Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fail-safe

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) – the original five campuses, often considered to be the top engineering institutions in India and in Silicon Valley, have been losing luster. Its graduates, understandably proud of a rich tradition, look over the fact that it never figured in the top 100 educational institutions in the world. Now that “forward thinking politicians,” have decided to take split milk and spread it across the country, the demise of a good brand may be round the corner.

There are many reasons why the IIT brand never climbed into the top echelons of the most cherished educational brands in the world. Stanford, for example, propelled to the top of the pile in a few decades by combining research with entrepreneurship and creating a climate of futuristic learning. Heavy investments in technology and marketing kept MIT close and in the Midwest, Carnegie Melon, Northwestern and the University of Illinois show flashes of greatness in their chosen specializations. What is common among all of them is research – and the ability to innovate. Great institutions are often criticized for their focus on research at the cost of teaching, but this fear is totally misplaced, for there is no learning without research and any institution, vying to compete with the best has to produce the goods – both in fundamental advancement of science and innovative applications of technology. IIT has never been able to do either.

The second reason why the IITs are failing is their focus on bookish knowledge at the cost of experimentation. A well hyped and advertised brand has had its pick of the top 2000 students in the country for decades, and the fact that its graduates have done reasonably well is no reflection on the ability of the institution to shape them. It may have been the opposite. It has taken excellent raw materials – perhaps as good as any institution could hope for and turned them into bricks in the wall – adept at solving known equations and commonplace problems – with high efficiency. However, in a world of accelerating knowledge and information, efficiency is delegated to machines and the only remaining premium is in intellectual property (IP). A nation, unable to create IP at a sustainable rate in a regime that allows protection, cannot go anywhere, how many efficient engineers and doctors it can produce.

To make matters worse – much worse, in a country run by corrupt politicians, proudly wearing socialism on their long sleeves, nothing better could have been expected. In this grand tradition, they always wanted to democratize the brand. The idea of an elite educational brand, known across the world, for the benefit of a few, make them weep at night – for their nephews could never cross the threshold and their Swiss bank accounts were not enough to secure admissions. Such passion is never futile and the solution seems obvious – make an IIT in every state of the union and if possible every district, village and street corner – and spread the brand like chutney on dosa for the good of all. Those who say creativity is waning in a country bursting at its seams never studied its political intelligentsia – they have always been creative.

The IIT – now reachable for politicians on demand and fully functioning on a quota system – dividing the pie neatly to every cast, creed and religion – has to prepare for the inevitable fall from giddying heights, it never was designed to reach. Perhaps, a tolerable exit is in the works – opening the markets to higher education will instantly expose the venerable brand to competition and that may be the shock it needs to wake up from the long stupor.