IIT Directors speak up at Techfest Conclave

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dc tf 2015-16

Day 1 of Techfest 2015-16 played host to the Directors’ Conclave. The conclave was originally slated to host Directors from 5 IITs, but due to some hitches, only Prof. Devang Khakhar of IIT Bombay and Prof. Pushpak Bhattacharya of IIT Patna could attend.

The Directors spoke on a variety of issues related to IITs – the role of IITs in today’s India, how IITs can improve their standings in the world while maintaining their brand name and their penchant of producing excellent students, to name a few. This was followed by a question-and-answer session where the audience was invited to ask questions.

The conclave saw both the directors addressing the audience, touching on topics pertinent to the IITs and the education sector in India in general. They emphasised on the importance of knowledge and the need for research. Prof. Khakhar remarked how the present can be termed as a ‘knowledge economy’ because of the importance of advanced knowledge as a resource. Stressing on this point, both Prof. Khakhar and Prof. Bhattacharya extolled on the need for increased focus on postgraduate students. IIT Bombay has proposed to increase the PG intake by 30% of the present by 2018-19.

Prof. Khakhar remarked how the present can be termed as a ‘knowledge economy’ because of the importance of advanced knowledge as a resource.

Prof. Bhattacharya said, “Some of the best universities in the world like Harvard, Oxford, MIT, Cambridge are distinguished by their contribution to knowledge. The other thing they do is produce excellent students. A central role is played by PG students in this regard due to their involvement in research which is then used in the industry. All us directors and higher member of institutes will like to have high quality PG students.”

Acknowledging the need for better infrastructure for research, Prof. Khakhar admitted that even though the IITs are relatively well-funded compared to other Indian universities, their funding is still very less when compared to international universities. Prof. Bhattacharya remarked that although most of the funding received by the IITs are from MHRD, even companies do fund to some extent, but it is mostly limited to scholarships and travel allowances. The laboratories are very much dependent on public money to function.

Another issue that the directors addressed was the growing propensity of students to move to non-core fields. Admitting that engineering should only provide a broad background to be used in various fields, Prof. Khakhar remarked, “The subject matter may feel irrelevant, but the training will help later in life. The way workplaces are, you need soft skills along with technical skills.”

Excerpts from the QnA session:

Q. I am a professor in management. My son is an aspiring IITian. For entering into IIT, only the IIT-JEE is the qualification. Now my son has won an international innovation contest. His was the only entry from India. In spite of that, all his professors from IIT coaching scolded him, telling him to concentrate on JEE, making him feel disheartened. Is there any way to make IIT admission on the basis on extracurricular activities on the lines of foreign universities?

DK: Simple answer to the question is no, we don’t have anything like that. The reason is, unlike in universities abroad, we have a very large pool to select students [from], and it’s not possible to do it at that scale. We have that system for Master’s and Ph.D. selections, but for B.Tech., we only have the exam which is very clean and has no influence.

Q. The number of core engineering firms coming for placements is low as compared to the so-called ‘non-core’ firms. What can be done to bring more engineering companies in placements? Isn’t encouraging students to venture into the field of tech a moral responsibility of IITs?

DK: The answer is yes, IIT’s should try to bring [core companies]. At one time, only core companies used to come, but slowly they stopped due to lack of interest from students. Lot of the placement process is driven by students themselves; professors are very connected to core companies. If students show interest, then they will come back. The biggest complaint is that students join and leave very quickly, which stops the companies from coming back.

Lot of the placement process is driven by students themselves; professors are very connected to core companies. If students show interest then they will come back. The biggest complaint is that students join and leave very quickly, which stops the companies from coming back.

PB: I will speak for the CS field. CS is not that much of hard core engineering. But the problem in this field is most of the design is done in California, all the assumptions are made in USA. But the actual coding is done in India due to easy availability of cheap manpower. Many excellent students have done a lot of great B.Tech. and M.Tech projects, but they get bored after some time in the industry, which makes them move to different fields. But this scenario is changing, we are building a lot of confidence in multinationals and both design and development gets done in India.

Q. You spoke about how research and innovation is very important for the progress of the nation. Apart from IITs which are the top institutes in India, there are many private and autonomous institutes in India. What are IITs doing to help such institutes?

