Why is the state of the Indian education system depressing?

I was in IIT Powai a couple of months ago for a workshop in marketing which lasted a couple of days.
As such, we were put up in the in-campus residential suites for guests – which to say the least, blew my mind!

The hostel (2 people staying in a room) was nothing less than a 3 star place – which spacious and comfortable rooms, air conditioning, in-room phones, awesome food and even a great view. And all this from within the IIT campus!

I was attending the conference with Gaurang and we would stroll out exploring the IIT campus in the evenings when we had nothing else to do. For those who haven’t been to an IIT Campus, let me describe the place. It was beautiful!

A student haven.

Flood light lit grounds and courts open till late night, students painting the cultural center walls with art and preparing for the upcoming Techfest, some kids hanging out at the local juice wala – it was awesome! Something that I will always miss as a student who went to a day college.

During that time, Gaurang and me got into a discussion as to why there wasn’t any ground breaking research happening at the IITs. There is so much public money going to waste! (After all, the IIT fees are highly subsidized by the government)
For the amounts of money and effort spent on educating people by the government, as an outsider, I don’t see much happening in the research area (specially in the public sector / government fields) at the IITs. That in my opinion is a huge waste of talent.

Compared to us, colleges in the US contribute tonnes (as much as 50%) to the research that goes on within the country.

Well, I learnt something today which went a long way in explaining why our education system is the way it is …

I am reading “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilekani (the book is pretty awesome if you ever wondered why things are in India the way they are. It takes you on a journey of how the country has sometimes walked, occassionally run and often hobbled the 60+ years after indpendence along with tremendous insights on what can be done to change the systems. A must read for all our bureaucrats!)

Anyways, getting back to the topic – what happened is this.
Post independence, India was an extremely poor country. Inspite of this, Nehru along with the first governments, allocated a sizable amount to the development of the educational institutes in India. (and thankfully at that).

They even greatly subsidized the fees (at that time it was approximately Rs. 500 which was 1/3rd the actual costs).
However, in addition to this, they went and created special research organisations to research on various aspects instead of sending the research down to the IITs.

In addition to this, the amount of research which could be done in the IITs was grossly curtailed by the government itself.
Due to this, the college could not raise funds by doing research and the fees being highly subsidized, the colleges – became a loss making enterprise for the government from day one.

Which is the reason why nobody from the government cares much about the state of IITs and also which is why we have so few of them today.

Fortunately, what needs to be done is very simple.

  1. Free the IITs and institutes from the shackles of the HRD (which has a history of screwing things up at constant intervals of time).
  2. Let the institutes decide what fee structure they should go with and give them a free hand to implement this.
    (All US universities work on the same principle and it has worked well for them so far)
  3. Allow universities to do research in whatever area they please – so they don’t have to depend upon government grants as much as they do now. Not only will our teachers be better paid (thus raising the standard), our students will be more motivated to take up courses which have research in their key areas.
  4. Get rid of the stupid reservation system. It has been decades now since the Mandal Commission and its time for us to move on …
  5. Create thousands of more IITs. (Atleast people now are echoing this sentiment)

Anything more that you guys can think of, please add to the comments below. Thanks!
(I had a couple of more things in mind – but Wikipedia just went down and in that shock, I completely forgot what they were)

I hope the present government makes some drastic changes in this department. Starting with the HRD making an exit. (Don’t they have other things to manage anyways?)

Update (1-Aug-09):
Extremely interesting comments popping up  in the Comments section. Be sure to check them out and add to it :)

4 Comments

  1. Well Saurabh,

    I have one suggestion……..

    Why dont we give all the present universities a free hand and get them in power with IIT’s. These universities already have basic infrastructure ready and students are already studying there…..all we need to do is let every university decide their syllabus, the way the course should be taught. Govt can give them grants or universities can collaborate with the industry for research etc…..If we do this the results will be seen in 5 years and it is much viable option then setting up new IIT(s)……

    Reply
  2. Hey Saurabh,

    Glad to see a blog post from you on this subject, and good to see you tweet about it – that’s how I got here :)

    I’m not sure opening another 1000 IITs is going to save us. I agree with the idea of having more IITs or similarly recognized and technically-equipped institutes, but I feel this needs to be a controlled growth. A mass explosion in the number of IITs would let that many more discrepancies, differences creep in among themselves, allowing the leeches in state govts in to the system, and their hands on the money: which is exactly what we’re trying to get rid of.

    I don’t know, I’m sure there are alternatives and ways to start cleaning up our messy higher-education system.. but whenever I think about it, I’m tempted to think of Indians abroad as the saviours. I feel more professors and industrialists need to come back home and steer this in the right direction. Of course this is a huge step, a distant solution, but I can’t think of people who are better equipped to do this. Are they mentally equipped to do this though? I doubt it. I’m not sure a middle aged top-dollar earning professor at an esteemed American university would voluntarily give up his comfortable life, good education for his kids and respect in the community to get his hands dirty back home doing what no one likes to – get through our bureaucracy. Having said that, I still feel that given the number of Indians doing well abroad, this change I’m talking about needs to start happening – however slowly.

    No one likes to admit that aping the west is a good thing, but this is one aspect where I’m all for it. The higher education system here (I can only speak about the US) is great, you’re thrown in to a world of opportunity.

    But whatever else happens, WE NEED TO GET RID OF THE DAMNED RESERVATION SYSTEM. How unbelievably backward.

    Reply
  3. Karan, Pawan,

    Thank you guys for commenting. Its often the comments which add more value to the post than the post itself (as is the case with this one too)

    @Pawan:
    I think your suggestion is an extremely viable one. And we are seeing this happening now in Pune itself (slowly).
    COEP, VIT and a lot of other colleges are joining the “deemed” bandwagon. Considering a country like India – where demand is almost always greater than the supply, we need to be careful with giving colleges a completely free ride as the managements might take advantages of the situation – but I think the free market policies should even things out. It would be interesting to see if that happens.

    Maybe a *gentle* regulatory authority could help. Something like what TRAI does for cell phone networks, we could have something for the colleges.

    @Karan:
    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you on the point that starting a 1000 IITs is not the solution and we need to probably look at a more tempered, planned growth growth.

    As for your point of Indians from abroad coming down to India – I think that could very well work provided they are empowered enough. While researching for this post, I came across another blog (http://www.shaarique.com/research-in-a-iit/) in which the guy who is an IIT student mentions of his mentor who came down from California to teach in IIT Madras, but ran away within a year due to the babu-dom which eventually creeps up in such “government-aided” institutes.

    I do believe that there are thousands of people who want to change the system and are willing to do it – but are not empowered enough. I think its about time the government takes a step back and lets the people take charge about these issues.

    Something what the government has let Nilekani do with the UID project. It is very heartening indeed.
    Get smart, dedicated, young people from the private sector or even abroad – empower them enough and see how changes happen. I am really hoping things take a turn towards this … :)

    Reply

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