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MISHANDLING AN ENORMOUS TASK

If it is so easy to expect farmers at Singur to give up their two-crop land for the sake of industrial growth then why is it so difficult for the state government give up its control over Bengal Engineering and Science University for the sake of better education'

In April 2004, Amaljyoti Sengupta, the vice-chancellor of the then deemed university, had submitted a proposal to upgrade Besu to an institute of national importance on its 150th year. This coincided with the proposal of the ministry of human resource development to upgrade Besu, along with six others selected from among 150 technical education institutes in the country, in line with the Vision Document 2020. The seven institutes were studied, their performance measured, faculty, students and staff interviewed by committees appointed by the ministry. After the scrutiny, it was let known that Besu topped among the seven institutes in terms of performance and existing infrastructure. Yet, the 150-year-old institute still awaits its upgradation.

The HRD ministry, which spearheaded the proposal, seems to be on the backfoot. Its recent announcement of setting up three new IITs seems to be in contravention of its proposal to upgrade the seven institutes. The West Bengal government, on its part, has raised questions regarding governance and admission of students. The state higher education minister, apprehensive that students of the state will fail to compete at a national level for admission, has sought region-specific reservation of seats. Such myopic and parochial considerations are going to ruin chances of growth of an institute that has provided a steady supply of quality manpower.

But can the state really afford to give up such an opportunity to better the education scenario' Higher technical education has not had a very long history in India. The first engineering college — Roorkee College — was established in 1847. Right after that, in 1856, came Besu. At the end of the 19th century, India had four engineering colleges at the degree level, about 20 survey and technical institutions and about 50 industrial schools.

After independence, considering the enormity of the task of nation-building, trained technical manpower was required in much larger numbers. The N.R. Sarkar committee recommended the establishment of four higher technical institutions in the country. The idea was to provide a non-specialized orientation and integrated curricula that would encourage students to think creatively. The products of these institutions were expected to be “creative scientist-engineers” and technical leaders with a broad outlook. Thus the IITs were conceived as institutes of national importance. They were established by an act of parliament and funded liberally by the Central government. They were given a high degree of functional autonomy.

After four decades, the need for more trained technical manpower is again being felt. India is trying to be a knowledge-based industrial centre rather than merely a manufacturing centre. The need for high calibre technical institutions to provide trained manpower is being acutely felt.

There were proposals to convert the regional engineering colleges into IITs. Eventually, they were designated as National Institutes of Technology with deemed university status. But simply renaming institutions which do not possess the inherent strength of IITs, will not suffice. It is essential for them to imbibe those attributes which made the IITs a success. Starting more new IITs would require large-scale funding and a large and competent faculty. It was thus prudent to identify existing institutions that were capable of acquiring the features of IITs.

And this is what the S.K. Joshi committee, appointed by the HRD ministry, did. It identified seven institutes across the country, which had the potential to turn into IITs. Apart from Besu and Jadavpur University, there are the Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University, Cochin University of Science and Technology, College of Engineering, Andhra University, University Colleges of Engineering and Technology, Osmania University and Zakir Hussain College of Engineering and Technology, Aligarh Muslim University. The Anandakrishnan committee surveyed these seven institutes and recommended the procedure that would upgrade them to the IIT level. They need not, necessarily, be called IITs, said the committee, suggesting a new nomenclature — Indian Institute of Engineering, Science and Technology. But they should be developed as outstanding institutions by enabling them to acquire the attributes of IITs and innovate newer ones.

The system for designing academic programmes, flexibility in offering new topics, freedom for students to engage in cross-disciplinary programmes, a transparent system of internal evaluation and grading, assessment of teachers by the students and an autonomous and responsive governance are what made the IITs such a resounding success. The proposed IIESTs are supposed to include all of these features and more.

The growth of technical studies in India have so long been concentrated on the four-year undergraduate degree programmes. The number of institutions and their capacity at the MTech and PhD levels have remained the same. Enrolment has also declined. The number of doctorates awarded per year in 1990-99 has increased from 8,388 to 10,951 in all fields of study. But the number of doctorates in engineering has been erratic with a low of 298 to a high of 696 per year during the last decade.

Compared to other countries, India’s performance is dismal. Out of a total 10,500 PhDs in 2001, science and engineering together account for 5,100. Of these, the number of engineering PhDs is estimated at about 800 as compared to 26,354 such PhDs awarded in the United States of America in 1999. The technical education system in India at present is tuned to low-end capability.

To rectify this, and to provide qualified manpower for the knowledge-based industries, the proposed IIESTs are supposed to concentrate on MTech, MSc and PhD level programmes. The newly transformed institutions will offer five-year integrated dual degree (BTech-MTech) programmes and phase out their existing four-year bachelor’s degree programmes. This will allow them to offer innovative programmes with a larger scope of inter- and multi-disciplinary electives which is not easily possible in the four-year time frame.

One of the key features of the IITs is their independent governance system. Each IIT has a board of governors headed by a distinguished academic or an industrialist. Its members are mostly professionals. The council of IITs, chaired by the HRD ministry, which acts as an advisory body, promotes coordination among them. Thus, over the decades, IITs have acquired a distinct brand image as India’s foremost prestigious technical institutions.

But there are other high level institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Institutes of Management and a few deemed universities which have a national reputation and have autonomous governance. Thus it is imperative that the proposed IIESTs are granted autonomy in governance if they are to assure good performance. A council similar to the IITs may facilitate synergy.

However, this is where the state government has thrown a spanner in the works. Governance has been the most contentious issue so far as the issue of upgrading Besu is concerned. The state government, insisting on a more participatory mode of governance, has sought a model structured along the lines of Indian Statistical Institute.

The other contentious issue is that of admission of students. Admissions to the five-year dual degree programme should be on an all-India basis through a national level entrance test such as those evolved by the IIESTs. Similarly, the admissions to the two-year MTech course would be based on approved national level examinations. In other words, the students admitted to these institutions would be on the basis of an evaluation of merit at an all-India level.

What will actually transform these institutions into those of international repute will be their ability to attract and retain first-rate faculty. The IISc, the IITs and IIMs have demonstrated this in ample measure. The best possible faculty would have to be inducted in these institutes on an all-India basis. This will give them a balanced composition and help them overcome their predominantly local and regional character.

As for their legal status as INIs, their functions should be prescribed by legislation. Their resources for capital and recurring expenditure should be derived from central funds. Other funds, such as those obtained from state governments or other national or international funding agencies, should have no strings attached in order to preserve their autonomy.

The question now is whether the HRD ministry and the West Bengal government let an IIEST happen in Shibpur' Will the Central and state governments work towards bringing high quality technical education to the state'

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