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Saturday, January 17, 2004

We all know how difficult it is to get through the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and study at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).  It probably is one of the most restricted selection procedure in the world.  The total number of engineering graduates produced by the five IITs at Kharagpur, Kanpur, Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi together, since 1956, is less than the number of JEE applicants in a single year!  In 2002, more than 178,000 students appeared for the JEE. Around 3,500 of them, or less than 2 percent, were admitted.  Even the most prestigious (including the so-called ‘Ivy League’) universities in the US have a much higher acceptance rate.   The CBS News Service, in its ‘60 Minutes’ program equated IITs as Harvard plus MIT plus Princeton.  But the Americans do have a tendency to praise too much, at times.

Our Prime Minister declared last week that a new IIT would be established in our state.  Last year, speaking in a function at IIT-Kanpur, he announced the government’s intent to establish five new IITs in the coming years.

Graduating from the IIT virtually ensures a successful future in your chosen career path. Almost every high-school student and their parents realize this value of an IIT degree certificate.    One interesting statistic:  on a per capita basis, IITs have probably produced more number of millionaires (in dollar terms, I must tell you) than any other undergraduate (i.e. bachelor’s) institution in the world.  Still, IITians are not all about individual success.  They have distributed knowledge, created wealth and generated prosperity in our society.  Nearly a quarter of them have turned entrepreneurs, thus giving jobs instead of merely seeking them.  Many IITians have provided excellent service in universities, public administration and a few of them, even in India’s version of politics.

Since the past century, advances in technology have been shaping our individual lives and collective destiny like never before.   For instance, the impact of satellite TV, mobile phones or the Internet on the quality of our lives is astounding.  I have no doubt that technologists will increasingly influence our country’s future.  Unfortunately, in India, the gap between the technological possibility and the ground reality is equally large.

Each year, we produce more than 3,50,000 technologists from 1100 professional colleges.   Our own Hyderabad has nearly 200 engineering colleges within a 40-km radius.  Most of them provide very sub-standard education.  Even some of the well-known government colleges and universities have degenerated into factories that mass-produce degree holders. Their graduates simply are not what India desperately needs:  technically competent, creative and self-confident problem solvers who are not afraid to tackle some of the most pressing problems of our society.

Given this backdrop, the starting of a new IIT in our state is good news.  It will definitely help towards producing adequate number of graduates with world-class technical education.   In fact, we can easily provide around four to five times the number of students currently enrolled, with an ‘IIT experience’ - without compromising on the quality of their education.  When the demand is so great, it is necessary to increase the intake and create more centres of excellence.

We already have a reputed National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Warangal.  Starting a new IIT in addition to this NIT will help set high benchmarks and thereby give a boost to the quality of curriculum, teaching and research in many other colleges and universities in and around AP.   Setting up the campus at a new location can also provide real opportunities for developing the local community.   An IIT also brings with it a new ‘can-do’ culture fostered by a breed of smart, confident and dynamic youngsters.  The long-term impact of these positive developments on our society will be significant.

We live in a society where education is valued very highly.  There is a universally strong desire among the student and parent community that even the non-IIT colleges should offer a worthwhile learning experience.  The decision makers in the management and faculty of colleges should use this consensus as a mandate to convert their campuses into ‘Centres of Excellence’, comparable to the IITs. Given the wealth of their latent creative talents, I am absolutely confident this can be achieved.  There are thousands of bright youngsters outside, and they deserve an opportunity to learn from best practices everywhere.

But do academics really mean everything? An IIT alumnus once told me this: it seems the IIT class toppers do brilliant research in Fortune 500 companies, the B-grade students manage those research projects while the C-graders run the company that sells work for both of them!