Indian academics

Reflections on academia in India.

The main building at IISc.

The Indian Institute of Science turned 100 this year.  Although not the oldest university in India, most universities were founded within the past 100 years, and indeed, most within the 62 years since independence. I’ve had many interesting conversations with professors during my travels around academia in India. In addition to meeting faculty from several departments at IISc, I have visited IIT Kanpur, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi, IIT Guwahati, MIT at Anna University, the National Degree College, and the REVA Institute of Technology.

Most of these universities are primarily focused on undergraduate education, and indeed the IIT system is legendary in the US because we get so many of our great graduate students from IIT. (Or, at least, we used to, before India’s technology boom started luring many of those same students into staying home for lucrative jobs, instead of going to graduate school).  But IISc is graduate-only, and the IITs also have a limited number of MS and PhD students.

IISc conducts world-class research in many fields.  The IITs struggle, however, to attract strong graduate students.  (Their best undergrads go to graduate school in the US, Europe, or perhaps IISc, but rarely to an IIT.)  Unlike the US, federal grant money is plentiful.  As I hear it, if you submit a decent proposal for a good idea, you’ll get a grant. The hard part is spending the money: grad students already receive stipends, faculty already receive their salaries, and most IT projects need little equipment. Their real limitation is a lack of smart students and good staff.  Since pay for tech staff is limited by government pay scales, it is hard to attract and retain strong technical staff… once they learn the skills, they tend to leave for lucrative industry jobs.  Still, there is strong demand for these positions; there may be dozens of applicants for a single programmer position.  They give out written exams to weed out the skilled applicants, because a degree from an IT-oriented school does not necessarily mean the student really knows their stuff.

The government is about to double the size of the IIT system.  There are five classic IITs; within the past 10 years they built a brand-new campus to found IIT Guwahati, and upgraded an existing university to IIT status in Roorkee. Thus, there are seven established IITs.  Now, in the space of a few years, the government is opening 9 new IITs around the country.

This expansion is dramatic and, frankly, somewhat overwhelming.  I’m told that there is already a shortage of 700 faculty in science and engineering, within the IISc and IIT system (although that number may also include the IIITs, I’m not sure). To establish 9 new universities at the same time, when it is already hard to recruit good science and engineering faculty, is a daunting task: there is 5x-10x pay difference between IIT salaries and corporate salaries.  (That’s 5-10 times, not 5-10 per cent!)

Apparently, faculty are paid on the same government pay scale as police or military or whatever. A sort of tenure comes after a year or two, and pay raises are based on time in the job and not on merit.  Thus, there is not a lot of incentive to go into academics, or to excel if you do.  (That said, I’ve met many very smart, very skilled, very motivated faculty!)

Where would all these new faculty come from? There is no shortage of engineering schools; I heard that there are hundreds in Tamil Nadu alone.  Thus, there are plenty of graduates.  The problem is that the vast majority of such graduates are not well qualified, despite their degree. The very best undergrads go to IIT, the best graduate students go to IISc or Europe or North America; the quality of the grad students going to IITs is thus highly mixed. Although there are highly motivated, bright Indians – as grad students, junior faculty, or employees – many may need remedial coursework and time, to learn the background needed for graduate work, and need to learn research skills.  Few are ready to be self-starters in grad school. Even Infosys, which hires 25,000+ engineers every year, has its own internal school system teaching 1,000 courses to over 30,000 employees a year, to polish the skills of its new-hires and to continually retrain its existing employees. 

There is thus a shortage of PhDs produced in India. As a result, the faculty that staff these hundreds of universities are not, as a whole, well qualified.  So the need is not so great to increase the quantity of graduates, but to improve the quality of education in the existing schools.

India needs to produce more PhDs and to retain more of their quality PhDs as faculty. All of the IIT, IIIT, IISc (combined) have 250 professors and only 350 PhD students (December 2008).  Per Raghavan published article in Forbes magazine, 2007, about PhD production in CS, CE, IT: US 1400/year, India only 40/year.  France and Germany are at about 80/year, so India has some catching up to do.

These observations are based on conversations with many other faculty and do not necessarily represent my own opinion and certainly not the opinion of all faculty in India.  Furthermore, I have not been able to verify all the facts above.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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