PRISM Magazine  On-Line - October 1999 - Exploring the future of engineering education

Jewel in the Crown

by Thomas K Grose

In a country with more than its share of tech schools with global reputations, the Indian Institutes of Technology is the gem that shines the brightest.

    India TodayMost years, the graduate program at the University of Maryland's electrical and computer engineering department has 250 students. In any given year, at least 50 and as many as 100 of those students are from India. Moreover, usually 30 to 40 of those Indian students are graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. And, says Andre Tits, Maryland's Associate Chair for Graduate Studies, he would surely take more if he could get them, but competition for Indian graduate students—especially those from the IITs—is keen among American universities. "Their students tend to be very strong, very driven performers," Tits says. "In most cases, they do very well here."

    It's not just academia that has beaten a path to India in search of bright, young, world-class engineering students. Companies as diverse as consultant McKinsey & Co. and German software giant SAP all hungrily scout the IITs at graduation time in search of hot recruits. California's Silicon Valley has become a second home for Indian expatriates. One study shows that among 2,000 Silicon Valley startups, 40 percent were created by Indians, half of whom were IIT alums.

    What's the allure? India's six IIT campuses—and a handful of other tech schools—have over the years developed a global reputation for excellence, and for churning out hundreds of academically superior, success-oriented graduates each year. Scores of IIT grads number among the world's leading academics, tycoons and entrepreneurs. Indeed, the list of top executives with IIT diplomas on their walls includes Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems; Rakesh Gangwal, CEO of US Airways Group; and Victor J. Menezes, co-CEO of Citicorp's corporate and investment banking unit.

High Standards

    India TodayThe success of India's tech schools is the result of myriad influences, but chiefly high standards. The IITs' entrance requirements unabashedly strive for elitism. Their English- language-based curriculum brooks no compromises and stresses fundamentals. And their students—among the best and the brightest in multi-cultural, densely-populated India—are willing to work hard and study into the wee hours.

    The first IIT was built in Kharagpur in 1951, a few years after India gained independence from Great Britain. The fledgling government wanted to turn out the technicians and engineers necessary to build up the country's infrastructure. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was its model and many of the original faculty had U.S.-based degrees.

    One of the IIT's early enrollees, Preetinder S. Virk, graduated from the Kharagpur school in 1962 and is now a chemical engineering professor at MIT. He recalls that the school's director had been educated at the University of Wisconsin and "was very forward-looking." Other IIT campuses were eventually built in Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur and Madras. Now, about 6,000 students overall attend the IITs.

    Typically, Indian students spend five years in primary (elementary) school, another five years in secondary (middle) school and two years in higher secondary (high) school. And proficiency in mathematics is stressed, particularly the rote learning of basics, like times tables.

    Indians finish their basic education at age 16. Those qualified and wanting to enter the IITs must take an exacting admissions test. Of the 120,000 who annually apply to the schools, only 3,000 make the cut—or about 2.5 percent. That's one high hurdle. Even the illustrious Harvard has an acceptance rate of around 16 percent.

    Once in, IIT students find that the hard work has only just begun. Of the 3,000 enrolled each year, only 2,000 graduate. And again, many of the core curriculum classes are grounded in memorizing fundamentals, but this time they focus on advanced theories. "We pay more attention to math and we do quite a bit of rote learning," explains R. Natarajan, director of the Madras school. Not only that, students are also immersed in hands-on training in workshops where they fashion machine tools and operate machinery. To inject a bit of "real life" into the lives of their students, the IITs also require them to take one course composed of a series of lectures give by Indian business leaders.

Rigorous Workload

    India TodayTests and quizzes are given a high priority. "There is rigorous testing and it is by design," Natarajan says. Twenty years ago, he explains, an experimental class was created that put less emphasis on testing. The results didn't justify a change, he adds, and tests remain paramount. Class attendance and homework also figure prominently in an IIT student's life. It's normal for students to study until 3 a.m. most days. That's not surprising given the schools' infamously tough grading standards. All IIT profs are known to be parsimonious with "A"s and "B"s. And the schools use relative grading, which is the same as grading on the curve. That means that a high test score one class may be worth an "A" but is no better than "C" work in another.

