Monday 13 July 2015

The Great Pointless IIT Debate

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 13 July, 2015

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Ever since I was in my teens, old enough to know what IIT (the Indian Institutes of Technology) was, I have heard one endless debate: “Are the IITs a White Elephant?”

The issue, for those who have no background on this issue, is this: The IITs are institutes of national importance, and admission to the IITs is extremely hard, because there is a competitive exam and only the best students who can pass this very difficult exam (the top 5000 students annually out of some 500,000 who take the exam, or some such statistic) can get into this prestigious institution. The institution provides arguably the best undergraduate education in engineering in India. The cost of the education is subsidized by the Central Government relative to its quality, though the magnitude of the subsidy has been changing.

The institutions were created so that India would have top-class engineering talent who could contribute to building the nation. Instead, most IITians (as graduates from the IITs are known) either leave the country after 4 years of undergraduate education and settle in the USA to get a better life and better professional opportunities, or get a management degree from the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), another educational institute of excellence, in this case to provide the best managers for a growing India, and become top managers in the private sector, making huge salaries. Some others move to IT because of the excellent salaries in that sector, and a small remainder work in core engineering in India as engineers. Hardly anyone joins the government. A small percentage returns to India after higher studies in the USA or elsewhere and becomes faculty in the same IITs.

It is in this context that I saw an article being widely circulated on social media that talked about “subsidies” being given to “those who don’t deserve it.” The article also alleges that the cost of the IITs runs to about Rs. 988.5 crores annually, and mentions that the budget for the IITs for the current year is Rs. 1700 crores. The article goes on to argue that since, between 1986 and 2006, not a single IITian joined the army; that since less than 2% of the technical staff at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are IIT graduates; that since IITians do not join DRDO labs, IITs are a waste of taxpayers’ money and so IITians should receive no subsidies from the government and should be made to pay for the full cost of their education.

The article further argues that since most engineers from IIT actually do not continue with engineering, this makes the subsidy of their education even more appalling. The author cites Chetan Bhagat as an example of a person who studied mechanical engineering at an IIT, only to abandon it for management studies at an IIM, and subsequently become an author, and makes a snide comment, “Best-selling fiction is not known to help farmers.”

Responding to this kind of criticism, the Union government has even considered and approved proposals to make IIT students pay back the cost of their education in instalments after they graduate. The argument used is that the IIT students represent a huge drain on the country, and since they are well-compensated after they graduate, there is no need to subsidize their education.


It reveals a myopic viewpoint that doesn’t even try to understand larger issues such as the links between infrastructure, education, and progress.

Let me explain why.

How Subsidized ARE the IITs?

At the outset, before even getting into the broader picture, let us examine the claims of spending on IITs a bit more rigorously. The most important question to analyse is whether the IITs are, in fact, being hugely subsidized. Let us examine this question a little.

In the early days, the IITs were indeed highly subsidized institutions. For example, in 1986, when I joined IIT, the tuition per semester was something like Rs. 250, which was a pittance, considering that anywhere else in India, an engineering education would cost orders of magnitude more.

However, over the years, the tuition costs at IITs have risen significantly, and in 2014 the fees at IIT Bombay ran to about Rs. 25000 a semester, or Rs. 50,000 for the full year. But the government has decided to nearly double this to Rs. 90,000 per year.

The current fees charged by the IITs are comparable to those charged by many private engineering colleges. For example, an article in the media mentions the annual cost of attending an engineering college in Hyderabad to be between Rs. 51,800 and Rs. 1,05,000. Another data point for comparison is the fee structure of a college in Jalandhar, which comes to Rs. 95, 650 for the first year and Rs. 54,150 for the second year. Similarly, the well-known Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology & Research Academy (SASTRA) charges Rs. 45,000 per semester for a total of Rs. 90,000 per year as tuition fees.

So clearly, in today’s world, the IITs are not outrageously subsidized; however, one could argue that these tuition rates do not take into account the fact that the quality of education an undergraduate gets in the IITs is vastly superior to that he would get in most other undergraduate institutions, and hence the tuition in IITs should be higher than that of any private college in India. Be that as it may, at least it should be clear to the reader that the IITs are not outrageously subsidized by current standards.

Next, let us examine what are the budget figures of the Union Government and how much it really spends on IITs as a fraction of its total budget.

