Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Overloading IITs?

IIT directors are currently in conversation with a high-powered government committee, headed by educationist Yash Pal, about moving IITs beyond science and engineering and making them centres of excellence in a variety of disciplines. The model being held before IITs are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which are comparable to full-fledged universities because they offer courses and research opportunities in a wide array of disciplines, including in the social sciences, management and the liberal arts. The idea of having world-class universities on Indian soil is a laudable one. But for the effort to succeed it must not be confined to IITs alone. Neither can centres of excellence be set up through government fiat or a top-down model. For that it is necessary to ensure the autonomy of institutions, which includes the freedom to raise their own resources. Requiring IITs to produce, say, first-rate doctors and historians begs the question of why existing institutions dedicated to training doctors and historians aren't producing quality in the first place. The point is not to fetishise IITs by designating them as Institutes of National Importance, as is the current practice. That, by implication, confers inferior status and less privileges to competing institutions. On the contrary other higher educational institutions, including those set up by private interests or with foreign help, should be given the same powers of operating autonomously, offering whatever disciplines they want, designing their own curricula and functioning on meritocratic lines free of political interference. Market competition will then winnow out the best ones. That, after all, is the environment in which an MIT or a Caltech, both of which are private institutions, have flourished. Select IITs already offer degrees
in management, medical science, city planning and the arts, but their graduates hardly have the same reputation as BTechs from IIT. To nurture excellence across a variety of disciplines, it will take more than IITs offering new courses.


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