Work & Career

How the IITs are revamping themselves

The Ongoing Research Makeover at India's premier Technology InstitutesBCCL
The Ongoing Research Makeover at India's premier Technology Institutes
Text: Hari Pulakkat, ET bureau

A silent revolution is underway to convert IITs from mere institutions of learning to also institutions of research. If things go as planned, it could create a robust technical research ecosystem that feeds into and off industry.

We take a look at some problems that were strangling the growth of Technical research in India and how IITs are tackling it now.
Meet the Kakodkar CommitteeBCCL
Meet the Kakodkar Committee
Anil Kakodkar is a highley reputed mechanical engineer and nuclera scientist who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by Indian government in 2009. In 2011, he headed the Kakodkar committee set up by the Ministry of Human Resources Development for upgrading the quality of research and further developmentof IITs.

His committee submitted the report in which he suggested multiple ways of improving the quality and quantity of research in India. Many of which have been put into implemnetation in past two year.

Some of the Key instructions included:

Increase strength in each IIT to 1,200, against a maximum of 500 in 2011(when the report was written).
Graduate one PhD student per faculty every year, bringing the total number to 10,000 per year by 2020, against 1,000 in 2011.
Identify, for each IIT, three to four areas of strength and fund research in them massively.
Work on large projects with many groups in areas of national interest.
Create parks within IITs for private companies to collaborate and do research.

“The IITs have been changing into research institutions slowly over the past two decades.We are now accelerating this change,” Says Anil Kakodkar.
Issue : Imbalance of UG to PG courses in IITsBCCL
Issue : Imbalance of UG to PG courses in IITs
The IITs were created primarily, in the 1950s and 1960s, for undergraduate education. They fulfilled this mission magnificently, producing outstanding engineering graduates consistently. Research in engineering was an alien concept in those days. Indian industry did not need PhDs in engineering either.

This changed slowly after liberalisation, as its technology industries formed and multinationals set up R&D centres in India. IITs started more serious research in the 1990s, but Indian industry had moved too quickly. By 2010, when the Kakodkar Committee was set up, the engineering institutional system in India had become too lopsided, producing a million undergraduates and 1,000 PhDs.

Says National Research Professor RA Mashelkar: “When Indian industry is looking at innovation-led growth, Indian institutions need to produce large numbers of PhDs in science and engineering.”

In Pic: A huge number of students write the IIT JEE every year.
Issue: Less or no international exposure for facultyBCCL
Issue: Less or no international exposure for faculty
Till perhaps a few years ago, going abroad for a conference was next to impossible for an IIT professor, unless the trip was part of a sponsored project.

“It is not possible to do research these days without going to conferences,” says IIT Madras director Bhaskar Ramamurthi, “as the research publications are two years behind.

In Pic: The IIT building in Delhi.
Issue: students migrating, not staying on for researchBCCL
Issue: students migrating, not staying on for research
The best IIT undergraduate students start work immediately or do an MBA, and a substantial number go for PhD abroad. IITs get their masters and PhD students from other engineering colleges, students looking for an IIT stamp but are not always well-prepared for the rigours of research.

IITs have been trying hard to persuade their best undergraduate students to stay on for PhDs but without too much success. These days, students prefer to work in India rather than going for PhDs.

Texas Instruments is supporting a course in IIT Madras for IC design, but IIT is rarely able to fill it with qualified students.

In Pics: Students during the convocation ceremony at IIT Delhi.
Solution: Changing mindsets, return of the bestBCCL
Solution: Changing mindsets, return of the best
The best IIT students who had gone abroad for their PhDs in the last decade are now returning in large numbers as faculty, and they are driving up the research output.

In fact, this trend had begun in the 1990s in some IITs, and they now stand out for their research output. An example is IIT Bombay, which hired over 100 young assistant professors in the last three years, all of them with international experience.

In Pic: A PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bharat Seth, has been a professor at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) for the last 20 years.
Issue: Low ranking internationalyBCCL
Issue: Low ranking internationaly
The IITs have been figuring fairly low in international rankings of universities Some reasons for this are easy to understand.

There are no Nobel Prize winners from the IITs; a few Nobel Prizes push up the ranking.

Poor showing in academic peer review, poor research output, poor faculty-student ratio… Some of these measures – especially the academic peer review score – are controversial, but there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the IITs fare poorly when judged as research institutions.

This is what the current set of directors is trying to correct.

Graphic: How IITs Compare with the World’s Best
Solution: creating a new research ecosystemBCCL
Solution: creating a new research ecosystem
Whether the IITs can eventually solve this problem would determine their future over the next decade. “The quality of IIT research is going up,” says G Venkatesh, former IIT professor and chief strategist of Sasken Communications, “while the quality of PhD students has been going down.”

The Kakodkar committee had made several other recommendations to boost IIT research, which most IITs are following closely. One of this was to start research and incubation parks within campuses. IIT Bombay and IIT Madras did this long ago; most other IITs,including the new ones, are now following suit. Another recommendation was to create a few core areas in each IIT where it can become world-class.

In Pic: Aubrey de Grey, a scientist whose research has underlined the need to stop the ageing process in humans gave a presentation in IIT-B in 2012.
Changes at IIT BombayBCCL
Changes at IIT Bombay
IIT Bombay has tripled its research investments in the last three years, setting up two large centres, one for nanotechnology and the other for photovoltaic research. More are in the pipeline. “ We are developing projects that span across disciplines,” says Dewang Khakar, IIT Bombay director.

In Pic: Photovoltaic panels at IIT-B. One fourth of the academic buildings at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B ) are set to go green by the end of April, 2013.
IIT Kanpur setting trendsBCCL
IIT Kanpur setting trends
Similarly, IIT Kanpur is expanding its expertise in two areas – environmental science and nuclear engineering – into full-fledged centres. “We have a long way to go,” says its director Indranil Manna, who has taken over recently and is trying to invigorate research programmes.

IIT Kanpur has not set up new centres or grown significantly over the last few years, but on the anvil are plans to develop a cheap aircraft, flexible solar cells, technologies for controlling water pollution (a big problem in Kanpur).

In Pic: The Quadrocopter- which won the first prize at an aerospace event held at the IIT-Kanpur Aerospace Engineering Centre in 2010.
IIT Madras, IIT Delhi are catching upBCCL
IIT Madras, IIT Delhi are catching up
IIT Madras is planning a large project on contemporary manufacturing, focusing on virtual technologies and sustainability. Over the next decade, the success of these projects could become important for laying the foundation for a competitive technology industry.

For IIT Delhi, among other things, building a centre for innovation in design is a priority. “We want to focus on low-cost design,” says director RK Shevgaonkar.

In Pic: IIT-Madras students showcase a Spirit of Engineering project they have been readying in time for Shaastra, the annual student technical festival 2013.
The new generation of IITsBCCL
The new generation of IITs
While the older IITs expand into mega-projects, the new IITs are developing innovative ways of teaching, research and governance. IIT Hyderabad has introduced fractional credit courses, often taught by industry experts from India and abroad, that have clear utility when they begin working in private companies. “Our fractional credit courses have become very popular with students,” says IIT Hyderabad director Uday Desai.

IIT Gandhinagar is experimenting with a multitude of ways of teaching and governance, often stretching government rules to their limits. It is hiring the best people available in any discipline, and then organising groups around them. “People in developing countries have to work harder because of the environment,” says IIT Gandhinagar director Sudhir Jain. “But I think that there is still a lot of juice left in the current system for us to extract.”

In Pic: IIT building in Gandhinagar.
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