Defending the non-engineering career choices of IITians, Professor Subhasis Chaudhuri, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, told The Indian Express in an interview that criticising such decisions is “short-sighted” as people who pursue unconventional paths, like Nandan Nilekani, not only generate employment but also contribute to the nation’s wealth.
Chaudhuri’s remarks were made in the context of a recent study published by researchers from the Centre for Policy Studies at IIT-Bombay. The study found that between 2014 and 2018, more than 60% of IIT-Bombay graduates pursued careers in sectors unrelated to their fields of study, with the exception of Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering disciplines.
Chaudhuri, however, has a diametrically opposite opinion of the same. “This is very short-sighted. Even as individuals venture into non-core sectors, they are creating thousands of jobs. Now, would you be happy if someone joined an assembly line job and remained there for the rest of their life without adding value?” he asked.
He added, “Those who explore unconventional paths generate employment and contribute to the nation’s wealth. Unfortunately, people fail to understand this. It is important to assess their contributions. Was Nandan Nilekani wrong to go into a non-core sector? Look at how many jobs they have created, how much wealth they have created. We have to respect that.”
Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and founding chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is an electrical engineer by training and graduated from IIT Bombay in 1978. A week ago he donated Rs 315 crore to his alma mater to mark 50 years of his association with the premier technology institute.
Chaudhuri further said, “Ultimately, it is their choice. It is a matter of personal freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Otherwise, we will be putting people in a box by saying that you can do only this and nothing else because you are a mechanical engineer.”
Chaudhuri was speaking at the occasion of IIT Bombay’s achievement of securing the highest rank ever and breaking into the world’s top 150 universities in the latest edition of the QS World University Ranking released late Tuesday night. It climbed 23 positions to secure the 149th rank globally. This marks the first time in eight years that an Indian higher education institution has made it to the top 150 list, with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore previously achieving this feat in 2016 with a ranking of 147.
Despite the institute’s achievements, Chaudhuri believes that the growing influence of global rankings could be dangerous for universities as it could lead to a shift in institutions’ priorities. He said, “We have limited resources, and our priority is to cater to our own people who aspire to join IITs. In countries like Australia, their revenue is generated by offering education to international students. In India, education is almost free (at government-run institutions). So, we have to be careful and not succumb to the pressure of this ranking system.”
You can read the full interview here (edited excerpts):
Q. A decade ago, the IITs were very critical of international rankings, but now they are participating in them. What has driven this change in thinking?
It’s not like we have changed our minds completely. We still have problems with certain ranking parameters. Our first problem is that the ranking methodology is a bit of a black box for us; we don’t know how it’s being done. Secondly, we are unsure whether some of it is relevant at all.
Let’s take the QS ranking, for example, which emphasises international students and faculty. The motivation behind this is to bring diversity in academics. In the case of international students, in Europe, if you are in Germany, you’re culturally not very different from France, apart from some differences. However, in India, a student from Uttar Pradesh is very different from someone from Kerala. There is a lot of cultural diversity in IITs. Unfortunately, that is never taken into account because, in the end, it’s the citizenship of the students that counts. The international faculty and students metrics really bring our score down.
Being an Institute of Eminence (read: a status awarded by the government of India to select institutions with the potential to break rank among top institutions globally), it is a requirement for us to be part of at least one of the international ranking agencies. Therefore, we have chosen to participate in one that is less of a black box to us.
Q. Last year, IISc rose 31 places to surpass IIT Bombay and emerge as the top-ranked Indian institution in the QS list. This year, IIT Bombay has achieved similar gains. How much importance do you attach to IIT Bombay breaking into the top 150 this year considering rankings’ fluctuating nature?
Rankings do not drive us. What is required of IIT Bombay is to offer excellence in terms of research, teaching, entrepreneurship among all. Now, during the process, if ranking improves, this is excellent. If not, it’s okay. Ranking is only the byproduct of our accomplishments. We are not here to compete in ranking. What is important for us is to see the impact that we make to the social ecosystem of India.
Q. Given the kind of influence that global rankings have come to wield, do you feel that this can occasionally lead to a shift in an institution’s priorities?
Absolutely, this could be dangerous for institutions like ours. In countries like the USA and Europe, they have a surplus capacity that allows them to accommodate individuals from outside their own country. In India, however, we have limited resources and our priority is to cater to our own people who aspire to join IITs.
In countries like Australia, their revenue is generated by offering education to international students. In India, education is almost free (government-run institutions). So, we have to be careful and not succumb to the pressure of this ranking.