DK: All the IITs are interacting with other colleges. One of the big things which has happened is NPTEL, which is one of the largest repository of engineering courses on the Internet available for free. A lot of content across all engineering disciplines is available on YouTube and [the] NPTEL website for free. The second big thing is many of the IITs are involved in faculty training. There is a major program between IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur where 10,000 teachers are trained over the Net. Our research facilities are also open to PG students and teachers where anybody can come and make use of these for a nominal fee. There are 16 IITs and over 20,000 colleges but the impact is very diluted, but lot of efforts are being done in this direction.

One of the big things which has happened is NPTEL, which is one of the largest repository of engineering courses on the Internet available for free.

Q. Why are M.Tech. and Ph.D. admissions not centralized?

DK: The main issue is that there are so many different criteria for various programs. Many institutes use GATE for shortlisting and then have interviews, which makes it difficult to centralize.

PB: This is a problem we recognise and I feel something can be done to change that.

Cross-question: Students have to travel a lot within a short period of time to give interviews in different institutes. NITs now have centralized admission for M.Tech. students and this can be done in IITs also.

DK: This is on the agenda and I feel we can do it soon.

Q. Why is the quality of research at IITs not at par with, say, an IISc or a TIFR? What steps can be taken for giving research at IITs a fillip, for example, making it more industry-oriented, solving real-life/national problems?

DK: A lot of this is historical. I collected data from 1965 till now on research funding obtained by IIT Bombay. I found that till 1985 the external research funding was almost zero. IITs were primarily teaching institutions. IISc and TIFR were primarily research institutions and hence they have been well funded for research right through. In many ways we are playing catch up. You can see that many of the groups at IITB are on par with them. The Centre of Excellence in Nanotechnology is a partnership with IISc. As for the second part, I agree with it and it is something we have been striving to do right from the start. The thing is that you have to be of a certain level for industry and society to listen to you. BMC has been consulting many of the professors for their projects.

I found that till 1985 the external research funding was almost zero. IITs were primarily teaching institutions. IISc and TIFR were primarily research institutions and hence they have been well funded for research right through. In many ways we are playing catch up.

PB: This particular thing happens all the time. I would like to give a philosophical answer. The spectrum of innovation is very large. One type of research is based on growing scientific knowledge, and the other is based on making useful things. In my time at the 4 IITs I have seen, people are focused on doing utility research. I feel that utility research is not easily quantifiable, while theoretical research can be measured by number of publications. Basically these institutes have a very different history and focus.

Q. I feel that IITs can help to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas. Under the recent Make in India programme, do you have any program for the upliftment of the rural areas?

DK: IITB has a centre for rural development known as CTARA. They have developed a better kind of bullock carts, stoves, etc. A new programme called Unnat Bharat Abhiyan has been started, in which the institute has adopted 24 villages. We are looking at what are some of the problems which can have technological solutions. Many students undertake B.Tech. projects in this area, and teams go to these villages to assess how they can help them. ‘Make in India’ is for both rural and urban. One of the projects under this is the National Centre for Innovation in Aerospace, where we design and manufacture aerospace components for companies in India and abroad.

PB: In Patna, the Bihar government has made a rule to give part of the solar energy generated in the institute to the rural areas.

Only around 10% students go abroad nowadays. 25% of students go to startups and work in India. This is a perception propagated by the media.

Q. Many IIT students seem to go to foreign companies for jobs and do not contribute to India. What is your view on this?

DK: This is a perception and is not quite true. Only around 10% students go abroad nowadays. I interact with a large number of industries, and at all levels you can find IIT graduates working, whether in government or private companies. 25% of students go to startups and work in India. This is a perception propagated by the media.

Q. I learnt about most of the research work done by professors and students after joining IITB as a Ph.D. student. Do you think more media attention should go towards the research at IIT so that people are aware of it?

PB: As I said in my speech I feel more media attention should be given to research and innovation.

DK: Being public institutions, I feel we should be answerable to the media. Most of the news about IIT which comes in newspapers is what people want to read about; most people will not be interested in research work.

Oyo rooms has 40,000 rooms which is larger than any other hotel chain, and is led by a 22-year old. He may not be successful, but the main thing I feel is that we should have a system where failure is not heavily penalised.

Q. What is the future of the startup economy, as it is mostly restricted to software?

DK: This kind of startup activity is helpful, since for true innovation, you should be able to do experimentation of different ideas. Not everything is related to software. This has become easier recently due to various channels to get your product into markets. Oyo rooms has 40,000 rooms which is larger than any other hotel chain, and is led by a 22-year old. He may not be successful, but the main thing I feel is that we should have a system where failure is not heavily penalised.