A crown jewel takes a beating

NEW DELHI — The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are India's crown jewels, producing the country's most famous export: smart, well-educated workers and entrepreneurs.

The seven institutions have turned out some of the world's finest engineers and computer scientists, eagerly recruited by top graduate schools like MIT, Stanford and Harvard in the United States. Many of the institutes' graduates have gone on to become chief executives of American companies and have fueled India's information-technology boom.

Now, thanks to the Indian government, the IITs' international reputation looks set to take a beating. The government has suddenly doubled the number of institutes across the country in what many educators are calling an ill-conceived and poorly executed plan.

"Even primary schools cannot be started eight at a time, that's all I have to say," said C.N.R. Rao, chairman of the standing committee of the IIT council that is supposed to make key administrative decisions. Likely he refused to say more because his fulminations to local media a few days earlier — when he said that "opening so many IITs in one year is a disaster" — had not gone down well.

The first seven IITs — which were established between 1951 and 2001 — have gained reputations that place them among the best engineering colleges in the world. Almost everyone agrees that India needs more engineers, and more IITs to produce them. But the ham-fisted way the process has been handled has left many professors, alumni, students and industry professionals frustrated and more than a little confused.

The government pushed through the creation of six new IITs so quickly last July that they all have students but no faculty members or permanent facilities. Instead, the older institutes absorbed the new students or, in some cases, sent their professors to teach at temporary sites far away. That has placed enormous strains on the institutes which, like many other colleges in India, already face faculty shortages of 20 percent to 30 percent.

To some extent, the IITs have become victims of their own success. Because so many alumni have attained wealth and fame through powerful positions with multinational corporations — including Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey & Co.; Victor Menezes, retired vice-chairman of CitiGroup; Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks; and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc.; virtually every Indian student dreams of an IIT degree.

That strong demand provides a powerful impetus for expansion: In April, a record 400,000 applicants took the entrance exam for about 8,000 seats in the seven existing and eight new institutes.

For that reason, top faculty and administrators at the existing IITs have been talking for years about expanding the system. "We had internally worked a plan (to increase) from seven to 17 (institutes) and we said we'd do it over 10 years in a consortium framework," said Surendra Prasad, the head of the Delhi institute.

Why the rush? Because politicians see winning an IIT for their own state as a way to win prestige and garner votes in the national elections currently underway. The ruling federal government is trying to build support among state-level allies by giving them what they want. "The government is playing politics with India's best schools," says Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering.

In the process, quality is likely to suffer. The total of 15 institutes will need to recruit 500 PhDs in engineering as faculty every year over the next decade. But there will be fewer than 100 suitable candidates each year to fill these positions, according to estimates by IIT faculty members. To keep the student to faculty ratio at its current level of 11.6 to one, the old institutes that have been burdened with hosting the new ones have increased teachers' work hours. In Delhi, for example, classes are now also held on Saturdays and teachers work late into the evenings on weekdays.

Students from the IIT Punjab, who are now studying on Delhi's sprawling 320-acre campus, fear they won't have even the basic equipment they need to support their sophomore year's work when they move to a makeshift campus in the state later this year.

Employers have similar reservations. "All new IITs will be viewed as second-tier — students will choose one of the original five even if that means choosing a less attractive major, and recruiters as well as graduate programs in the U.S. will operate the same way," says Ramanan Raghavendran, managing partner at Kubera Partners, a New York-based private equity firm that invests in Indian companies.

He appears to be right, so far. Aamir Zeb, a freshman who opted for chemical engineering at the Delhi institute, did not list any of the new schools as choices on his admission form. "I would have preferred electrical or mechanical engineering, but Delhi was my preference and I got only chemical (engineering) here," he said. "I was very skeptical about the new IITs because nothing much is said about them. It was very murky, unknown territory."

Editor's note: this dispatch was updated to correct some statistics.

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