express India). While in older IITs people crib about a 22 lakh package as “less than” their friend’s 29-30 lakh package, in the new IITs the scene will begin to clearly emerge after two or three batches start moving out and the alumni base starts strengthening itself with the pool. In an article in the “Economic Times” of December 2011, the highest gross package of an IITian in 2011 placements have been accounted as 75 lakhs (< http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-12-03/news/30471827_1_iit-campuses-final-placement-n-ramesh-babu&gt;) . I am quoting money and placements here because perhaps that is something that immediately strikes an average thought.

It would also depend on how the young breed of faculty define a clear goal for their own IITs and steer the institutes along those directions. As far as my study goes, in the older IITs like Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Delhi, the first generation faculty members had a clear defined goal set for their institutions: to set-up a high-end undergraduate technical education that would match the best among the international standards. That was clearly achieved over fifty years time. But now what? Where to go next? We keep talking about “research” without getting into the dynamics of teaching and research.

In the Indian scenario, there is a strong political and public apathy when an institution over-reaches itself and establishes its autonomy beyond the state unlike the United States where an institution becomes a public pride if it does great work. I am citing the example of United States because Indian academia of late has been trying to follow a lot of the “US model”. This has been the fate of many brilliant Indian universities (I am deliberately not naming them) in the past . We go by the casual “chalta-hai” attitude and our ways are more of empty critiquing than constructive suggestions to build a system. We pull down systems with empty procrastination rather than building them.

IITs are in a crucial cusp at this moment which would define their position in the long run, and instead of following models if they develop their own model of education, then perhaps the entire South-Asia would have something to talk-of in terms of an educational capital. My limited thought is a strong PhD base along with an equally strong undergraduate teaching.It is only over the last few years that people have started recognizing the economic benefits attached to a PhD degree in India.  The time when we have the brightest of our undergraduate IITians or Central University students or high-end private engineering college students joining for research at an IIT instead of opting for a university abroad, I would consider that as the beginning of a new era of success and as the process of “rebranding”. The other part would consist of public support and more of research initiatives that would be of use to India in whatever possible ways. An institution should emerge as pride for the people that it serves.

As far as the lack of emotional, social, and cultural awareness in IITians (specifically “engineers”) are concerned, I would say that perhaps some of the best known names in writing and theater at this moment are from these institutions. It’s not one institution, the common sentiment among students all over the world is a lack of an appetite for reading or for socio-cultural issues.  History says that there have been motivating teachers behind a successful student (king in the ancient times).  A Chanakya was responsible for making a Chandragupta, an Upagupta was responsible for a converted Ashoka. It is not information that creates responsible students in my opinion, it is rather your attitude towards life and academics. How we create that attitude would more or less depend on us. Moreover, let us accept that the basic training in IITs are to make “good engineers”, how we add the responsive and emotionally balanced and honest individual to that list, would depend more or less on us as friends, parents, society, and teachers.

On that note…a warm weekend wish to you all :). Ciao!