The Ivory Towers of Technology

  • 14/09/1995

The 5 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are easily among the most pampered of this country's academic institutions. Used to fund-guzzling in the name of quality technological education, it is suspicious of recent government attempts to force them to raise a portion of their funding through contracts with industry. This working in ivory towers is an attitudinal problem as well as one of usefulness to society. India and Indian industry are justified in asking for a change in this attitude.

Any country which has done well in technological development has its R&D institutions accountable to its manufacturers. In contrast, the Indian R&D establishment has rejected this as a way of life more sensible than poring through tomes and making bubbles in beakers. It's complacency they can ill afford.

Altogether, the government annually spends between Rs 170-200 crore on the IITs -- almost 15 per cent of the Union government's annual expenditure on higher education countrywide. All the IITs together produce 1,500 Bachelors of Technology every year. A study conducted by the University Grants Commission in 1994 estimated that 40-50 per cent of these graduates exit abroad for higher studies, most permanently; 10-20 per cent deviate into management; and 5-10 per cent into the civil services and other jobs. Industry gets only 500-750 engineers every year.

There are streams of study in which exodus is endemic: for instance, the IITs produce about 200 BTechs in computer sciences per annum. Between 1990-94, only a quarter to half of these graduates opted for the Indian computer industry, one of the fastest growing employment niches. Compare this with the projected demand of over 50,000 computer professionals forecast by industry for AD 2000.

Yet the IITs' cosy, comfortable life continues to be bankrolled by the public -- an anomaly, surely, considering that the bulk of engineering and upstream technical education in India was, and continues to be, the privilege of the wealthy. A testimony to this unfairness is provided by the thousands of aspirants -- mostly those who fail the tough IIT examination -- who cough up bribes in the form of capitation fees when seeking admission to engineering colleges in the private sector.

This spoilt upbringing of most IIT alumni goes a long way in explaining why the IITs have never come up with technological innovations for small, struggling industries or the poorer of Indians. They blame it on a lack of funding. In fact, their performance is equally disenchanting even where large capital-intensive industry is concerned.

There is not, at the moment, a single major production plant, or process used by Indian industry, which has originated in the intellectual boiler rooms of the IITs. At best, they remain providers of secondary services such as evaluation of materials and assembly-line designs, mostly acquired from external sources. Little wonder then that industry has little confidence in the ability of the IITs to provide the technological muscle it needs to be internationally competitive.

Indeed, looked at every which way, and as generously as possible, the IITs seem all the more culpable. It is very clear that nations are increasingly going to relate to each other on the basis of the strengths of their R&D institutions and their industry. Multilateral agreements make it unarguable that not just product technologies but process technologies will be required for international standards such as the ISO series. The IITs -- and other R&D institutions -- are already being informed of these requirements by organisations such as the Technology Information, Assessment and Forecast Council; the products and processes span the fields of composite materials, microelectronics, informatics, data communications, construction, environmental and biotechnologies.

The one way to make the IITs responsible is either by a sharp kick in the pants, or the threat of forcing them to close shop. Not that the demands made of them should stop here: at the same time, they have to provide enough fodder for more mundane R&D requirements. Only by fulfilling such a mandate, however difficult it may seem, can these repositories of excellence claim to be genuinely useful providers of useful technology.

There is just no way that this range of activity can be undertaken without much closer contact and -- perhaps terrible to consider -- accountability to both taxpayer and industry. Government efforts to drag the IITs closer to manufacturers are, therefore, entirely legitimate and praiseworthy. All this avoidable funk is less a question of getting over a cash crunch than it is an issue of ensuring that institutions live up to the role designated for them or risk being discarded in the dustbin of progress. The taxpayers' money cannot be allowed to be splurged on a socially ineffective exercise of this kind.

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