Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jairam Ramesh rekindles the IIT-IIM debate

Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister and an ex-IIT graduate has rekindled the debate of the effectiveness of the quality of research and faculty at the IITs and IIMs in India. As expected, people have taken a position based on their allegiances. IIT/IIM alumni and faculty have come out vociferously to defend their alma mater. People are amazed that an ex-student whose father was also the head of Civil Engineering department at one of the IITs can break rank and speak out against them! Various reasons are being put forward for the lack of quality research, primary among them is the lack or delay of funds from the government.

Interestingly, what is getting sidetracked in all this noise is that fact that Jairam Ramesh is actually right. It is a fact that the quality of students going into these institutes is far better than what other esteemed colleges abroad (MIT, Caltech, HBS etc). I would really like to see one experiment that would prove the mettle of the faculty. Let them swap one batch of students with a medium/low grade engineering/business school and let's see what happens. If the faculty is so sure of their capability they should be able to make great engineers / managers out of them. I can guarantee that they will fail miserably.

I can give a personal example. I have visited most of the engineering colleges a in eastern and western India for campus recruitment for my company over the last decade. We went to one of the IITs (I will not say which one) and interviewed a host of students. For B.Tech students, there was a huge (really really huge) difference in quality between the students who were in the general category and the ones who got in through some quota. Additionally, we interviewed M.Tech students who had come in from non-IIT background and found them to be way behind the curve in every aspect. We practically had to come back empty-handed. 

The point I am making is that the faculty is the same, same classroom, same facilities, yet there is this huge difference in the quality of output of students. Just goes to prove that just the faculty is not enough to drive excellence. Excellence comes from a combination of factors, primary among them is the student. If there is garbage-in, you get garbage-out. If there is excellence-in, you get excellence-out. It's as simple as that.

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