Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jairam Ramesh and the World Class argument

Do IITs and IIMs, our premier institutions, promote a culture of excellence? Jairam Ramesh's controversial comments about the students being excellent and faculty being less than �world class� created quite a ruckus. A cross-section of students and teachers from these institutions give their views on whether the research and teaching are of international standards. Do we as a society value excellence and have the wherewithal to actively pursue it?
Mohit Sharma

I wish Jairam Ramesh had not made that statement. It is excusable and ignorable when it comes from fashionably cynical kids on campus. But when a man of his standing and experience makes such an oversimplified and scathing assessment, there is the very real danger of people taking his word at face value, given how he has been a part of the system here at IIT. In one stroke he labels faculty members as incompetent and the students as world-beaters. If only the world was as black and white.

Photo: Manas Ranjan BhuliNo one would disagree with him on the major premise of the IITs not being world-class research institutions. For an institute with such name and pull our research output in terms of research papers and patents is far too low. How do you decide whom to pin the blame on? Top institutes around the world have two common features: access to funding and autonomy. The world class institutions that the minister refers to, one among which is University of California at Berkeley (a state university), have budgets running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Stanford University, a private university, has a multi-billion dollar budget, in addition to a Goliath-sized corpus. In comparison, our research budgets rarely exceed a few million dollars, and we have, at best, a pittance for a corpus.

What the students Think :

Arundhati Anand Velamur, A gross generalisation only undermines the abilities and efforts of the few people who do make a difference to the institute�s research output.�A comment like this shouldn�t come from a person of such high standing in Indian governance, an alumnus, no less. He is in a position to influence the direction the IITs and the IIMs take.
Arundhati Anand Velamur,
an alumna of IIT Bombay, Class of 2010

Vinay Sharma, Jairam Ramesh himself said that his ministry is doing a PPP to come up with that centre in Jamnagar on marine biodiversity. He also said that in a governmental set-up, it is not possible to do world class research. I guess he made a fool of himself by making contradictory statements, unless he really believes that the IITs are completely autonomous.
Vinay Sharma,
an alumnus of IIT Bombay, Class of 2008.

Pritika Goyal, As far as the faculty goes, I feel that we could do much better with some newer and younger faculty members. This would not only help solve the problem of shortage of faculty but younger faculty generally seems to have enthusiasm towards research. Our faculty is involved with some world class research, still, that is more in spite of the system than because of it.
Pritika Goyal,
a final-year student at IIT Delhi.

Misha Pratap, IIMs definitely derive a lot of respect in industry and community due to the extremely competitive entrance process. There are a few world class faculty members in IIMs who have a sharp influence on the journey of a student at an IIM and thereafter. Any blanket labelling would be inappropriate.
Misha Pratap,
an alumnus of IIM Lucknow

Ankit Sukhija,The first reaction is to be defensive and question the claim. We must take it as an opportunity to introspect. Jairam Ramesh is not completely wrong but criticism is different from critiquing, which we must do.
Ankit Sukhija,
an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, Class of 2011

Research needs money. Research needs a lot of labs and facilities. And most of all, research needs a culture. We are better equipped on all three counts than most other Indian universities, but we need a lot more if we are to compete with the big boys and call ourselves world class.

On the question of autonomy, we need to ensure that our institutes have enough of it. Give the IITs and IIMs more control over the donations made to them. Let them choose how many students they want and how they wish to admit them. Stop controlling their merit lists with quotas. Free them from the clutches of the government. But the minister already knows all of this and does not need a college student to lecture him on it I would assume.

Let us get to the elephant in the room then. Are our faculty members world class? Dicey question. I had asked a senior the same thing in my first year. His response, �Look, you are going to have good professors and bad professors in universities all over the world.� In a way, that sums it up. I could reel off names of professors who have been masters of their respective specialisations and attending whose classes has been an absolute pleasure.

The other extreme then - do we have people in our institute doing Nobel Prize-winning work? I took this question to our mess tables and the consensus was a resounding �no�. Nobel-winning research, one must understand, is a lot about the environment you work in and this is where the importance of a research culture kicks in. The world�s top universities, apart from having generously funded and well-equipped laboratories, have highly competitive lab groups with a motley mix of undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students. They compete against each other and against researchers from the rest of the world for rewards in the form of more funding, journal papers and patents. The environment is such that everyone around you aspires for those rewards and good ideas are in abundance. This is one area we can work on. But to pin all the blame for a less-than-average research culture on faculty members is unfair.

Which brings me to the other part of the Hon�ble Minister�s assertion - are our students really world-class? Are we potential somethings waiting to explode, given the right encouragement and facilities, and inhibited only by less-than-world-class professors and the system? Most students here are brighter than average, true. Sadly though, there is a whole huge bunch of us who are just not enthused by engineering. Quite a few of us were driven to IIT and engineering only for the brand and because it was not fashionable in our cities and towns for high scoring folk to get into liberal arts. The result? A lot many of us put in just about enough effort to scrape through our exams every semester and channelise our energy elsewhere � clearly not ideal raw material for a good culture. Which is not to say that there are not students in the institute who are not passionate about science and research, I know a few of them myself. But then, they are exceptions rather than the norm.

The IITs are not really thriving. We barely seem to be surviving, as the minister rightly points out, and it is more on reputation than anything else - a reputation built up by our more illustrious alumni from the last 50 years. In that sense, the students we had at the time (the Hon�ble Minister was a student here) were, in all probability, world class. The sense of this system�s future that I get after being a part of it for five years, however, is not a very positive one.

I believe the minister would be serving the country better by directing his broadside towards his own government than his alma mater. He is smart enough to know what needs to be done without any one of us telling him. Simplistic, fatalistic demagoguery is okay when it spews forth from the mouths of his less illustrious peers. But you, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, we believe in you enough to hold you to a higher standard.

(The writer is a final-year student of civil engineering in IIT, Bombay)

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