IITs dare to dream: Can India create 15 Stanfords?

Govt approves new scheme to provide 1,000 research fellowships a year to B.Tech students of the IIT to encourage them to opt for research in India

A file photo of IIT-Delhi. Its yearly budget is less than <span class='WebRupee'>Rs.</span>900 crore or one-ninth of Stanford. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
A file photo of IIT-Delhi. Its yearly budget is less than Rs.900 crore or one-ninth of Stanford. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: On Tuesday, the union government approved a new scheme to provide 1,000 research fellowships a year to B.Tech students of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) to encourage them to opt for research in India instead of pursuing it abroad.

It is designed to address the weakest link in the IIT ecosystem, otherwise a premier domain of quality engineering education in the country. The fellowship, which would pay out Rs.60,000 every month, is only a part of the story.

It’s the first time that an enabling environment for research is being made available in India, a $2 trillion economy that’s seeking to achieve its growth potential and aiming for a rapid increase in foreign investment in manufacturing and technology.

Clearly, the IITs are daring to dream. The question is whether India will succeed in fostering 15 Stanfords in the country; Stanford University in California is the world’s leading research and teaching institution.

The government is likely to spend some Rs.360 crore for these 1,000 Prime Minister Research Fellowships over a five-year period to retain its best talent in the campus for research, both applied and core.

Research has been a weak link in IITs which were known more as quality teaching institutions than research-focused schools. For example, in the 2015 world university rankings published by UK based ranking agency Times Higher Education (THE), IIT Bombay scored 28.6 out of 100 on research parameters. The research score was just ahead of its worst performing parameter of international outlook (17.7/100).

Authorities believe that the Rs.60,000 per month fellowship will be incentive enough for graduating B.Tech students to register for a PhD and pursue a career in research in India. Though some IIT insiders believe that the offer may not be enough to keep the best talent at home, here is why it actually may do so.

Also read: IITs to increase student intake by nearly 40% to 1 lakh

In 2015-16, some 1,143 students across various levels—both post-graduates and under-graduates at IIT-Bombay were offered jobs by several companies. Of these, at least 531 got a salary below Rs.9.5 lakh per annum and of these some 350 were offered between Rs.4.5 lakh and Rs.8 lakh. So, Rs.60,000 monthly fellowships (Rs.7.2 lakh per annum) is not a bad amount in the first place for B.Tech students.

Second, amenities like subsidized living inside the campus, access to research resources, mentors, and the brand IIT put together should tempt graduating students. Above all, the opportunity to enter a PhD program after B.Tech is a good proposition.

To be sure in recent years, the IITs have taken steps to improve research and enroll more research scholars. This apart, both the IITs and the government are working on a plan to create a more conducive enabling environment to encourage research.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about IIT Madras and its research park during the Start-up India event in January and promised to help set up seven such facilities across the country. There are incubation centres where faculties are helping students in their entrepreneurial journey and helping connect them to industry for research and development activities.

“If you look at the older IITs, then nearly 25% of their fresh students are doing research. Besides, there is a fresh push for research in campuses at various levels. The tilt has happened gradually and we don’t see why IITs cannot become Stanford or MIT in near future,” said Gautam Barua, a former director of IIT-Guwahati.

But for that, India has to grow economically and missions like Make in India need to become a success, he argued. “Unless industry seeks IIT support, it will be tough to ramp up research. So industry academic collaborations are a must and a better economy is its catalyst,” he added.

It won’t be easy for IITs to emulate Stanford University, set up in 1891. Check these facts: Stanford has now 5,500 externally sponsored projects, as per its website. The university, the number three in the world as per the world University rankings 2015, has a $1.22 billion (above Rs.8,050 crore) budget. Stanford has 2,153 faculty members including 20 Nobel laureates and four Pulitzer Prize winners.

Compare this with IIT-Delhi: Its yearly budget is less than Rs.900 crore or one-ninth of Stanford. In 2015-16 IIT Delhi had 136 sponsored research projects, of which just eight were funded by the private sector, as per the institution’s data. The engineering school has a near 30% vacancy in its faculty to fill.

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