We have our own vision and a strategic document that guides our priorities. If it aligns with the ranking criteria, we would be happy to participate. However, we do not modify our vision to match that of ranking institutions.
Q. IIT Bombay moved up 25 ranks in the citation per faculty parameter. What led to such improvement in just a year?
The institute has been investing in creating centers of excellence, assembling an interdisciplinary group of people with focused research areas. We are also allocating significant resources to ensure the availability of quality research equipment. We have a Research Infrastructure Funding Committee to allocate an average of Rs. 30 crore to Rs 60 crore annually for establishing state-of-the-art equipment facilities that promote collaboration between departments and facilitate the publication of papers in high-impact journals.
Additionally, during the COVID period, our faculty had time and they used that to produce many good papers. Those papers are getting a lot of citations now.
Furthermore, our institute stands out by having the highest number of international faculty members as visiting faculty. On average, we receive approximately 100 to 120 international faculty members, which helps our international collaboration efforts (in research).
Q. Can Indian institutions like the IITs effectively compete with counterparts in countries like China without sufficient investment in research?
Tsinghua University in China has a research budget of three billion dollars, while IIT Bombay’s budget is around hundred and fifty million dollars. This significant difference, combined with the higher costs of equipment in India, poses challenges for research. Our ministry has been very kind to us, but they have limitations too (in terms of funding).
To address this, IIT Bombay is leveraging alumni support. Many of them have given us money to establish interdisciplinary research centres and purchase equipment. Additionally, we are also connecting with various industries and companies to bridge the gap. We have tied up with companies for setting up a research park which will bring industry right to the campus. Additionally, IIT Bombay is actively promoting entrepreneurship, nurturing new companies, and aiming to benefit from their growth. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) component also plays a role in supporting initiatives.
Q. What steps are being taken to improve IIT Bombay’s performance on international metrics, such as foreign faculty and students, where it lags behind in the rankings?
First, visiting faculty from another country are not considered regular faculty members for ranking purposes. Their presence primarily contributes to research collaborations. Also, I have mentioned before that as a government-run institution I would rather utilise additional capabilities to benefit Indians rather than offering them to outsiders for free.
In terms of attracting international students, we have observed that students from poorer countries tend to join our institution, We have faced challenges in getting students from Western countries due to economic disparities and differences in living standards.
Q. You have listed out challenges. But what are you doing to attract more, say, foreign teachers?
Yes, attracting foreign faculty is part of our Vision2030 document. By then, we aim to have a total of 100 foreign faculty members.
However, it is essential to consider the perspective of individuals considering joining IIT Bombay. If someone from the US decides to come to teach here, financial considerations come into play. What happens when they return? Will their pension earned in Indian rupees be enough to support their retirement in the US? To address this issue, we are planning to appoint faculty members for a shorter term of, say, five years. This allows us to attract young researchers immediately after they complete their PhD. They can come to IIT Bombay, spend 3 to 5 years here, and then pursue better job opportunities elsewhere.
Q. Can a change at the policy level help you address this?
No, we do not want to have a differential system either. Whether someone is from the US or elsewhere, they will receive the same salary. Implementing a differentiated salary based on nationality would be highly demoralizing for our own faculty members. It is worth noting that more than 50% of our faculty members have completed their PhD abroad, and they also receive the same salary as others.
Q. But is pay the only hurdle in attracting foreign faculty?
While pay is certainly one of the major issues, there are other factors to consider as well. There are delays in getting visas. Even visiting faculty members can face difficulties in obtaining their visas. Currently, we are in the process of appointing someone from a European country, but we are still waiting for permission as we need approval from the ministry to grant the five-year contract
Q. But what prevents IIT Bombay from achieving a better faculty-student ratio, which is also a ranking parameter?
When hiring faculty members, it’s not just for teaching purposes, but for their long-term career development and research profiles. This requires providing necessary resources such as laboratory facilities, office space, and on-campus accommodation. Hiring too many faculty members simultaneously can jeopardize their careers if adequate support is not provided. It’s crucial to be selective and ensure that the hired individuals will deliver over the next several decades .And that’s why the (recruitment) process is slow.
Additionally, the field of education is dynamic and rapidly evolving, with new areas emerging and requiring new expertise. It’s important not to exhaust all resources at once, as future faculty openings may arise in new areas of importance.
IIT Bombay recruits approximately 30 to 40 new faculty members every year, which is a significant number. Notably, our institute stands out as it has more than 100 women faculty members.
