Now that the IIT teachers’ agitation has been put on hold, attention should turn to what needs doing to put this important educational brand on a long-term path of good health and growth. These institutes’ traditional weakness, when it comes to research, has been underlined, in the meantime, by the awarding of a Nobel to an Indian-born scientist working in Cambridge. The question arises, is it enough to produce good engineers, or should elite educational centres seek to achieve more by expanding the frontiers of human knowledge? There might be some conflict between the goals of teaching and research (faculty time is finite, after all), but the best institutions manage to do both very well.
IITs already have the best possible intake and produce some of the best engineers in the world. Where they barely succeed is in delivering world-class research. The widely-cited academic ranking of world universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University includes only two Indian institutions—Indian Institute of Science and IIT Kharagpur—in its 2008 list of the global top 500, and that too in the 303-401 cluster (only the top 100 are individually ranked). On number of publications, IISc scores 33 and IIT Kharagpur 28.8, in comparison to global leader Harvard scoring 100 and Asian leader Tokyo University 83.3. In the Webometrics ranking of world universities, on the ‘scholar’ attribute (which uses the number of papers and citations for each academic domain in Google Scholar), IISc ranks the highest among Indian institutions at 281, followed by the University of Delhi at 338, IIT Bombay at 566, ISI Bangalore at 668, TIFR at 711and IIT Kanpur at 773.
To acquire a credible research capability, the IITs have to bring in top researchers to supplement the work of the best who are already there. To attract such talent and retain them, a favourable research environment has to be created. There is more to this than paying well, because faculty facilities and labs could well be the bigger constraint. The teachers’ association first sought higher pay, but later said micro-management by the government was a bigger issue. But a system of rewards and weeding out of non-performers has to (and can) be put in, especially since tallies of publications, citations in scholarly journals and patent applications filed are already actively tracked. One way of institutionalising this is to introduce a full-fledged tenure track in which not all those who join as assistant professors get tenure. It is difficult to see the teachers’ association being comfortable with this. They will quite naturally prefer a perpetuation of the present system, in which the security of a government job goes with career progression over time and an absence of any formal system of weeding out of non-performers. A more formalised system of rewards and disincentives is what is needed—but this necessarily involves selectivity, the very idea of which faces resistance.
There is also a need to institutionalise the government’s role. The IITs have a formal governing structure which the government seems to have side-stepped in recent weeks. It would be best to honour the framework for institution-government interface, and to set the right precedents in this context. The budget support that the government gives could, in fact, be linked to performance, and formalised through a memorandum of understanding of the kind that is signed between the government and some of the enterprises it owns. Finally, the selection of the directors of these institutions should be done with an eye to the future. In the last 20 years, China has taken major strides in research by putting younger academics with proven capabilities in charge of national research institutions.