Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. ~Albert Einstein

The Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s remark: "The IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) are good because of world class students, not because of the world class faculty" has stirred a hornet's nest. Ramesh himself is an alumnus of IIT Bombay.

Ironically, IIMs do not figure in the top hundred B schools of the world, so what ‘world class’ is Ramesh referring to?

It is almost a popular culture in India to celebrate mediocrity. Therefore, perhaps, the debates are mediocre as well. We need a constructive debate, with willingness to make necessary adjustment, on how to improve standards of technical education imparted in this country. Perhaps we need to take a holistic view and not that the whole debate needs to be pegged on a dozen IITs and IIMs.

The teaching standards are not world class by any stretch of imagination, Ramesh has a valid point. It is not a cause but the effect of mismanagement of technical education in India. Teachers are multitasking; the pressures of undergraduate teaching; low salaries has sapped their research ambition. No institute can be world class if it is run by disgruntled faculty. There is a general disliking amongst the faculty for the red-tapism, they abhor dealing with bureaucrats, who according to them, are ill-informed (some misinformed) managers designated to make all crucial policy decisions.

This remark has set into motion is not a debate, but a kind of blame game. People in government, faculty and alumni are offended. Like the remarks of Sougata Roy, dean of Kolkata IIM, who is also acting as its director, "These institutes are so good not because of people like Jairam Ramesh, but because of the students, the faculty and the contribution of the alumnus."

There are real problems: government interferes beyond the legitimate; there is a need for greater stress on research, research output is abysmally low. The institutes operate in isolation to the real world; most of the funding is by government and not industry as is the case with the world-class institutes­-all work closely with industry on R&D.

The most popular Bollywood movie of the decade, 3 idiots made by Aamir Khan, is inspired by Chetan Bhagat’s (IIT Delhi, 1995 batch) novel 5 Point Someone. The movie is a satire on technical education system that forces students to make wrong choices due to some extraneous reasons like family pressure, social status or for financial reasons. The movie is also a critique teaching methodologies followed in IIT. Mugging up is a virtue; retention of information rather than the ability to synthesize it fetch higher grades. To be fair, the movie presents an extreme case in a way that tickles our funny bone, but does make an important point. I asked Surendra Prasad, Director IIT Delhi, if the movie is a true portrayal of what happens in IITs? He smiled and just said “well the book is written by our alumnus.”

I think knowledge is a very active concept in this fast changing global village. The timely application of knowledge, quick adaptations is a mantra of success. My friend Arthur Dudney in his essay Beyond Techno-Coolies ( is batting for liberal arts, argues that education is not a ‘fusty’ notion about reading good books but rather an important investment in the future. Students should not only acquire certain set of skills but also, with it, the capacity to acquire new skills.

This is ironical. India is a country of people with innovative minds. Indians have done well in innovative setups all over the world. The informal sector and their jugaad (would define it as an improvised solution made possible with a heave doze of inventiveness, ingenuity, cleverness in an unfriendly environment that is characterized by acute limitations and shortages) has shown that need is the mother of all inventions. They are now into manufacturing of technology-intensive products, have uncanny knack to make anything work and serve a purpose. It is has worked because it is need driven and market driven, is all about application of limited knowledge and resources to find a workable solution. And more importantly, is devoid of any positive government intervention. Jugaad has a serious message for the formal sector, to the technical centers of learning. The spirit of jugaad should be internalized in the formal, technical education system, which should be need based, centered around finding solutions, flexible rather than parroting of same texts year after year.

So Ramesh has made an important point. It should be discussed in a clean and heathy 'environment'.

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