IITs: A unique education system model of India that stood the test of time

The Japanese Economic Miracle and the astonishing pace with which Italy and West Germany resurrected their post-war economies clearly highlight the close coordination of industry with academia.

IIT, Indian Institute of technology, IIT Roorkee, Japanese Economic Miracle, Biplab Sarkar, Vinay Sharma , Rohit Sharma
Today, we have a total of 23 IITs spread across the country, many of which are under construction. (Image: IIT Roorkee)

By Prof. Vinay Sharma, Prof. Rohit Sharma and Prof. Biplab Sarkar 

Indian Institutes of Technology (or IITs) defines a unique education system model of India. The first one came into being after the Hijli detention center (which was functional during the British rule) was converted into IIT Kharagpur in 1951. Today, we have a total of 23 IITs spread across the country, many of which are under construction. The Covid19 pandemic has bought the reputation of IITs to a newer height. IITs has been proactive from the beginning of this pandemic. From supplying hand sanitizers to portable ventilators for the hospitals, IITs have developed numerous products and techniques to counter the pandemic. Some of the innovations are already in action, viz.
(i) low-cost covid19 test developed by IIT Delhi, approved by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR),
(ii) digital stethoscopes developed by IIT Bombay to monitor the patient remotely,
(iii) portable ventilators developed by quite a few IITs like Roorkee.

Few other innovations from IITs worth to mention are robots and mobile applications to counter the virus spreading, portable sanitization kits, innovative face-shields and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, etc. By all means, these premier institutes took the mantle and came up with repertoire of innovations to counter the Covid19 pandemic.

What drives this innovation?

A question that might ponder us all is what made the IITs a successful model to innovat relentlessly during this pandemic. There are many reasons which can directly or indirectly be linked to the success of IITs. Some of the key reasons are:

(i) Multi-disciplinary research approach: IITs has been proactively focusing on promoting the multi-disciplinary research platforms. Not only there is a strong focus on collaborations with different departments within the institute; there exists a constant pursuit to collaborate with other institutions such as medical colleges and global universities. During this pandemic, this multi-disciplinary platform has been most successful in a way. For example, IIT Roorkee with collaboration with AIIMS Rishikesh has developed low-cost portable ventilator prototype, which earned large scale appreciation and industry interest. New age IITs are also not far behind in taking a plunge to take this pandemic head-on. IIT Ropar has developed innovative point-of-care solutions in partnership with PGIMER, Chandigarh in record time.

(ii) Start-up India initiative: So far, IITs have actively participated in start-up India initiative. Some of the key products mentioned above (such as Covid19 test and digital stethoscope) have been realized with the help of start-ups incubated at respective IITs. It is a well-known fact that academia-industry collaboration is necessary to translate the classroom education into commercial products. Thus, creation of start-ups inside the IIT system has provided an excellent platform to build an academic-industry collaboration platform within the campus. It is worth to mention that IITs by large extent have mitigated the “brain-drain” issue. The rampant adoption of the start-up culture and induction of entrepreneurship oriented programs into the curriculum has generated a sense of creating start-ups among the students. Today, IITs has successfully incubated hundreds of student-owned start-up ventures, some of which are very successful.

(iii) Product driven funding initiatives: In recent years, our funding agencies have announced several schemes to promote the product-oriented research funding. For example, IMPRINT India initiative of Ministry of HRD requires an industry partner commitment before a project can be sanctioned. IITs has been actively seeking engagement with relevant industries to capitalize the opportunity extended by the funding initiatives. It is worth mentioning that initiatives like the Nano Mission initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has improved the research standards of India at par global levels. India currently holds the 3rd position in publishing articles on nanotechnology, just after China and USA. IITs have developed several products (many of them are commercially available), which can be linked to the product driven initiatives.

Perspective to look forward

The response from IITs to the covid19 pandemic came in a very quick time. Thus, it can be concluded that IIT system was well prepared to innovate when a pandemic like situation arises. This preparedness came after introducing major reforms into the academic and non-academic structure of IITs. Undoubtedly, IITs will continue to revamp the internal structure like always, but this pandemic will add-on newer perspective into the IIT system. Some of the key perspective to look forward for IITs are:

(i) Need to foster the productivity through local/domestic economy: Now that most of the IITs have given unique solutions to tackle this pandemic, our policymakers can think about converting these innovations into long-term product development through local economy creation. Recently, RBI has announced INR 50,000 crores package to boost the agriculture, rural and small industry bands of India. Such packages will ensure boosting local economy through job creation at the cluster level. Promoting recently developed products for the domestic economy through such schemes will be a win-win situation for IITs and the society at large. Let us elaborate this point; during this pandemic period, IIT Roorkee and IIT Ropar have developed several products that can be mainstreamed into long-term productivity (for example the portable ventilator). Both these IITs are located just few hours away from the Delhi-NCR region. Thus, a separate industrial zone with production of some of the recent innovations can easily be facilitated.

(ii) Ameliorate the university rankings: Global University rankings is something we cannot ignore. Good ranking provides a pathway to attract higher industrial visibility, better student/faculty quality, eases the engagement with global researchers/innovators, etc. Recent innovations in Science and Technology (a significant contribution came from IITs) is set to improve the Indian research standards globally. IITs should carry forward this enigma and continue developing products to counter the future challenges.

(iii) Stronger alumni connect: The contribution of alumni to their respective IIT cannot be justified through words. Apart from contribution through funds, alumni also actively participate in institute policy-making, placement activities and industry-academia engagement schemes. During this pandemic, some of the innovations came from the alumni with collaboration from their respective IIT. Now that every IIT is set to have a stronger preparation toward pandemic like crisis, covid19 can be thought to be a bliss to strengthen the ties with the alumni network. With the prolific guidance from alumni, IITs are certain to prepare innovations and products to counter the future such crisis.

The road ahead

The Japanese Economic Miracle and the astonishing pace with which Italy and West Germany resurrected their post-war economies clearly highlight the close coordination of industry with academia. Covid 19 is a war against an invisible yet more potent enemy that has unfortunately dragged India into the war zone; something that even the great wars couldn’t do. Thus, it is all the more required to forge our own Indian post-Covid economic model that seamlessly integrates the local rural and semi-urban economy with IITs. This will lead to reverse migration and rejuvenation of the rural industrial landscape of India. In a way, this would be the most thoughtful tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 175 th anniversary, who once said that India is not Calcutta and Bombay; India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages.

(The authors teach engineering and management at IIT Roorkee and IIT Ropar. Views expressed are personal.)

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