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IIT Gandhinagar: An Oasis in India’s Higher Education Desert

IIT Gandhinagar offers some key lessons for tackling the acute crisis in India’s higher education system.

Readers must know at the outset that this author teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN). Furthermore, this author greatly admires Sudhir Jain, the director of the institution. He also has close relationships with and high regard for a number of faculty members in IITGN. Therefore, this is certainly not an article written from Olympian heights with Apollonian objectivity. Yet this author hopes it will shed light on an issue that bedevils the future of the land of the Buddha, Kabir and Tagore.

CRISIS IN INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION

India’s higher education system has long been in crisis. In September 2004, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta authored a Harvard paper titled, “Indian Higher Education Reform: From Half-Baked Socialism to Half-Baked Capitalism.” They mapped the massive scale of the de facto privatization of Indian higher education. They posited: “This privatization has resulted from a breakdown of the state system and an exit of Indian elites from public institutions, to both private sector institutions within the country as well as abroad.” The situation in 2017 is far worse.

Kapur and Mehta also pointed out that the ideological and institutional underpinnings of privatization remain very weak. In 2004, the University Grants Commission (UGC), India’s apex body for higher education regulation, classified two-thirds of 15,000 colleges that educated almost 10 million students as “Arts, Science, Commerce and Oriental Learning Colleges.” Such terminology gives away the fact that the Victorian spirit might be dead in Britain, but still thrives in India’s UGC.

Little of the Victorian rectitude survives in India, though. Politicians have got into the education business and so have bureaucrats. Indian dirigisme simply means that those with connections can begin engineering institutes, medical colleges or management schools. Indian license raj enjoins that higher education institutions be nonprofit institutions. After all, they are temples of learning. That may well be true, but Kapur and Mehta astutely observe that “non-profit status allows for tax exemption and makes it easier to launder money.”

Most Indian higher education institutions are absolutely awful. They churn out graduates with little skill and scant knowledge. In 2016, a study found that barely 3% of graduating engineers are employable in software or product market and only 7% could handle core engineering tasks. Dheeraj Sanghi, an eminent academic renowned for his forthrightness, has chronicled “the absolutely abysmal quality of education in [Indian] colleges” for many years. More than “poor quality curriculum, poor quality faculty, poor infrastructure, poor school education” et al, Sanghi blames the culture of copying in colleges for the terrible state of Indian education.

Sanghi is right. In India, plagiarism is a way of life. Laziness, not learning, is the guiding principle of most faculty and students. The country has lost its moral compass and education is about gaining certification, not acquiring knowledge. The malaise is captured best by a 2015 Reuters report that chronicled rampant fraud at Indian medical schools. This has been a longstanding phenomenon. For the last two decades, I.P. Singh, the author’s father and an eminent plastic surgeon, along with many of his illustrious colleagues, has bemoaned the catastrophic decline in medical education. Remember, the vast majority of India’s best minds go into science, engineering and medicine. The less said about those who get an education in arts, commerce and “oriental” subjects the better.

Suffice to say, a growing number are deeply worried about the gargantuan crisis in India’s higher education system. On August 7, 2016, Shail Kumar argued, “everyone is paying a hefty price for [the crisis]: students, parents, industry, society and the nation.” Since most degrees are often not worth the paper they are written on, students strive to get into elite institutions such as the IITs. To do so, parents pack them off to coaching classes in towns like Kota where they prepare for dreaded entrance examinations for up to four years. The chosen ones get to go places like IIT. Those who fail to make the cut are often deeply disappointed, some are scarred for life and a few even commit suicide.

The coaching classes industry is booming in India. In Kota alone, the industry has an annual turnover of nearly $250 million (Rs1,500 crore). Some middle-class parents spend up to a third of their salary on coaching for their children. Unsurprisingly, the coaching business is now a multibillion dollar industry. Even as middle-class Indians send their children to Kota, richer Indians simply pack them off abroad. Children of leading politicians and bureaucrats leave for places like Harvard and Yale as soon as they finish school.

Given the dire state of affairs, is there reason to hope?

A LOTUS IN THE MUD

Those who take a cyclical view of life and history muse that things are never static and can always turn around. In the East, this view has always held weight. That may or may not be true, but there are institutions and people still living up to ancient ideals of education in India’s time-warped land.

One of these institutions is IITGN. Led by the visionary Jain, it is an institution that is taking risks and embracing bold ideas. For a start, IITGN is on the banks of the Sabarmati, the river by which Mahatma Gandhi set up his ashram some kilometers downstream when he returned from South Africa. In 2012, after turning down other offers of land, Jain astutely wrangled 400 acres of riverfront property from the Gujarat state government at a hugely symbolic location. Appositely, Rajmohan Gandhi, the nearly 82-year-old grandson of the Mahatma, now teaches here.