    The classes are as tough as any at top universities around the world. From 1972 to '75, Virk returned to India to teach a course in chemical engineering at IIT-Madras. The course he taught was exactly the same as one he teaches at MIT. Given those kinds of pressures, some students have a hard time coping. All students enter the IITs having been stars back in their local schools, but some find that at university they end up in the bottom third.

    So psychological problems among a minority of students are not uncommon, Natarajan says.

    But like their counterparts at American universities, IIT students are not just set adrift on campus. They receive a fair amount of guidance. Each student is assigned a faculty advisor and his or her work is constantly monitored to ensure it is keeping pace. The teacher-student ratio is 1-to-10, which is slightly better than MIT's. Moreover, upperclassmen act as tutors and mentors to freshmen. "Unfortunately, some of them pass on tips on how to beat the system," Natarajan adds with a chuckle.

    Amazingly, the IITs manage to excel on rather tight budgets. It costs around 100,000 rupees - about $2,300 - a year to educate each student. About 70 percent of the cost is funded by the federal government. Virk says the campuses are big and nice, but nowhere near as plush as many U.S. colleges. To keep costs down, in some courses an entire class will share one textbook.

    After four years at an IIT, it's easy to see why its graduates are so in demand. Virk says that when he went to MIT in the early '60s as a grad student, he was "adequately prepared" and felt able to compete with his American peers. MIT, like other top U.S. schools, has a stream of IIT graduates entering its graduate-studies programs. And, Virk adds, "The best (of the IIT students) are always damn good." And he says, too, that nearly all Indian students who continue their education in the states eventually hit high gear. "In America, they flourish. It is an environment oriented to doing good work."

    Of course, the IITs are not the only Indian universities turning out top-notch students, but they are widely regarded as the best. Natarajan tries to be diplomatic, but admits that for tech and engineering students, the other schools are second choices: "They are where you go when you can't get into an IIT." Tits and Virk agree that students from other Indian universities are not in as high demand as those from the IITs, but say they can also shine. Maryland has had good experiences with graduates of the Indian Institute of Science, for instance. Natarajan praises several of the other schools—which are either state-funded or private/fee-based—and notes that they also benefit from the Indian emphasis on stressing numeracy and the basics. Roorkee and Jawaharlal Nehru universities, both have good reputations as tech schools.

Passage from India

    The irony of the success of the IITs is that they are the greatest contributor to India's "brain drain." Typically, 35 percent of its graduates go abroad, with the U.S. being the destination of choice. Last year, around 500 graduates headed for the States—about 30 percent of the graduating class. Does this exodus of some of India's top minds constitute a failure of the IITs' mission? Previous governments saw it less as a brain drain than a brain trust, believing that successful, globe-trotting graduates were goodwill ambassadors. But there is now a scheme afoot to make successful expats from the IITs repay up to 30 percent of the cost of their education.

    There is a more tangible payoff from the exodus. Eventually. Many alumni who have gone on to greater glories elsewhere write big checks and send them back home. The Kharagpur, Delhi, and Bombay campuses have each benefited from alumni donations totaling around $2 million in the last year, while Madras received about $500,000. Natarajan says government funding has not been cut, but is static. So as the schools' needs grow, alumni dollars become ever more necessary. As a result, he adds, the schools are becoming more aggressive and savvy in targeting "old boys" for donations. (Only ten percent of the student body is female, so for now the targets are primarily male.)

    What is more scarce, Natarajan says, is teaching staff, because the most qualified are too easily wooed into the private sector by huge paychecks. The problem of finding capable teachers hits the second-tier schools hardest, Natarajan says, "But even for us it is getting harder to find good faculty." Those who venture to America rarely stay in academia, either. Virk says it is difficult to convince the best Indian students to go into teaching. "They all want to become Bill Gates, which is okay. That is a very valid, American thing to do." And if they succeed, it could eventually mean even more philanthropic benefits for the IITs.


    Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer in London.

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