Friday, May 27, 2011

World class or not?

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is the high quality of responses it evokes. One anonymous reader talks of lack of ethical standards and even corruption at the IIMs. I cannot, for obvious reasons, comment on that. Most comments fault me for not addressing the core issue of whether the IITs and IIMs produce world-class research or not. They are right- I did not address this issue because it's difficult to deal with in a short post. Let me take a stab at it.

Perhaps, I should begin by posing some counter-questions. Is Infosys in the same league as Microsoft? Is ISRO equivalent to NASA? Are the IB and RAW comparable to MI5 and Mossad? Are our business dailies as good as Financial Times and Wall Street Journal?

There's no end to these comparisons and they will take us nowhere. No non-commercial institution in India needs to justify itself by comparing itself with somebody else who is regarded as best in class and then coming to conclusions as to its worth or utility. If that is the yard-stick, we will see mass hara-kiri.

The key issue is the impact the institution makes on its environment. Is it adding substantial value in the environment in which it operates? When the question is posed in these terms, the dimensions on which performance is measured change. You would not judge an IIT or IIM only on one dimension, namely, publication in international journals but on several dimensions: quality of students, interface with industry, impact on important sectors of the economy, inputs for policy-making, etc. The founding fathers of IIMA never talked about becoming 'world-class'. They spoke about two things: striving for excellence and striving for relevance. I guess I am talking about the same things.

The top American university is a marvel that has evolved over some three hundred years. It is supported by enormous private funding and it has put in place culture and processes that are not easy to replicate. Not just India but the rest of the world lags behind considerably: even the top European universities cannot hope to rival Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Princeton. In higher education, as in defence, the US stands alone.

The quest for improvement and reform must be eternal and the IITs and IIMs must be held to account for higher and higher levels of performance. But to condemn them by comparison with the icons of American education, which is what "world class" is all about, can only demoralise faculty and undermine whatever good can come out of our system.


Anonymous said...

Prof, there is no doubt that Institutes in India cannot be compared to the top ones in the US, which you also agree. But there is no reason these institutes cannot be as good as or better than those. For that to happen the first step needs to be realizing(not just knowing) and identifying the shortcomings.

Frankly, IMHO, it is not just the institute but also the students who are not world class.

Problem with IITs and IIMs is that they see rest on the Laurels of their students and don't do much about it. Forget about research output, the pedagogy of these institutes is also so dated. They still used the methodology which was introduced ages back to create trained workers during industrial revolution. Where are the thinkers, creators, thought leaders? It is still about grades, exams, placements in these institutes and that is how we have been benchmarking success and failures.

Take instance of admissions of IIMs: Why else would an institute admit more than 80% student body right from undergrad school? It happens only in India and continues to be so because no one wants to question status quo. All they get in terms of student body is largely robots who have done nothing other than cracked one exam after another. Obviously they are bright kids so some will go on to do well but the value add they get from the institute is nothing more than grades, degree and tag. How can you expect kids who have only spent time with books and in classroom to be thinking people after they graduate? They can only be workers who will learn to really 'think' long after they have forgotten what they imbibed in the institute.

A lot of introspection and big decisions are to be taken if we are to make these institutions really world class.

Anonymous said...

Sir, with due respect, you are excessively pessimistic regarding the outcome of evaluation and comparison against the best.

1) TIFR/IISc are comparable to the best in the world but they are very narrow (as far as I know). So, its not that our environment does not allow competing with the best in the world.

2) Where significant research resources were needed, India might have lagged, but there are many areas where resources are not the bottleneck and all it needs are good policies and attitude shifts. Also, the funding constraints have loosened with the Indian economy doing better so ambitions should be scaled up accordingly.

3) "But to condemn them by comparison with the icons of American education" - I don't think anyone wants to condemn the institutes for good. But, on the other hand, honest evaluation, raising the bar, and having a clear desire and plan to match up to the best should be encouraged, especially given the economic rise of India in a globalized world.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Prof. Ram Mohan. I am currently a postdoc at a 'world class' univ, an aspiring faculty in an IIX, and I agree such comments are demoralizing. I have some comments on this whole debate:

When people ask why IIX's are not as good as Harvard or Princeton or other top US universities, there are so many complex factors starting from how and when they started, what was their mandate, what are the socio-economic conditions of the country -- all these make it very complex to analyze the situation (as you also point out).

To get a better 'control' over at least some parameters, its better to ask questions like:

Why can't Arizona State Univ (usually ranked around #50 in Physics in the US) become Harvard or MIT or Princeton, despite its 120+ years of existence within the US, where they have more than critical mass of scientists, when they have performance based salary, and being in the US can attract students and faculty from all over the world? If anyone knew easy answers, you should contact the president of ASU and he/she will be happy to hear!

Of course, one might say ASU is much better than any IIX (although, I feel IISc/TIFR Mumbai could be equal or better than ASU in Physics), but the point is -- it is very very naive and largely pointless to say IIXs are not world class.

It is much more useful to say what are simple mesures one can take to improve conditions of existing IIX or NIT's or any university in India. Do faculty get good start up grants in Indian univs? Even at IISc its just around 25 lacs and I hear that at Univs its just around 5 lacs (~$10,000, a money that graduate student in the US can easily get funded). Can we relax teaching load a bit for the new faculty so that they can set up their research? Can we provide liberal leave and more international travel money for all faculty, and even more so for their students to get better exposure to outside world?

