The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are by far the most visible symbols of India’s prowess in scientific and technical education. Alumni of the IITs have distinguished themselves in academic and industrial settings in India and in all the advanced countries of the world. No wonder then that the recently concluded Pan-IIT 2008 deliberated on what else the IITs could or should do on a global canvas. Here are a few thoughts:
1. Commercializing cutting-edge research
The IIT system has completed 56 years of truly high technology educational saga in India. What started as an undergraduate program had soon become a beacon for higher order post-graduate and research education. It is a matter of no small significance that Ph.D. students currently constitute about 17% of the total student population in the IITs. Post-graduate and research education has been an engine of growth in IITs in its own right. There is a need, however, to establish centres in areas of cutting edge science and technology such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence from which innovative ideas and inventions could be generated and incubated as entrepreneurial start-ups. This model has been perfected in the United States by a number of universities and is now pioneered in Europe by institutes such as Karolinska Institute and can be easily supported by the IITs in India. Following the example set by IIT Madras, Research Parks may also be set up by various IITs. However, these ventures need to be supported by government grants and industrial donations so that faculty and inventive students are provided laboratory space free of charge during the incubation period.
2. Converging engineering and medicine.
For far too long a period, India has treated Engineering and Medicine as two physically and intellectually distinct streams of education and research. This contrasts sharply with the US scenario where the best of engineering and medical institutions function within common campuses, and under shared umbrellas. With advances in genetic engineering, medical engineering, physical, chemical and material sciences and several hybrid domains it has become possible to study the human body (or objects of life) as much as engineering traditionally studied inanimate objects (such as buildings or machinery). The ultimate goal of science and engineering will be to understand life in its entirety to be able to arrive at cost-effective diagnostic and therapeutic solutions. In order to promote such convergence, IITs need to expand curriculum to include biological sciences as well as hybrid biology-engineering domains to create requisite academic and research platforms. Just as management schools have become integral parts of the IITs, medical schools would also need to be parts of IITs. Medical undergraduates need to be facilitated to acquire post-graduate engineering degrees in fields such as robotic surgery, tele-medicine, bio-medical engineering, and so on. Similarly, engineering undergraduates should be facilitated to acquire post-graduate medical degrees in fields such as genetic engineering, artificial organ engineering, pharmaceutical drug delivery, human biotechnology and medical nanotechnology, and so on.
3. Globalization of IITs
IIT alumni have been the most powerful and iconic representatives of India’s highly successful IIT system abroad. Despite the clear knowledge and competence edge, IITs have not been overtly successful in drawing students from advanced countries. Even students from emerging economies and contiguous nations are not many at the IITs. Lack of awareness, concerns on geo-political safety, family and cultural issues, logistics, higher costs of overseas education and loss of linkages with employment sources could be the causes that limit the number of students accessing IITs in India. The only way to irrefutably strengthen IITs’ global blueprint is only through physical presence in advanced countries. This could at the minimum level take the shape of faculty collaboration cum student exchange programs with reputed overseas institutions and at the aspirational level could involve setting up of overseas campuses. The latter of course requires deep financial resources and support of non-resident Indians in a big way. A start could be made with the setting up of mini-campuses within major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge and Karolinska. The value proposition for those universities would be in terms of an intense exposure to Indian economic, technical and business perspectives and preparation of their students for cross-cultural professional employment.
4. Strengthening the faculty.
Even as the intake of IITs has been expanding, the share of research growing and the number of IITs itself increasing, the availability of requisite faculty has become a major issue. There is a need to create new tiers of post-doctoral programs to generate and retain new pools of academically oriented researchers who could undertake a variety of educational and research activities in the IITs. At another level, apart from enhancing the compensation levels for the faculty members, and increasing their share of consultancy income, out-of-box measures such as participation in research driven start-ups could attract greater number of bright doctoral and post-doctoral professionals to the IITs. It may also be beneficial to create pools of superannuated faculty as well as industry professionals to act as adjunct faculty for application oriented courses.
5. Transactional efficiency in consulting.
IITs can help industries and businesses, big and small, because of the superior laboratory resources, computer facilities and knowledge systems that reside in the IITs. The vast pool of students and researchers can, of course, undertake project works of short time bursts. However, the IITs have not been able to leverage these intellectual assets due to slow pace of consulting transactions. By setting up offices for business development in consulting and project management for facilitating and monitoring the execution of consulting projects, the IITs can achieve transactional efficiency. Consulting at IITs should, however, be truly in knowledge-intensive sectors befitting the scientific pedigree. Deployment of modern electronic and telecommunication technologies in logistics and transportation projects could, for example, be a challenging area of consultancy. Design of flexible manufacturing systems for small and medium enterprises could be another. There would be potential areas in each industrial or business sector that demand the skill-sets of the IITs.
By focusing on and commercializing cutting edge research, integrating engineering and medicine, globalizing the campus presence and faculty-student intake, reinforcing the faculty and enhancing transactional efficiency in consulting, the IITs could become the top-tier educational system on a global basis over the next two decades.
Dr C Bhaktavatsala Rao is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and is presently the Deputy Managing Director of Orchid Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited, Chennai. Posted on December 19, 2008.