According to the 2015 budget, the total education budget for 2014-15 is Rs. 68,728 crores (Rs. 687 billion or about $11 billion). Of these, the budget for IITs alone is somewhere in the region of Rs. 1800 crores, or about $300 million. It is instructive to examine the finances of an individual IIT, such as IIT Bombay.

IIT Bombay’s annual budget is around Rs. 250 crores ($40 million). Of this, they receive Rs. 200 crores from the government and recover the remaining Rs. 50 crores from tuition fees and other charges from students. Around 50% of the students at an IIT avail of free (SC/ST) or subsidized (poor students) tuition. If the new proposal to make all students pay back the cost of their tuition after they get jobs is implemented, then at most IIT Bombay will get another Rs. 50 crores annually, or another 20% of the total budget, and reduce the burden on the government by the same amount. Keep in mind that this is at the current tuition rate of Rs. 90,000 per year.

So, even as students at IIT pay above market rate for their engineering seats, and even if no subsidies are given even to poor students, IIT Bombay will still need Rs. 150 crores every year from the Central government. If the government would like IIT not to impose any burden on the exchequer, the annual fees for IITians need to go up to Rs. 2,25,000 a year, and the corresponding cost of a four-year education will rise to Rs, 9,00,000.

This, coupled with the proposal to charge full tuition costs for EVERYONE and make them pay the tuition back after graduating, in instalments (perhaps even with interest?) will solve the problem of the IITs being a drain on the country’s finances.

But will that solve our education woes? WILL IT ADDRESS INDIA’S NEEDS AS CONCERNS ENGINEERS?

Is the Purpose of the IITs Being Met?

After the end of the Second World War and before India got independence, Sir Ardeshir Dalal from the Viceroy's Executive Council foresaw that the future prosperity of India would depend not so much on capital as on technology. He, therefore, proposed the setting up of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. To man those laboratories, he persuaded the US government to offer hundreds of doctoral fellowships under the Technology Cooperation Mission (TCM) program. However realizing that such steps cannot help in the long run for the development of India after it gains independence, he conceptualized institutes that would train such work forces in the country itself. This is believed to be the first conceptualization of IITs.

So the mission of the IITs was to train engineers in order to develop technology in India indigenously. It is important to keep this in mind, as this is the larger issue India must confront – to see whether this mission is being achieved.

IIT Bombay was started in 1958, and is today 57 years old. I entered this hallowed institution in 1986, and graduated in 1990, and so you could say that our batch entered at the midpoint of the institution’s history. This year is also the 25th anniversary of our batch, and we are celebrating the silver jubilee of our graduation this year. So this year, and this batch, is as good as any to take stock of how well IIT Bombay (and by extension, the IIT system) has performed in achieving this mission.

We had a class of 314 students, and from the records we are getting so far (270 out of 314, or 86% of the total batch strength), we were able to determine statistics. Of the 270 who we had data on (and whom we could assume to be a representative sample of the total population), 115 are today working in India. That is 43%, and tells us that the long-standing accusation of a “brain drain,” i.e., that most IITians end up going abroad, is simply not true. It still tells us that a majority of IITians (57%) go abroad, but it is not an overwhelming majority.

What is more revealing than the statistic on the brain drain is knowing what people are currently doing after graduating from IIT Bombay. We were able to (at the time of writing) get an approximate idea on 200 of the 270 former students on what they currently do for a living. We found out that of the 200 on whom we had data, only 23 were engaged in engineering (including yours truly). That’s just 11.5% of the total number of graduates (assuming these numbers hold for the full population of 314) who have chosen to stick on in engineering. A further 23 of the ex-students are continuing in academics and science domains other than engineering (another 11.5%), and the rest are in diverse domains such as Enterpreneurship (25), Government Service (10), Finance (27), Business (31), Consulting (8), IT/Tech (49), and Others (4).

So, of 200 ex-students, only 23, or 11.5% of all the engineering graduates have continued in engineering 25 years since their B.Tech. Assuming that the country-wide percentages hold across all these professions, one can estimate that only about 6% of the engineers who were trained in IIT Bombay and who graduated from the institute in 1990 still practice engineering in India!!!

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, if this is what is happening generally across all batches, the mission of the IITs, as elucidated earlier – “to train engineers in India to develop technology indigenously” – is not being met when only 6% of those who are trained to be top engineers in India actually stay in India and work in engineering. It is also clear that the exacerbating factor is not the fact that these engineers do not stay in India – for 43% of them do live in India – but that only 11.5% of them stay in engineering.