After such simple things, perhaps our ministers can think of doing more revolutionary things, like performance based salaries, etc.

K.R.Srivarahan said...

Having been a student of IIT himself, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the minister's comparison of students and faculty. Apparently, he had been unable to benefit academically from his professors. This could be his fault rather than a foible on the part of his gurus. The honourable minister loves to create controversies. Remember the nonsense he uttered about India's Home Ministry while he was in China ? It is clear that IIT has not taught discretion to this voluble politician. To that limited extent, teachers in IIT are blame-worthy.

It is unfortunate that IIT / IIM academicians have joined a slanging match with the minister. Why should they be so sensitive to the rants of a hubristic self-professed intellectual ?

Anonymous said...

While it would be wrong to state that the IIM faculty and courses add no value, Jairam Ramesh is right when he says most of the value comes from the quality of the students entering their portals. Put a bunch of highly intelligent people in the same environment, and you will probably get a good, recruitable bunch anyway.

Companies that would be willing to invest six months in orienting these students will probably get them cheaper and in a more humble state if they directly recruited the CAT exam toppers.

Anonymous said...

The problem is Indian Institutions cannot be compared to Top Asian Ones such as NUS, HKUST, CITYU, Nanyang and in research when it comes to ISB. So comparison to US univs is a moot point.

The World as seen by an Idle Mind. said...

Dear Sir,

Whereas striving for excellence never harmed anyone, excessively berating oneself at imaginary shortcomings and urgent need to address them all on the basis of a cue from a loudmouth- which is what people in general expect from the IIXs right now- is definitely not the right thing to do. For one, there is this saying by someone about measuring the intellect of a culture not by the heights of its peaks but by the measure of the means which is eminently applicable here.

While it is pointed time and again how the IIXs simply ride on wave of the supposedly world-class minds through such high rejection ratios, one might also look at the fact that Harvards of the world have even higher real-rejection rates given the aspiration itself is limited to a very select class of people. Whereas every Tirumalesh, Devendra and Harischandra have the means to appear for the JEE or CAT, the Thomases of the world who apply at Harvard are one in ten. Not to take any credit due to the bright minds at IIXs away, but often, only the better of your peers generally go to the Ivy Leagues and they are as naturally bound to do better than you as you were, among your classmates at school.

Having had an opportunity to interact with the faculty and students of some of the 'world-class' universities, I think it is the advancement in Sciences that so often sets them head and shoulders above other universities than any other discipline- so much so we feel it impossible to even try and emulate the best practices. Here is where the question of coffers and research environment arises. While on one hand, forcing these institutes to be the epitomes against social inequity, it would be unfair to expect them to be able to divert the same limited resources to competing uses such as more grants and better pedagogy, while the powers-that-be refuse to direct their treasuries where their words flow.

SL Mehra said...

The minister seems to be interested in creating a flutter(as he did by throwing of his gown during the midst of a convocation address) rather than in providing suggestions or making in-puts which would go a long way to make these institutions a better lot year after year. What is required is dynamism on the part of these institutions, support from the govt and the industry and of course the commitment on the part of the teacher and the taught.

Elena said...

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G. Iyer said...

"The top American university is a marvel that has evolved over some three hundred years. It is supported by enormous private funding and it has put in place culture and processes that are not easy to replicate"

Marvel, yes.....but the top American University (except for the small, yes, small, elite Harvards and Stanfords) is primarily supported by PUBLIC funds!! Not just the state university systems, but the much vaunted Harvards and Stanfords, as well. Please check data from NPEDS (dept of education for graduation numbers), NSF, BLS (for the post-secondary profs toiling in colleges, Univs etc.). You remind me of the time an American academic went to IIM Bangalore and was asked by the resident geniuses if it was not a good idea to privatize Indian airports and model them after US ones to make them more efficient should have seen their faces when he told them there was hardly any significant airport in the US not run, operated, managed by a local state/public entity!! e.g. -port authority of NY and NJ; city department of San Francisco etc...

Govind said...

As a former IITian and now an academic at a prominent US university, all I can say is that most posters here have now idea about the scale and resources of private US universities. Here is a wikipedia listing of endowments (corpus in Indian terms):

The fundamental difference between Western universities and the elite Indian insititutions is not in the endowments though. It is in the maturity of discourse.

The IITs are up in arms because Jairam hurt their egos. Hard as it may seem to believe, our ego out West get hurt all the time too: in tough reviews of papers and proposals, difficulty in finding our students good jobs, and a tough political climate that questions the "liberal" humanities, science and fundamental research (most politicians in India believe the theory of evolution unlike the US).

The difference is in the maturity of the response. Feelings get hurt? It doesn't matter. You pick yourselves up and move on. You place your faith in your students, teachers and colleagues and try to do your best.

It is a joke to believe (as the Indian elite do) that someone a genius because they did well in the IIT/IIM entrance exams. That means nothing. What counts is what you do in the next 40 years.

Jairam Ramesh's comments were honest and long overdue. The IIT/IIM system needs a good does of reality.