Q. Is IIT Bombay planning to establish an international campus like IIT Madras in Tanzania, which could help in addressing the issue of attracting foreign students and faculty?
As of now, there is no news. The decision regarding international campuses is typically made by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Education. Currently, the IITs in Madras, Delhi, and Kharagpur are proceeding with international campuses on an experimental basis. It doesn’t make sense to do that for all (IITs). We should wait to see whether this is a successful exercise.
If IIT Bombay does establish a campus in another country, the purpose would be to contribute to that country’s development and foster a stronger relationship, rather than solely focusing on increasing foreign student and faculty numbers or ranking considerations.
Q. IIT Bombay and IISc have been closely competing in rankings for years, with the latter excelling in research. How can IIT Bombay surpass IISc’s research performance?
At IIT Bombay, roughly 30% of our students are pursuing PhD programs and actively involved in research. Another 30% are pursuing master’s degrees, which may contribute an additional 5 to 10% of students engaged in research activities. Therefore, it can be estimated that approximately one-third of our student population is actively involved in research, leading to publications. In contrast, at IISc, the teaching load is almost non-existent as it primarily focuses on research. Consequently, the research output per faculty member is expected to be higher compared to our institution.
However, despite this difference, we often compete on par with IISc in several areas. Certain departments such as the Department of Chemistry, are on par with IISc in terms of the number of papers published in prestigious journals like the Nature Index Journal. In global research rankings for engineering disciplines, we are positioned at 47th place.
Q. The IIT Bombay has done very well on employment reputation. Were any measures taken for it or has the improvement been organic?
In India we produce a lot of engineers but they are not employable. Our employment and employer reputation score is above 82 points which is higher than international universities like Johns Hopkins, CMU, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University. This indicates that IIT Bombay is excelling in its mission of creating highly skilled manpower, who are now leading professionals in global companies.
Our success in employment reputation is not a result of specific measures or initiatives. Instead, it is inherent in the way we conduct our instruction. The focus is on developing analytical skills and fostering a strong learning environment, which is our strongest aspect. The belief is that students enter as raw products and leave as finished products, equipped to excel in the industry for the next several decades. This approach emphasises self-improvement and continuous learning, enabling students to bootstrap themselves over time.
Q. Post-pandemic, mental health issues on campus are a pressing concern. Are you equipped to help students?
The disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in a loss of continuity (in students’ educational journeys). The traditional cycle of joining hostels and building relationships with seniors was interrupted for two years.Educational institutions play a crucial role in not just academics but also character building and fostering relationships. The absence of this normal training during the pandemic has created mental adjustment difficulties for students, leading to tension and depression. This is a global issue observed not only in academic institutions but also in the job market.
To address these challenges, IIT Bombay has established a Student Wellness Centre where students can seek help if they are facing problems. However, with a large student population and diverse departments and hostels, it can be challenging for faculty members to identify individuals in need of assistance. To mitigate this, the institute has implemented measures such as student mentors, faculty mentors, departmental mentors, academic mentors, along with the wellness centre. Recognizing the challenge of self-awareness, efforts are being made to raise awareness among students so they can seek help when needed. However, sometimes individuals may not even realize that they require assistance, adding an additional layer of complexity to the situation.
Q. A recent study published by IIT Bombay highlighted that several IITians are taking up non-core jobs. Does that worry you?
This is a very short-sighted view. Even as individuals venture into non-core sectors, they are creating thousands of jobs. Now, would you be happy if someone joined an assembly line job and remained there for the rest of their life without adding value? Those who explore unconventional paths generate employment and contribute to the nation’s wealth. Unfortunately, people fail to understand this. It is important to assess their contributions. Was Nandan Nilekani wrong to go into a non-core sector? Look at how many jobs they have created, how much wealth they have created. We have to respect that.
Ultimately, it is their choice. It is a matter of personal freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Otherwise, we will be putting people in a box by saying that you can do only this and nothing else because you are a mechanical engineer.
Q. IITs have recently objected to the centre’s plan to have one common entrance test for all centrally funded technical institutes. What are your views?
Since there is a scarcity of resources, even if you introduce one test, there will immediately be coaching classes emerging. This is because we have not made significant improvements in the quality of schooling. People rely on coaching for various tests. I believe it’s a cat and mouse game that we should avoid by implementing measures to eliminate the need for coaching.
Regarding the idea of a central test, there are already numerous entrance tests in place. The choice of tests depends on the desired characteristics of the students, as we are looking for different qualities and aptitudes,