The ‘World Class’ Debate

The Union Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh has the knack to remain in the news with his proactive but sometimes provocative take on environmental issues. However, this time he chose an unrelated issue to make the headlines once again. According to this IIT Bombay graduate; the most coveted and sought after seats of learning in India, i.e., IIT’s and IIM’s, lack the world-class faculty as well as research facilities. He believes that these institutes have been able to survive due to the world class students who take admission into these institutions after a grueling selection process.

Before one starts taking sides, it’s important to define the term ‘World Class.’ Going by its dictionary meaning it is to rank amongst the foremost in the world and to meet the international standards of excellence. If one adopts this definition, then Jairam Ramesh is not that wide of the mark as it’s true that in most of the world rankings, these institutes fail to reach the top-notch positions.

However, is it justified to use such objective parameters given the grand divide between the West and the East? To create a world-class research institute, the foremost requirement is a world-class policy formulation and world-class funding for the same. With the meager amount of resources made available to these institutes, how can one expect them to compete with the best in the business?

To add to this, the fact is that these institutes were incepted with the objective of developing a skilled workforce to support the social and economic development of India. Research and development was started much later. Hence, to compare the amount of research done by these institutes with that done by the MIT’s or Harvard’s is again unfair.

Rajesh Behera, an IIT Bombay alumnus, unequivocally attributes his success to the guidance he got from his teachers. According to him, it was their experience and exposure to the international environment that enabled them to find the true potential of the students like him and instilled in them confidence to become world-class.
Taking the example of the Civil Engineering Department of his alma mater, he shows how all the major infrastructural development taking place around Mumbai, in one form or the other, has inputs from the IIT Bombay faculty, from consultancy to actual implementation.

One cannot deny that the faculty of these institutes have to work in a much harder environment than their counterparts in the West. Take the example of the student to teacher ratio which according to an internal study of Union Human Resource Development Ministry is as high as 15:1 in the leading institutes of India as compared to around 5:1 to 7:1 in the leading technical institutes of US, West Europe and even Singapore or Hong Kong for that matter. Moreover, funding at both the project level and at the level of personal compensation to teachers make the situation graver.

The whole issue gathers more importance in the context of the new IIMs and IITs that have opened recently to cater to the ever growing demand for the world-class education in India, a prerequisite to tap India’s demographic dividend.

Swati Gupta, an IIM Indore alumnus feels that there is a dearth of world-class faculty in the new IIMs. However, she considers Jairam Ramesh’s statement pretty harsh and feels it’s naive to tag all the professors under the same umbrella.
To quote her, “There is no doubt that there is a visible gap in the style and understanding of the newer faculty as compared to the old professors. While the latter make sure that there is a conceptual clarity before teaching the contextual application, the former at times tend to focus too much on the case method.”

This perspective shatters the belief that the older professors are too rigid and averse to adopt newer world-class methodologies as there is still substance left in the older teaching methodologies.

Overall, it’s important to take into consideration all these contingencies before coming to any concrete conclusion. However, one cannot deny the fact that there is a lot that needs to be done to make the Indian premiere institutes, globally more competitive and this statement of Jairam Ramesh might act as a stimulant for the same.

Vipul Grover

The author is a soft skills trainer, a popular blogger and a freelance journalist who often writes about social and political issues.