4 Urgent Questions Provoked by the IIT Roorkee Controversy

Published: August 17, 2015 14:18 IST
There are those who hold, not without reason, that our national obsession with the IITs is counterproductive. Leave them alone to get on with it, they say. We have more urgent matters to worry about in the sphere of education: a gross lack of trained teachers, policy blindness and implementation lameness, inadequately equipped classrooms and labs, exams that proceed by rote or multiple-choice so that large cohorts of students today seem to find it hard to think beyond a simple 'yes' or 'no', uninspired research in our universities and, of course, mota and chhota scams wherever we turn.

Given this endless list of viruses that seem to have attacked our educational systems, the IITs may appear relatively healthy. Yet it would be a mistake to believe that they are somehow immune to what one might call general environmental pollution. If there is a systemic crisis, the IITs, which have been, in the words of William Shakespeare, the "shining morning face" of our universities, are bound to show spots and blemishes. Indeed, one reason why disproportionate attention is paid to them is that they function as a very visible diagnostic. National success stories, the IITs possess symbolic value.

Second, as we know, the IITS have long produced 'export quality Indians', a brand of professionals in demand world-wide (Vinod Khosla to Sundar Pichai, this list is impressive and the contributions of IIT alumni to American society has apparently been acknowledged even by the US House of Representatives). Now that we are supposed to be in a "Make in India" phase, it is logical that the role of the IITs is being reconsidered.

The third reason that the IITs are in focus is that they are premier technology institutes. In an age where Tablets, MOOCs and Apps dominate a world narrative of education, it is not surprising that the IITs are in the news.

Fourth, and most obviously, the IITs, perhaps on account of their afore-mentioned visibility, have become involved in recent tussles around autonomy, freedom of expression and student rights. Let's consider for a moment just this last cluster, of which the latest manifestation is the expelling and subsequent reinstatement of 72 students from IIT Roorkee.

Newspaper reports tell us that most of the concerned IIT Roorkee students were from disadvantaged sections. We do not have all the statistics, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the IITs, old and new, to suggest that poorer, rural students are finding it increasingly hard to keep up with others in both classroom and social space. IIT faculty take this issue seriously but opinion is divided.

Question: Can we do more to help disadvantaged students, not only in the IITs but across our universities? How?

There seems to have been a sort of paradigm shift in this regard from the time the first IITs  were instituted in the fifties and sixties. Then, the IITs  were visualized, so to speak, as a 'non leaky pipe' where students entered at one end and emerged squeaky clean at the other. Now there seem to be holes in that pipeline with quite a few 'non-performing' students 'dropping out'.

Question: Does this leaky pipe now need urgent mending or is it realistic to allow for some spill since there is today a much greater 'flow' of students?  

Some believe that the pipe is sturdy enough; if certain students drop out, tough. They really didn't deserve to be at these hallowed 'institutes of national importance' in the first place.

Question: Should the IITs concentrate on what they 'do best' which is to train fine engineers and leave the pesky social problems to other experts to resolve?

Another larger group argues that that students these days often lack the 'basics' of PCM (Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics) and English. Coaching centres get them through the JEE exam, but foundations remain shaky. Indeed, recognizing this, many IITs have introduced year-long 'prep' courses in these areas, but pain and stigma remain attached to these courses. Still others feel that students from the 'reserved' categories lack  confidence and suffer from a lack of 'communication skills' - often mysteriously equated with command over English.

Question: Why should we assume that a student in a technical institute who converses animatedly in hostels, playing fields and institute corridors in Hindi, Telugu and so on lacks communicative abilities just because s/he does not follow English well enough?

The four questions posed above concerning social disadvantages in education, communication skills, a possible return to the IITs 'core' role and mending that leaky pipe, are, to my mind, interlinked. It used to be said, in defence of the shoals of IIT-ians leaving for better prospects abroad, that "brain drain is better that a brain in the drain". But in a world dramatically altered by digital modes, this argument needs revision. 

If a national goal before us today is the improvement of the quite dismal educational scenario in India, we might ask how the digerati, in both the new and old IITs, could play a key role in imagining the future of technologically-led education. The IIT engineer remains, for better or for worse, a dream figure in the political unconscious of our nation, and where he goes, others might be emboldened to follow.

What seems needed for starters, then, is a non-snobbish public dialogue that engages key players such as IIT faculty as well as IIT alumni who have succeeded brilliantly as role models (Ashoke Sen, Narayana Murthy, Raghuram Rajan, Sandeep Pandey, Chetan Bhagat, Pranav Mistry), not to mention those who have enlivened our current politics (Arvind Kejrwal, Jairam Ramesh, Jayant Sinha). Coaching-centre honchos must be involved in the debate, given that more than 90% percent of IIT entrants, many with shaky English, attend these coaching classes. Most crucially, we must listen to our newbie students.    

I end with a perhaps impractical scheme to jumpstart such an imagined dialogue but take courage from the late President Kalam who often opined that we have a tendency to over-reify 'realism' at the expense of the idealistic and the innovative.  

Going back to basics, we find across India, as mentioned, a woeful shortage of teachers, maybe up to ten lakh, at the middle and secondary school levels, especially those well-equipped to teach PCM. Cannot students at the IITs - M.Techs as well as B.Techs - be encouraged on a voluntary basis to teach in rural schools and/or the second-tier cities for a semester or two or in the summers? This would both help the country and help them.

My suggestion is not that such work come out of their compulsory NSS hours or be regarded as 'charity'. Rather, it should be part of their training, similar to interning with a company.They could earn additional credits for this or be given incentives like 'green' certificates which would confer on them a clear advantage when they apply for corporate jobs - and CSR would involve giving due weight to this. In other words, IIT students could be valuable 'resource persons' to teach basic PCM and technology skills in our schools in a phase of major educational change. Many complain that the IITs seem too spoilt and entitled. Well, here's one way they could 'pay back'.

Students  own 'communication skills' would loosen up during the process of teaching, since the very knowledge of local languages which appeared such a disadvantage in an English-dominated IIT classroom would, in these contexts, be an asset. Self-confidence would be shored up. Simultaneously, the sense of being a part of a larger society would be inculcated in these elite students. And for the record, the scores of IIT students I have informally spoken to are quite enthusiastic about participating in such an enterprise. 

At a "higher" tier, IIT alumni and faculty could function as "masters of the matrix", providing crucial logistical and financial support, mentorship and guidance to such schemes involving integrative partnerships between school and college students and established achievers. As Professor Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Board of Governors, IIT-Mumbai, put it recently, educational reforms in India today are about balancing ideals of excellence with equity. The IITs across our states today are in a fine position to calibrate and influence that delicate balance.         
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books and has been PI of a DST project on 'Language, Emotion and Culture'. She is currently leading another ICSSR project on 'The Capabilities Approach to Education: Access, Equity and Quality.')

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