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JUNE 19, 2005
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The Global School

A Washington DC conference provides a stage for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to reinforce their global standing.

Students at IIT Kanpur: Not too long ago, they may have been headed for America: now India may present better opportunities



Know Your Arrhythmias


In the world's strongest economy, the three-letter abbreviation that symbolises India best isn't UPA or NDA but IIT. This was evident at the third global Pan-IIT conference held at Washington dc in the third weekend of May. Pan-IIT is a not for-profit umbrella organisation that merges the various chapters of the IIT family. And the run-up to this, the third conference, had been perfect: the us Congress had bestowed it an official pat on the back (see Time For Recognition), the state governments of Maryland and Virginia followed suit, and then, there were the speakers scheduled to speak at the meet: Larry Summers, Jack Welch, C.K. Prahalad and the like.

The 1,200 alumni who gathered for the conference from all parts of the world networked heavily, partied hard and managed to strike a blow for the IITs. The government of India did enough to suggest that it was well on track to initiating measures to address some of the issues and challenges facing India's best-known technology schools. "The IITs are now aspiring to become international research institutions," said Arjun Singh, India's minister in charge of Human Resource Development in a written speech that was read out (he had to skip the Washington do). "For this ambitions transformation, we need the help, support and contributions of all, including alumni." His speech then proceeded to list some of these measures (coincidentally, the same as the recommendations suggested by the Rama Rao Committee that the government set up to study the challenges facing the IITs; the recommendations have just been submitted): allowing alumni to directly route funds to their alma mater without routing them through the Bharat Shiksha Kosh, a fund set up by the previous HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi; permitting the schools to recruit adjunct faculty from other countries; and allowing faculty members to consult with companies in other countries. While none of these translates into the government relinquishing control, each is just the kind of thing the IITs have been clamouring for. In many ways, the third conference marks the culmination of one phase, and hopefully the beginning of another, of the IIT story that began, in the month of May, without much fanfare 55 years ago.

How It All Began

The first Indian Institute of Technology came up at Kharagpur. The construction of the institute began in May, 1950, at the site of what was the Hijli Detention Camp, where political prisoners, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India's then Prime Minister, were incarcerated by the British. The institute was formally inaugurated on August 18, 1951. In fact, the prime minister was around when the first convocation was held in 1956. At that time Nehru had remarked, "Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands this fine monument of India, representing India's urges, India's future in the making. This pictures seems to be symbolic of changes that are coming to India."

In may, the us congress put its official seal on what the American corporate sector has already acknowledged many times over about the singular contribution to the US economy of the near 40,000-plus IIT alumni. Almost simultaneously, the state governments of Maryland and Virginia, in individual proclamations, declared May, 2005 as the Global IIT-India American Heritage month, joining the chorus, as it were.

Without mincing words, Congressman Tom Davis, while moving the resolution, told the House: "IIT graduates are estimated to have created 150,000 jobs in the US, and a large number of new start-up ventures (60 per cent by one count) in Silicon Valley have at least one IIT graduate in their "C" Executive Suite. In India, the statistics are more impressive, over 1 million jobs created and several IIT alumni in senior management positions in almost every major company. In short, the impact of IIT, through its graduates, is felt broadly and deeply around the globe."

Significant, especially given that officially Pan-IIT is not even a lobby presence on Capitol Hill.

Nehru's words were to prove prescient; however, the real change the IITs have wrought is in the way the world sees India. The US was the first country to be affected by this change. Attracted by better opportunities in the United States, graduates from the IIT family began to make their way to this country. Here, they began to script the more modern history of Indian immigrants in the United States. And here, unknown to most people, they became a very important cog in the technology and managerial revolution that was beginning to take root in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, India too has made the cut (the process started in the 1990s), and the network of the IIT alumni-estimated at about 150,000-spans the globe, from Australia to the us, with the single largest chunk, about a third, located in the last. "As a brand, IIT is pretty strong already in the technological circles," says Pradeep Kaul, Executive Vice President, Hughes Network Systems.

In public perception, the IIT story has been linked to Silicon Valley and the dot-com boom that engendered the single biggest burst of millionaires of Indian origin. Interestingly, however, the real IIT story goes much beyond Silicon Valley. Even within the US, IIT alumni can be found in leadership and managerial positions in a raft of private companies and institutions, even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). "One thing that we have clearly established in this country and globally is that IIT is not just about engineers and technologists," says Rajat Gupta, the former McKinsey Chief and presently co-chair of the Pan-IIT governing body. "It is a training ground for leaders. Its selection system and fairly well rounded programme has given us the ability to make a difference to the institutions that we join."

Gupta should know as he was among the first to break the glass ceiling when he took over the reins at McKinsey. Since then, there have been others like Arun Sarin, who took over as the boss at Vodafone, Muktesh Pant, who until recently was the Chief Marketing Officer at Reebok International, Rakesh Gangawal, former CEO of us Airways, Rono Datta, former CEO of United Airlines and Victor Menezes of Citibank, who have chosen to chart a different, but equally successful, path other than in technology.