IITGN not only gains from being on the banks of the Sabarmati, but also from its location in Gujarat. Gandhi’s ancestral home, with its long, jagged coastline, has been a land of traders since time immemorial. Purportedly, it was a Gujarati sea pilot who guided Vasco da Gama to Kozhikode. Today, Gujaratis can be found all along East Africa, Canada, Britain, the US and any other part of the world. Gujarat continues to be the most entrepreneurial of Indian states and is relatively better governed, even though traffic signals are ornamental lights that no one heeds. The entrepreneurial environment gives IITGN the opportunity to serve the needs of the local industry, find jobs for its graduating students, and draw upon well-heeled Gujaratis to support the young institution.

Location is important but not enough. Besides, India is a land where opportunities are squandered on a daily basis. Even famous institutions have been crumbling. “Tagore’s Viswa-Bharati University is now a picture of decline and decay” and students at Malaviya’s Banaras Hindu University allege sexual harassment by faculty. So, IITGN’s location by the Sabarmati in the entrepreneurial state of Gujarat was and is no guarantee of success. The institution has got off to a rollicking start because it puts the students center stage. In a conversation with other university leaders, Jain remarked that directors may come and go, but students will be associated with the institution for life. In his view, students and alumni are the biggest stakeholders in any academic institution.

Therefore, Jain has fostered a culture of student involvement in all aspects of campus life. They have given inputs in architectural plans, chosen names of hostels, created mini-traditions and traveled around the country to find their moorings. IITGN’s “Foundation Program” for students who join the institution is exceedingly radical. This five-week program is intended to expose students who might have spent four years in Kota to the wider world. For the first time, many paint or play sports, do community service or organize social events, meet people from other walks of life, and discover new possibilities for the future.

Jain encourages his students to explore. Under his leadership, IITGN provides multiple opportunities for its students to go abroad and experience other cultures. Students do research projects, courses and internships all over the map. Some spend summers at US universities such as Caltech and Texas A&M University. Others do courses in design or literature at places like the New School in New York. Some go to Japan where they experience work ethic, discipline, punctuality, politeness and high technology in a society markedly different to theirs. Yet others make their way to Portugal where they savor the sun and sand in the land from where Vasco da Gama set sail for India.

Jain has also made IITGN students discover their own land. An “Explorer’s Fellowship” enables students to travel through the length and breadth of their vast subcontinent. Through this experience, they come to understand their country’s traditions and its complex ground realities. The assumption is that travel through the dusty towns and rustic villages of India will give students much-needed practical knowledge, connect them to real-life problems and make them better decision-makers when they assume positions of leadership.

Along with this exposure, IITGN instils rigor among its students. There is zero tolerance for plagiarism that plagues the country. Students who copy from others and fail to do original work face swift and severe action. Regurgitation is unacceptable. Students study a range of subjects from mathematics to humanities to develop the confidence to come up with and develop their ideas. As Jain often says, IITGN aims to produce graduates who not only solve important problems, but also identify problems worth solving.

Naturally, students will only be able to do so if they have the confidence and bravery to think independently and critically. Therefore, inspiring students and making them think is a fundamental goal that Jain has set out for his young institution. In a country where rote learning and obsession with examinations rule the roost, this focus on learning and thinking harks back to Tagore. Unsurprisingly, Tagore’s iconic poem, “Where The Mind is Without Fear,” that celebrates cosmopolitanism, curiosity, reason, knowledge and truth takes center stage on IITGN’s vision document.

STRONG ROOTS AND OPEN WINDOWS

In the past, India was known for its universities. Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramshila are haloed names in history. They educated scholars not only from India, but also from abroad. Each of these universities set strong roots in local communities but opened its windows to the world. It is this millennia-old ecumenical and liberal tradition that IITGN is laying claim to.

Jain has created internal systems that work. He has put good people in key places. He once remarked: “You have to keep internal systems in equilibrium to create outward looking universities.” That is precisely what he has achieved. A cursory look at IITGN’s website tells any visitor that American Nobel laureates, Japanese ministers and Portuguese officials have spent time at the campus.

The campus itself is superlatively designed. G.C. Chaudhary, the superintending engineer, has come from the Military Engineering Service (MES) on deputation after building runways for fighter jets in difficult conditions. He has achieved wonders on a tight budget. Once, Chaudhary was Jain’s student. Conveniently, Jain is a civil engineer who did his PhD from Caltech. This means he has been exceedingly hands-on in the designing and building of the campus. The buildings in the academic area all flow into one another and foster serendipitous social interaction between faculty and students. Steve Jobs had precisely the same idea when he designed Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville.

Unlike Jobs, Jain and Chaudhary have created the campus rather frugally. Yet it has won numerous awards for its environmentally friendly design and has been deemed “the greenest campus in India.” Its innovative features such as the use of natural light, use of fly-ash bricks, cavity walls, solar panels, passive cooling technologies, saving pre-existing trees, and integration of horticulture and waste management are path-breaking in the country. Naturally, this pioneering spirit rubs off on students and faculty.

