Seeking alumni contributions alone won’t meet funding needs
The IIT Council, the apex policy-making body for the Indian Institutes of Technology, has come up with a raft of reforms that, if implemented in the right earnest, can significantly boost the institutes’ international reckoning. Though the IITs enjoy a solid reputation in India and abroad—many C-suite figures in top MNCs are alumni—the fact is that neither the IITs nor any other Indian university/higher education institution made it to the top-300 of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University rankings.
The IIT Council has batted for linking teachers’ continued employment to their performance—against the earlier system of largely inducting permanent faculty members—and has called for five-year contracts for teachers going forward, which means that hiring and firing will get much easier. Given one of the reasons for Indian universities not figuring in the many lists of top universities worldwide is poor teacher quality, the IITs moving towards teacher-assessment is a welcome move. Setting clear accountability standards, including in R&D contribution, should help achieve and maintain high teacher quality. According to Clarivate Analytics, only 10 Indians figure among the world’s top 1% highly-cited researchers in two fields. So, a model where teacher performance is made paramount could also mean more quality research, if teacher assessment is designed to encourage this. But, unless the IITs get true autonomy—they remain shackled to fulfilling the government’s inclusion goals through policies like student and faculty reservation—teacher assessment won’t make a meaningful difference. Appealing to alumni to contribute 1% of their earnings is another proposal that the Council has adopted. This would no doubt mean some additional funds. But, while Indian universities have produced many globally acclaimed industry leaders, alumni giving back remains a sore spot—for instance, IIT Madras raised just Rs 55 crore from alumni contributions in FY17 while MIT, which draws much lower contribution and endowments than, say, a Harvard, saw Rs 800 crore come in from its alumni that year.
Indeed, in 2016, the total endowment (corpus fund) wealth of American universities was estimated to be over $535 billion, with the top 25 universities holding nearly 52% of it. Large corpuses, built from alumni and industry donations, are invested to ensure some degree of financial security for universities. The government should facilitate corpus building, instead of being critical of it like it was when IIMs—after getting partial autonomy—did this. Also, the IITs would be much better served if they had the independence to fix fees to have well-off students cross-subsidise those from weak economic backgrounds. A cut from the monetisation of innovations and businesses nurtured using IIT facilities would also help.