They are all 'former' but IIT is very current: (L to R) Former Union minister Arun Shourie, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Rajat Gupta, former MD, McKinsey at the third Pan-IIT conference in Washington DC

Miles To Go Still

The variegated membership has turned the alumni body into a strong entity. Together with the fortuitous shift in circumstances, wherein India is now viewed as the next economic destination, it has given the IIT fraternity an opportunity to write a fresh chapter in its impressive history.

To realise their potential in a very globalised world, the IITs understand that there are several hurdles to be tided over. Nearly two decades after the first review panel-under Hiten Bhaya-pointed out the lacunae, the very same issues continue to challenge these institutions. They have, if anything, become even more acute.

Money isn't a constraint at the institutional level, yet it continues to wreak havoc at the individual level. For instance, at IIT Chennai about 120 staffers have been added to the faculty over the last four years; in the same period, about 90 people have retired; given this attrition rate, the school has about 80-100 vacancies in its faculty. The prime reason for poor recruitment to the faculty has been the inability of the school (and other IITs) to provide an enticing compensation package. This, when they compete for talent with schools like MIT and Harvard that not only possess huge endowments, but are also able to offer flexible compensation packages. Unlike in India, in the US compensation is based on classroom lectures, sponsored research and outside consulting. It is only recently that the Indian government has allowed the professors to do outside consulting.

"The other problem (just like the review panel had reported) is that we do not have sufficient number of PhDs being created in the system who specialise in technical issues," says Dr K.N. Satyanarayana, Professor, Building Technology & Construction Management Division, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Chennai. "In fact, there are more Engineering PhDs, former IIT students, being created in the us."

» A review of the pay and perks of the IIT faculty; provide incentives; raise the retirement age
» Allow recruitment of People of Indian Origin to the faculty; to be a precursor to allow recruitment of foreign personnel.
» Reorder the faculty induction process
» Step up research funding by offering generous fellowships
» Encourage multi-disciplinary research and studies keeping in mind the emergence of biotechnology as a frontier area; biology should be introduced on par with chemistry, physics and mathematics.
» Push for joint research with industrial houses; emphasis on generating intellectual property to pave the way for entrepreneurial research in the IITs.
» Radically revamp existing infrastructure to provide world-class research facilities within the campus
» Work with international institutions to create quality research institutions in foreign countries.
» Work closely with Pan-IIT.
» Replace government-nominated officials on the governing board of IITs with technology professionals.
» Set up new IITs.
» Abolishes clause wherein alumni funding of the alma mater had to be routed through the Bharat Shiksha Kosh.
» Recruitment of adjunct faculty from abroad to be allowed.
» Faculty to be permitted to consult with companies in Europe and America.

However, there has been one significant shift in circumstances since the Hiten Bhaya Review Panel had first addressed these issues. Today, India is a global destination, not just for technology, but also increasingly for manufacture. This has clearly mitigated the factors that made it almost impossible to wean away IIT alumni from lucrative occupations abroad to the more challenging environment back in India.

Typically, what happens in the life cycle of a technology country like India is that in the initial years it is viewed as a resource pool, a country with a wonderful education system that churns out world class engineers. It was this phase that led to the creation of technology migrants, most of whom belong to the IIT fraternity. Now India is gearing up to move to the next level, wherein a larger number of graduates from institutions like the IITs are staying on in India to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. This cycle is all but complete. "The industries within India are beginning to grow and expand," says Kaul. "Not only are services being exported, but also intellectual property is now being developed in India. The next wave will see India being seen as a world class provider of products-creating and servicing them."

Pointers To The Future

The conference generated pointers for the direction of change. In his keynote address, Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and at present President of Harvard University, maintained that the hallmark of a world-class institution was protecting and fostering fundamental values, and fostering a genuine platform for debate. According to Professor C.K. Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan and a management guru, the focus of the IITs should be driven by the objective of generating "local solutions with global standards". Outlining his pet argument of seeing the economically-disenfranchised five billion of the global population as an opportunity rather than as a challenge, he said, "A good university would be successful if it allowed for access, affordability and availability."

Creating global leaders: Students at IIT Kanpur's computer lab

The third conference clearly underlined the momentum that the pan-IIT organisation has generated ever since the first meeting in San Francisco three years ago. The fortuitous shift in circumstances, wherein India is now viewed as the next economic miracle, has made it much easier to channellise the energies of the alumni. Unlike an MIT or Carnegie Melon, where the students are of multinational descent, the Indian origin of the nearly 140,000 alumni has no doubt given the IITs a very unique status in the world. The launch of the pan-IIT card, wherein a portion of the money spent would be earmarked for the alma mater, will no doubt ensure a steady stream of resources. About 600-of the 1,200 who turned up-alumni had already signed up for the card by the final day of the conference.

The next few years will surely spell out how successful the triumvirate of government, IIT management and alumni has been in realising the potential of the institutions along with that of the country. As Prahalad put it: "There are two types of bragging rights. One is to generate Nobel Prize winners. The other is to provide the largest technical manpower pool in the world. We have the potential to do it. It will not only make a difference to itself (India) but also to the rest of the world."




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