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'Indian industry not sophisticated enough to absorb IIT-quality engineer'

Pramath Sinha, founding Dean of the ISB, says we must build new institutions right from day one

Anjuli Bhargava 

Pramath Sinha
Pramath Sinha

The government is expected to finalise the new policy in the coming year. A new committee has been set up to decide the contours of the policy. Experts and educationists have been arguing for more autonomy for institutions of national importance like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). In this context, Pramath Sinha, an IIT alumnus and founding Dean of the Indian School of Business, spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on why very few IITians who stay in India remain and why the of today are no longer the of yesterday. Excerpts:

The of today are not the you studied in. Tell me what has changed and why many feel quality of the offered has dropped?
There are two principal problems. One is of leadership. The other is of autonomy.

IIT directors are like chief executive officers (CEOs) of an organisation. So, how you select the directors is of huge significance. While we have some stellar directors today, most of the time the process of selection is such that the best candidates don’t make it. I am not saying this is always the case but we have generally seen less than capable directors heading If you have directors with the right leadership skills, the government will also be more comfortable in granting greater autonomy. 

The current application process needs to become a search process from an application process. Today, for the IITs, the process of selection is led entirely by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Often, it recruits in batches, for say 5 at a time. It requires people to apply for the job. At some level, the recruitment process of low-level staffer is no different from the recruitment of an IIT director.

Asking for applications for the post is flawed because often those who are not top-notch end up applying for what is an aspirational top-tier job. Short-listed candidates are typically interviewed by a group of officials. 

At times after going through the whole process, it is cancelled for some vague reason and candidates must re-apply. This is very humiliating for candidates and turns off the best people. The best ones also often don’t bother to apply because they believe they don’t have the “influence” needed. Today, the process of selection is “sarkari”, archaic and disrespectful to the top-notch leaders that each one of our needs.

We have solved this to some extent at the older IIMs. Ahmedabad is currently looking for a director and the search process is led by its board. They have hired a search firm who is proactively wooing high-potential candidates. This is a far better system and one that needs to be adopted across all and IIMs. 

The second point is autonomy. are still pretty much run under the control of the MHRD. Furthermore, the constant media spotlight that these institutions face politicises the running of the further.

One final but important point about research. are primarily churning out bachelors and masters students. But great institutions need to produce PhDs who are generating original research. 

Also, we may have increased research budgets in recent years but if you want to compete with the best in the world, these budgets are still a drop in the ocean. Most of the money goes into adding new infrastructure and paying salaries. There is often very little money to invest behind faculty to help them be more productive.

Was it a good decision to start all these new
My first reaction would have been don’t dilute focus from existing IITs; just try and improve the ones that you already have. But the truth of the matter is that this country needs several hundred new universities. We cannot stop building new institutions — we must make sure we build them right from day one. 

So, like a lot of IITians, I would be afraid to dilute the IIT brand. But, as I have come to see what some of the new are doing or have done, I am very impressed. Look at IIT Guwahati. I understand Gautam Barua has built a thriving campus with great students and faculty. Look at IIT Gandhinagar and what Sudhir Jain has managed to do in a short time with their great faculties, their liberal arts courses and their translation conferences. It’s a vibrant atmosphere.

Again, this brings me back to my point of leadership. You put a strong leader in charge, you will see the results. A bigger issue is location. Some of the new have been set up in pretty remote locations for political reasons. Places where it is hard to attract good faculty or even good students. Like IIT Mandi or IIT Patna. It’s not even Patna; it’s in Bihta, 35 km from Patna. These are places people are trying to leave; it is hard to attract people — students or faculty — to come there to live and study.

But the government’s argument will be that we need new institutions in such places; else the pressure on institutions of higher in Delhi etc. keeps rising.
Yes but the students and faculties coming to IIT Patna are not from Bihar really. You are not really helping the local economy. are national institutions; not regional ones. The fundamental challenge in setting up high-new institutions is the inability to attract high-faculty. By starting them in remote locations we are starting these new with a massive handicap. 

What about the JEE examination? How do we avoid Kota suicides and such cases from happening?
One has to change the aperture of the filter. You need a more holistic approach. To start with, create one national level test that can be taken more than once a year. Consolidate the plethora of entrance examinations. Revenues of the coaching are many X of the budgets of themselves. 

Create something like Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in the US. Look at the class 12 marks, do a SAT like examination and like some of the IIMs have started to do, give weightage to other factors. The IIMs have started giving weightage to interviews, work experience, a whole range of other factors are being looked at now. Give autonomy to and they will start innovating on admissions themselves.

How come none of the IITians I have met over the years — and I have met a few hundred — are anymore? They are some of the best minds but they are not Why?
This is absolutely true and there is a reason for it. Why do our do so well in the US and overseas and they mostly opt out of engineering if they remain in India? I believe I have found the answer to that. This is primarily because in India we don’t have choice or flexibility in choosing what we want to study or major in.

Let me give you my own example here. I wanted to study at IIT I ranked 994 in JEE. For IIT it was a low rank and the best I could manage was metallurgical engineering. I wasn’t considered good enough for anything else. I had a miserable time for a while at IIT — I had no interest in the subject but was majoring in it just to be at IIT

It doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. Say you are good enough to get into (MIT) and then MIT says you can only do this; you are not good enough to major in anything else.

I went onto Penn (University of Pennsylvania) after and they said you can study what you want. I switched to mechanical engineering for my Masters and then did a PhD in robotics under a thesis supervisor from computer science. I went on to be an engineering academic and researcher because I could pursue what I wanted and became really interested in the subject.

Also, when the were set up, there were just a handful of professions —engineering, civil service and medicine. That is no longer the case. The best and brightest minds study at the — even  if they didn’t want to end up as The remain the best educational  institutions in the country so the best students go there regardless of what they study. So, the best people want to go to the best institutions regardless of what they teach. Just as I did not go to IIT to become a metallurgical engineer and I have never worked as a metallurgist in my life. But, I spent four precious years studying it.

So, hardly any IIT student gets what is called a “core” job in India after finishing IIT today. Moreover, in many disciplines, the Indian is not sophisticated enough to absorb an IIT-engineer — you may study aeronautical engineering at IIT but which aeronautical company in India will hire you? So, most of them go abroad or just quit engineering and get into software or management.

Moreover, if employers want a good person, they take a good person regardless of what he or she specialised in. So, an Amazon, Flipkart, and so on are not hiring only computer scientists; they are just hiring smart guys. A McKinsey is not looking to hire an engineer out of IIT; just a smart guy. And these are the most sought-after, aspirational companies for IIT graduates.