What Can the Government Do To Change Things?

The real question that the Indian government should examine, if it is serious about achieving the mission of the IITs, is not to create more IITs – as both the previous and the present government are trying to compete in doing – but to figure out why, in spite of having these world-class institutions of undergraduate engineering teaching, less than 12% of these trained engineers continue in this profession.

The answer to this is not complicated: supply and demand. The going rate for engineers as opposed to people in finance or software or other fields is simply not attractive enough. Add to this the possibility that engineering jobs are not exciting enough compared to many other alternatives. A third reason is that many young kids who actually take up engineering as a subject do not know anything about it and lose interest in it by the time they graduate. In other words, they were never enamoured of it, and they left it because it did not resonate with them. The last fact points to a crying need for better counselling in India and for better career planning. Discussing this in detail is beyond the scope of this article and would require a separate treatise. I will therefore stick to the first reason in what follows.

How does one boost the attractiveness and the pay of engineering jobs? Simply by getting more players in the field; by creating more opportunities for young engineers; by creating more jobs; by liberalizing the economy; by allowing more foreign companies to set up subsidiaries in India; by reducing the barriers for technology companies to be formed and to operate in India; by encouraging innovation for small businesses that might be started by young IIT graduates; by providing loans on easy terms; and by doing all this, raising the level of technology in India.

Instead of this, proposals such as increasing the number of IITs will not in any way solve the problem of shortage of high-quality engineering talent in India. Students today see IIT not as a way to become great engineers and practice world-class engineering; they see it as a vehicle, a stamp to get recognition and be known as a person of high intelligence, and then move on to more lucrative jobs in domains with better opportunities. Create more IITs, and you will find more engineers move into other professions with the same stamp. Not to mention the inevitable diluting of quality.

If India wants our youngsters to stay in engineering, it needs to not just create IITs – it needs to create an entire ecosystem that is favourable for engineering to flourish. In fact, the fundamental mistake of the IITs from day one is that these institutions were created without any thought as to where the students would go once they graduated from these institutions. That is the fundamental flaw that must be fixed.

Expecting students to continue doing engineering in India out of a sense of “loyalty”or “patriotism” is foolish. People will only do what gives them an advantage in life and what they enjoy doing. Sometimes you have students in IIT who actually wanted to study and work in electrical engineering but only got a rank that allowed them to study civil engineering. Expecting that this person should spend his life as a civil engineer because the country invested four years in him is silly. If four years of civil engineering gave him a love for the subject, that might happen. Otherwise, chances are that he or she will jump at the first chance and move to marketing or finance or whatever else captures his or her fancy and pays well. These changes and decisions are dynamic and should be expected. The question to answer is whether there are reasonable opportunities for those who want to continue in what they are trained.

Making students return the full cost of their education misses the mark by far – and the contribution to the exchequer is so minimal as not to matter at all – after all, a matter of about Rs. 1800 crores in an education budget of close to Rs. 70,000 crores is less than 3% of our annual education budget. The inordinate focus on this amount, rather than the real and crucial issues facing our nation in the matter of shortage of real engineering talent, simply highlights the venality of the political class and the stupidity of the masses in focusing on irrelevant details and missing the forest for the trees. The man on the street can get some petty satisfaction for making the “Richie-rich” IIT graduates “pay for their education,” but beyond this juvenile satisfaction, nothing concrete would have been achieved. It might even exacerbate the brain drain – for, after all, the IIT student who has paid for his degree through his nose will not even feel the little sense of loyalty he might feel now. You will have completed the transformation of the student into the consummate mercenary. At least, in our batch, 43% of IITians decided to come back to India. Make students today pay Rs. 9 lakhs for their education and that percentage could be down to 5 or 10%. The fact is that there is no value to this education – and by making Rs. 9 lakhs the price, you are setting a value on it and telling the students that once that is paid for, they owe nothing to the country.

Yes, you could call the IITs a white elephant – but the people responsible for it becoming a white elephant are not the students who graduate from these institutions. The responsible people are the people who have rushed to create engineering institutions without thinking of the entire ecosystem that students graduating from such institutions need.

And if the IITs are indeed a white elephant, what sense is there in making the elephant even bigger?


I would like to thank Anu Narasimhan (B. Tech., IIT Bombay, 1990) for providing me with the figures relating to the break-up of the IIT Class of 90 batch by current location and profession.