Most young institutions hire faculty rather quickly. In contrast, IITGN has been patient and picky. To set the institution on the right footing, Jain has astutely collected a crew of sages who retired from older IIT campuses to provide statesmanship for this young institution. Some sages come from non-academic backgrounds. Michel Danino, a French engineer-turned-environmentalist, conservationist and renowned scholar on ancient India, is a shining star in the IITGN firmament. Earlier this year, the president of India conferred on Danino the Padma Shri, a national honor for the country’s most eminent citizens. Other sages come from abroad. Fred Coolidge, a youthful 68-year-old professor and cyclist, brings to the campus l’étonnement philosophique, the ability to marvel at the wonder of the world and incessantly discover things new.

BREAKING DOWN SILOS TO SERVE WIDER SOCIETY

Coolidge and this author shared an office earlier this year. Among other things, Coolidge has worked on the evolution of the human brain and done some interesting work even on the Neanderthals. One fine morning, Coolidge asked this author which god had emerged from the forehead of Zeus. This author responded it was not a god but a goddess named Athena. Coolidge then revealed that this is where the frontal lobes are located. This is a part of the brain that controls our key cognitive skills such as language, memory, thinking and judgment. Did the ancient Greeks observe the human body and come up with this conclusion? Or were they simply intuiting something fundamental that modern science has finally verified? We may never fully know.

As a modern-day philosophe, such serendipitous discoveries delight this author. They are only possible if an institution creates an interdisciplinary environment. This is precisely what Jain has done. In Jain’s recent visit to Portugal, the education minister of this former European naval superpower remarked that he wished his universities operated a bit more like IITGN. The minister cited the example of IITGN’s engineering and anthropology departments working together on interesting problems, hoping Portuguese universities would do the same.

Younger faculty members at IITGN embody this interdisciplinary ethos and some of them are highly impressive. Amit Prashant has a mind that cuts through complex issues like a hot knife through butter. Vimal Mishra is a walking encyclopedia on river basins and more. Amit Arora has shed light on how to make the infernally heavy tripods used by the Indian army much lighter. Rita Kothari is a multilingual author, translator and teacher par excellence. Neeldhara Misra is a fount of knowledge on internet technologies and online tools. Manas Paliwal, a lover of Montreal and Canada, has wit and wisdom beyond his years. These and many others will form the spine of IITGN for decades to come. After all, what is an institution but a collection of people bound together by shared norms and working toward a common purpose?

With the institution’s spine in place, Jain has been building relationship with other institutions. IITGN has signed multiple memoranda of understanding with the likes of Tata Chemicals and the Indian army. Young researchers such as Arora and Paliwal will be finding solutions to India’s real-life and real-time problems. A research park connecting industry and academia is soon on its way. Jain is taking a leaf out of Caltech or MIT and striving to make IITGN much more than a watering hole for students on their way to jobs in multinationals, careers in the civil services or research in American universities.

Of course, no institution is perfect and IITGN has its warts. After all, it cannot escape the Indian terroir. Many students are burnt out and lack the desire to learn. Few can write half-decently and even fewer can speak coherently. Some faculty members are not as passionate as others. However, it is important to remember that even Harvard is far from perfect. This author knows graduate students who crammed up over the summer and then taught undergraduates Indian politics from September without ever visiting the country or having any knowledge of a single Indian language. By contrast, Danino and Gandhi illuminate ancient and modern India for those who want to learn.

There is one last thing that needs mentioning but that requires a trip to the past. The pre-independence period from 1892 to 1947 was a time of extraordinary developments in India’s higher education. As Kapur and Mehta point out, philanthropy played a big part. Public institutions of enduring significance, such as Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Annamalai University and the Indian Institute of Science “were created largely through voluntary donations.” The two gentlemen go on to observe that “the net share of private philanthropy in shouldering the burden of public institutions was as high as seventeen percent in 1950 and is now down to less than two percent.”

Jain has taken it upon himself to turn the clock back. He engages with people with extraordinary warmth, infectious cheerfulness and indefatigable energy. Staff members such as Santosh Raut, Sunita Menon and Yashwant Chauhan ensure that visitors enjoy warm hospitality for which India has long been famous.

This warm welcome bowls over foreigners like Olivier Lavinal, donors such as Ruyintan Mehta and even prospective faculty members. It generates goodwill that has helped Jain raise money for IITGN. In particular, he has tapped the Indian diaspora in the US and Gujarati business community closer to home. Remarkably, alumni from IITGN are already donating to the institution. For the financial year 2016-17 that ended in March, Jain raised about $3 million (Rs18 crore). Compared to US universities, this is piffle but IITGN is a lighthouse for other public institutions in India that are entirely dependent on government largesse.

This author hopes that other institutions will use this lighthouse to sail to better waters and India’s higher education will improve in his lifetime.

*[This article was updated on August 15, 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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