"An academic institution should not be know just for its undergraduates. It should be known for the kind of knowledge base we create, the quality of research that we do. We need to really pull up our socks otherwise it os not long before the IIT bubble bursts."
This is what S G Dhande, director, IIT Kanpur had to say in an interview to Tehelka, the people's paper (issue dt Apr 09). He couldn't have put it better.
Although I don't think the 'bubble will burst' - because the goodwill its graduates have earned over the last 4 decades is formidable - certainly IITs have a long way to go. IITians who go to MIT for PG courses excel as individuals but IIT as an institution is nowhere near an MIT in terms of original research.
Dhande believes the spark of creativity and originality of thinking needed for top quality research is missing because IITians are given a completely unidimensional education.
"Knowledge is increasingly becoming inter-disciplinary... Biology is the flavour of the century. We need to delve into all these areas even though we call ourselves a technology institute".
The director relates the story of a faculty member at IIT asking the first year students which novel they had read in the past one year.
There was a stunned silence.
"Where is the time to read novels?" they asked.
Dhande's answer is to start exposing students to design and art, as well as set up a TV studio on campus, a community based FM radio station and start a journalism club. Sounds like fun - with official sanction.
Curiously, in August 2004, IIT Bombay witnessed a sudden cancellation of all cultural and sports activities. JAM's Bureau chief in IIT-B then wrote: The Performing Arts festival and Socials (a theater event) were scaled down to reduce the number of man hours spent on them... The Dean expressed his concern over the the new bodies and clubs cropping up and demanded a 'vision' behind all these activities".
I don't know what the situation is right now, but obviously there is difference of opinion among the powers-that-be in the IIT family!
Jo JEEta wahi...
According to tehelka, at a March 5 meeting of the standing commitee of the IIT council, it was agreed that the present level of JEE is so high that students have to undergo strenuous coaching - which can be as long as 4 years. A proposal to change the examinations pattern is being considered.
Most likely, JEE will revert to from the current 2 stage process which was introduced a few years ago, to one examination from 2006-7. It was also felt that the exam should be 'more simple' and based on class 12 syllabus.
Well and good. However this bit is disturbing: "Performance in the Board exams may be used as criteria for determining eligibility."
Would this mean only those who score above 85 or 90% can attempt JEE? When will they give the exam - after their results are out?
No doubt the current situation sucks. A single coaching institute - Bansal classes in Kota - is sending 827 students to IIT (I kid you not - that was their success rate in the year 2004).
Getting into Bansal (which calls itself 'modern gurukul for IIT JEE) itself has become so tough that someone will need to start a coaching class for that. Maybe there already is one?
But determining eligibility via Board Exams - that can't be the answer. Maybe the JEE should be based more along the lines of the SAT - where basic aptitude/ IQ is measured. But of course in colleges abroad the SAT is used along with subjective criteria like essays, recommendations and student's past academic and extra curricular record.
Which is unlikely to happen here.
Bottomline: At least serious thought is being paid to these issues - even if there is no magic solution. Which is better than IITs just sitting back and feeling complacent about being 'world class'.
Bonus: If IIT truly gets multi-disciplinary, they may - someday- transcend the image ingrained in the public mind - that of the Ultimate Nerd!