Monday, September 28, 2009

Dear Shri Sibal Sahab

Dear Shri Kapil Sibal Sahab,

Namaskar! From a student who is studying in an IIT. It does not matter which IIT I am in, but it is a matter of concern to see my institute in the news for some very saddening reasons. That the professors are feeling short-changed due to the pay structure announced by the sixth-pay commission and the huge controversy it is snow-balling into, is not good for the institutes' academic health.

Sibal sahab, I do not know whether you have personally interacted with the IIT faculty or any of their representatives over this issue. I am getting to know things only through the newspapers I read. But, the manner in which rules have been framed and announced, defy logic to a large extent. E.g., you said that only 40% of the Professors will be eligible for special grade pay. This, according to you is to increase the quality and to ensure that only those who meet benchmarks are eligible. How are we going to evaluate two different professors who work in different areas? The use of research output as a benchmark is not good, as some research work has a longer gestation time, before it can show results. What is the 40% figure? Is it 40% of the entire faculty of IIT or 40% of the professors in every department? This will at some point boil down to the number of papers published by a faculty or the number of patents filed. But Sibal sahab, this might actually cause a loss in focus of the faculty, as they begin focussing more on papers, rather than quality work.

Another proposal from your ministry (and probably yourself too) is that IITs should start increasing the fees and reduce subsidies. This, would be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Today, IIT education being affordable attracts a lot of meritorious students, irrespective of their economic backgrounds. At the Masters' and Doctoral level, many of them manage to sustain themselves through their stipends alone. No good institute can function without the generous support of the government. If you go back in history, the best universities of their era, the Takshashila and Patliputra Universities, were supported by the kings and the wealthy of their time. They attracted scholars from all over the world at that time. So, if you force the IITs to increase fees and reduce subsidies, then you might end up restricting their access only to those who can afford IITs not who actually deserve them. Look at Germany. Their entire higher education is sponsored by the federal government. And they have one of the finest research institutes in the world. So, government support is not a lost cause.

Sibal sahab, those who compete for and get through IITs are mostly students of the middle class families. Students of bank clerks, managers, a babu working in your department strive to get through the JEE or GATE exams, so that they can develop themselves by gaining access to the best resources in India. Even the children of the lower middle class aspire to get into an IIT. The rich or super-rich manage to send their children to universities abroad, paying thousands of dollars as fees. This, is simply not possible in India and you know it very well.

Over the years, especially after independence, many universities and colleges have declined in the quality of the work and services that they provide. Many colleges haven't recruited permanent teaching staff for more than 10 years. But, IITs have consistently managed to raise the bar and improve the quality of the output. You cannot allow IITs to go downhill. This has been possible because of a careful selection process that every IIT has for selecting faculty.

Your ministry has also written to the IITs to reduce expenditure on travelling, supplies and library procurements. Already, laboratories are forced to procure sundry stuff, such as glassware, regular chemicals, etc. through the contingency funds of the Ph.D. students. Contingency funds were supposed to help students deal with their research contingencies. Instead, they are forgoing it for sundry supplies. From where else should a laboratory cut corners? A Ph.D. student gets to travel to an international conference only once during his/her tenure as a research scholar. These conferences help a student to network, seek good post-doctoral opportunities and also job offers. They offer a place to dissect research work and see if it can be improved upon. Do you want to cut this down too? The funding, as it is, is not even enough to purchase a return ticket of the economy class for the cheapest flying route. The students have to apply to atleast two-three organisations, before they have sufficient money to travel to the conference and get back to India. Sibal sahab, if you managed to rent out your Luytens' Road residence at market rate, you may manage to fund the travel of atleast five students every year.

