Sunday, May 04, 2014

Why IIT-Guwahati is now in the big league

Back in the late ’90s, professors who were offered jobs at IIT-Guwahati (IIT-G) were scared to take them up. It wasn’t the prospect of a new institute that was intimidating. “We had heard so much about insurgency-related violence in the region,” says a faculty member who “risked” the assignment.

IIT-G had its work cut out when it first launched in 1994, the result of a promise made by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to student agitators. Apart from coaxing students and faculty to a remote location in a violence-ridden state, it had to replicate the standards of academic excellence set by the other IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology). Two decades down, they’re at the top — IIT-G is the only Indian college to make it to the “100 under 50” listing of new global universities, coming in 87th on the UK-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings. 

So how did this happen? Even in 2004, the IIT review board was grappling with the “special case” that IIT-G presented. The review report stated that the 285 hectare campus, located 20 km from the city centre, was in a region that suffered from “locational disadvantages”. Apart from poor rail and road connections, the single track rail link from Guwahati to New Jalpaiguri was said to be prone to disruption by accidents, floods and other disturbances. The report also mentioned parents’ fears of its remote location as one of the reasons why the IIT-G campus was “the last choice in any branch among all IITs” for students. Recruitment and retention of faculty was another problem heightened by the “under-developed area”. 

The turnaround came in the last five to six years with a new focus on recruiting locals and serving locals through research. Several members, department heads and even two former directors, D N Buragohain and Gautam Barua, have roots in the region. “It’s important to connect with the local ethos,” says S S Mantha, Chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). 

Taking its cue from the 2004 review board suggestions, IIT-G introduced various incentives for faculty, including a special area allowance. They also offered new faculty members a “start-up research grant”. In 2013, 22 projects worth Rs. 10.8 million were sanctioned under this scheme. “Our research work has been published in many international journals,” says IIT-G Director Gautam Biswas, calling it the institute’s greatest strength.

Faculty figures are on a steady rise — in just three months, from end 2012 to March 2013, 29 appointments were made to take the total teaching staff to 325. It’s come a long way from the time IIT-G was just two years old and the then director Gautam Barua went to the US scouting for talent among former IITians. Several of those he interviewed were not even aware a new IIT had been established. “We were mostly left with candidates not picked up by any of the older IITs,” Barua says. The solution: look for talent within. “We knew the strength of the IIT system and realized that there were many bright PhDs that the IITs were graduating.” Today, the institute is attracting global talent, with about 15% faculty having graduated from top universities abroad.

The jump in student numbers has also been significant. PhD students have gone up from 895 in 2012 to 1,113 in 2013. There are even 14 foreign students enrolled for various full-time programmes. “One of our thrust areas is to develop a student care system, which can activate dormant capacity of poor performers,” says Biswas, revealing that a mechanism of ‘hand-holding’ by well-performing students is being designed.

The institute’s biggest drawback — insurgency — has also been sorted out to an extent, with violence in the area abating. Natesan Srinivasan, mathematics professor, says up until 2003, when he joined, it was a big concern for faculty and parents alike. “Our fears went away after we saw the picturesque campus. Now thanks to our research reports making waves, we hear good stories instead,” says Srinivasan, who has picked up basic Assamese. Parents, too, are more open-minded about sending their kids to the distant northeast as compared to, say, those back in the ’90s. 

The beautiful buildings and scenic campus are an additional plus, say educationists. Mantha believes that its success can serve as a role model for the newer IITs struggling to establish their credibility. “Building strong local ties through consultancy assignments is another Guwahati lead they can follow,” he says. Over 133 consultancy projects were undertaken in 2013 with state government departments, railways, National Highways Authority of India, oil and gas sector, etc. The institute received new projects of Rs. 426 million in 2013, up from Rs. 283.5 million in the previous year.

The most significant indicator of an institute’s success is its ability to find jobs for students and IIT-G has done well on that front. In 2013, of the 909 students registered for placements, 72% B-Tech and 100% B-Design have been placed till date. “The turnaround of IIT-G demonstrates how software can trump hardware, how a hostile geography of work is not a binding constraint for institutions of higher learning, and how disproportionate signaling value can be created by international rankings,” says Manish Sabharwal, Chairman and co-founder of staffing firm Teamlease Services. “This will be good for the IIT system as it will foster competition since some of the older institutions were starting to cruise on past glory.”

Source: The Times of India, May 4, 2014

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