Finally, you have said in various interviews that since the government is providing 100% funding, it is the government's right to put in place rules and regulations as it is answerable to the Parliament. Isn't the same true with DRDO? Doesn't the government fund DRDO completely? Isn't the government answerable to the Parliament for the work of the DRDO? Yet, no one seems to be asking DRDO to cut down its expenditure. Nor putting stricter norms in place to maintain the "quality" of DRDO officers and scientists. Almost 30 years have passed, Sibal sahab, since the Arjun tank projected commenced. Yet, the DRDO is not able to meet the Army's specifications. Don't you think that the DRDO should be evaluated in a similar manner that the IITs are? The CAG has several times castigated the DRDO in regard to its way of handling projects. Yet, no one ever put such caps on grade pay in DRDO. Then, why is the restriction being enforced on IIT? If the government is answerable to the Parliament, then why has the ministry issued directions to hire M.Techs. at lecturer position and reserved 10% of the sanctioned positions for lecturers? I heard that this order was subsequently withdrawn, but why was such an order was given in the first place? Do you increase the bar, or bring it down. On one hand you want to ensure quality by restricting grade pay. On the other hand you want Masters' students to take care of teaching students. Are these two activities not conflicting with your goal of nurturing future Nobel Prize winners?

Sibal sahab, no one at IIT is asking for the sky. All people want is to be treated with dignity and a set of processes that allow a researcher to focus on his/her work. Did you ever think of introducing procedures and enforcing them in the various administrative departments of IITs? Do you know, how much time and energy a student loses every year if he/she ever gets into dealing with the administrative staff of IIT? Please try to look into that too. If you are able to improve the functioning of the administration, you will end up providing a much favourable ambience in the institute. Then, you may not even need to look at cutting funds, as they will be utilised efficiently.

I may have argued on the surface and not touched upon things in great detail. But still, I would urge you to re-think on the decisions that you have made, and in future, keep IITs in the news for what they are best known for- education and research.

Thank You,

A student at an IIT
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  1. He is a politician. We won't understand what a technical institute needs to main it's world class quality and value.

  2. It is a case of eating the cake and having it too, for both IIT and the govt, ain't it

    Govt thinks that the IIT brand name can sustain all the devaluation that their programs are going to bring about...

    IIT cannot be a cheap institute if autonomy is given...govt subsidies come at a price eventually...

    Among the choices, the myopic solution is the Govt's..lets milk the IIT brand name till it is worth nothing...then it can go AI and other PSU way...(in that case, our hope is that pvt universities up the tempo to provide quality education)

    IIT's have a longer prediction horizon, and in the longer run, autonomy, good pay for faculty etc is essential for retaining good researchers in a competitive global world...(but for now, they cannot make the control moves as it is with the govt)(in this case, our best hope is that the govt drafts a long-term plan for the IITs...but that is hard given that the govt only wants to maximize their payoffs at the end of 5 years)

    Game theorists need to find the eqlb point now :p

    (Note: I am taking a game theory course this semester. So all this jargon )

  3. Probably this should circulate as a letter with signatures from Faculty, students and others.
    I have a similar claim for the UGC exam being compulsory for even PhD holders.

  4. @Asit
    He does understand that. Do not under estimate politicians. If he doesn't he has delegated this responsibilities to IIT directors to brief him about it. He does know the value of creating a world class institute. Problem is, he is also forced to think about the voters at large. Populism is root of many evils.

    We are getting information on all these events through the media. So, let's take all that info with a pinch of salt. IIT Professors acknowledge the support from government. Nehru dedicated these institutes to the service of the nation. And therefore, decided to support it with the nation's resources. But it is not without reason that Nehru and his colleagues decided to give some autonomy to IITs. And the result is there for us to see. Now, instead of maintaining the autonomy, Sibal is trying to enforce views as a funding agency does. This part of the feature film is what is wrong.

    About milking the IIT brand, yes, the government has been hasty in announcing the new IITs. That they were needed is beyond doubt. But imagine, IIT Rajasthan has not yet been allotted land. IIT Gandhinagar too hasn't been handed over the land. So, what worth does a degree from any of these institutes running out of temporary campuses carry? I guess not too much. Anyways, the premium value that a brand carries, is now on the decrease. This is because a dearth of information is available to compare two brands and decide if they really justify the premium.

    No, it shouldn't happen that way. I have skimmed just the surface. IIT authorities can do a much better job than I have done. And it is best done by them. If they want to use this, they are welcome to do so.