Insider Info : “Being The Best”

The Times Of India has an article “Being The Best” – something about IIT and a meeting amongst the bureaucrats who run those institutions . I can’t help making anything but snide comments about how very “best” these institutes are . But mind you , my view is also colored by my experience in a department which had more cases of files being flung , notorious grading , students being yelled at and summer extensions being handed out like parting gifts to students after their final year.

It is unfortunate that some of our Indian newspapers have some random piece of reporting on one of the IIXs almost every day . One of the nice things which happened in our country after 1990 is that not only did the modified laws make things easier for those who wanted to run businesses – but it also invited private participation in the education sector . Recognition , affiliation and deemed university status became easier . A lot of colleges came up . Many were rotten but some turned out to be excellent [ ISB , IIIT etc. ] . Their students and pass outs are fine . The best companies are willing to recruit them .

And yes , I mean the very best companies . What matters more in the end is – how competent you are as an engineer or a student and not where you got that degree from . I know for instance , Facebook recruited about half a dozen students over the past 2 years for their HQ ( from India 0 . Only one of them is from an IIT .

It would be nice if the Times Of India occasionally covered one of the new colleges . It might give parents a better idea of the options available to their kids . It would be even nicer if newspapers made parents aware of other career options now available to their kids – creative things like marketing , advertising , design , writing and so on .

In the current situation a paranoid parent gets the impression that IIT is the only place worth going to after completing High School .  I have read in a number of places that many kids have even been enrolled for 3-4 year courses in remote places like Kota .  Can you imagine , a 13-14 year old sent away from the comforts of home to some random corner with no family or friends around him , no Internet , etc ? I used to think we had a very rigorous dose ( a decade ago )  – that used to be 1.5 to 2 years of preparation , with a training session to attend every week or 10 days or so .

If you are a reporter looking for insider information for what happens inside an IIT , the three letter word which you guys sell to paranoid parents and 16 year olds about to write their school leaving exams , just like how you sell semiclad models to everyone ; here’s a piece of insider information which you can make a spicy and gossipy article about .

IIT is a very mediocre and overrated institution with a needlessly rigid curriculum . You are bombarded with so many compulsory subjects every semester that there isn’t much time left to  do the stuff you like . Why else is it that top ranked American Universities with just 4 subjects a semester have outclassed this system in every aspect of creativity and innovation , while IIT has about 5-6 pre-decided subjects .

There is a lot of unnecessary stuff  from the eighties ( For instance , Engineering Drawing in an era when all that design stuff happens in bits and bytes ). Add to that a sixties mode of education – making students function as mindlessly as Xerox copiers and printers and are forced to blindly draw a whole lot of diagrams related to equally mindless experiments with involve no creativity or design ; where they simply stand and jot down observations like robots . I often got the feeling that to truly excel in a system that like you needed to turn off your brains more than you needed to use them .

While some professors were very good , motivating and pleasant ,  I remember a large number of them as vultures and vampires with dripping fangs waiting to feast on a caracass . Just imagine a sixteen-seventeen year old entering college and facing these people .

Rigid academic systems do not leave you with much room to explore much of your own . They make most people hate their subjects if they had any liking for them to begin with . Every time the HRD ministry seeks IIT ‘s  “expertise and opinion” in helping to develop the curriculum at upcoming Indian Universities I think of how a kind of academic cancer is being spread . The technical skills I picked up there were mostly on my own or from like minded people in my hostel wing . I did manage to get some cool courses at the end when I could pick and choose stuff  – and managed sufficient Time Table manipulation without people finding out 🙂 . But by that time a) I already knew that stuff anyway b) I had enough of the institute and had that feeling that I had way overstayed my invite there .

An immediate problem for many of us was being dumped into a branch on the basis  of the entry rank and starting GPA . I personally wouldn’t grumble about that aspect since I managed to sign up for pretty much all the courses I was interested in . Also , in hindsight , if your life is such that you end up in front of the computer for a career , it is possibly nice to check out something else in college .  Plus , I can understand the logic why allocation needs to be done , otherwise all but 2-3 of the departments in the institute would shut down . However , in that case it is very essential not to force a student to opt for a branch . It is necessary to have some kind of a general course where one could take 4-5 courses from three or four different areas . Also , most importantly , regardless of the branch , apart from 6-7 compulsory subjects a student should be able to decide the rest on his own . But who in the administration would really care .

While IIT might not be any good as a factory its stamp is pretty good ( in India ) – like a kind of ISO 9001 certification of pre-processed polished diamonds many of which are rendered useless in the stamping process due to high combustion at every stage . Everytime I hear someone refer to IIT as the “best four years” of life , I feel we are on an entirely different page and feel sorry that their lives haven’t had anything more interesting to offer them .

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7 Responses to Insider Info : “Being The Best”

  1. Umang Saini says:

    I guess you are comparing innovation/excellence standards and objectives in India with the one’s in Silicon Valley. That is comparing Zoho’s to Google’s.

    Because of Internet, it’s getting pretty hard to justify any degree course, even from II-TMSc’s. The technical capability of any student/professional is no-longer bound by his/her Alma Mater.

    You may purchase a Tera FLOP of computation power at $380. You have access to entire course material of MIT, Yale and many others (including few IITs). One is no longer dependent on IITMSc’s to grant one access to their classrooms / labs anymore.

    Granted IITMSc’s are not the best. IMO that is not their purpose either. They are merely part of a longer and more exciting journey. For some they are special, for others they are obligatory hurdles to get from point A to B.

    In this week’s SOTU, Obama has made a serious call for the best-and-the-brightest to turn to teaching. He thinks that is the crucial missing link for USA to reach it’s potential. That’s coming from the leader of a $14 trillion p.a. economy which recently printed $3.3 trillion under the pretense of Q.E. (Quantitative Easing I+II).

    Peter Norvig has an interested take on what young Engg/Scientists should aim for (apart from just graduating! :). (Link).

  2. Well the college still matters in an indirect way . Not for what the institute teaches but with regard to the level of competitiveness and smartness of people around you . by itself is a lot about peer groups . A better college indicates a smarter and better peer group – which makes a person smarter as well . So even if video content is available online to everyone , the blue chip companies are likelier to open their doors more easily for someone with the stamp of a better college . Why else would better companies still prefer people from a better college . So , it isn’t really an excuse for IIXs to carry on with an age old curriculum just because video content is available online . Also , by having a rigorous curriculum Indian colleges gives no time to people to even use that kind of open course ware available . They just need to tone down the rigid-ness to start with .
    “Granted IITMSc’s are not the best. IMO that is not their purpose either. ” – and why not , because mediocrity is in our blood ?

  3. Umang Saini says:

    The purpose of IIZs (as I perceive it as an outsider) is to deliver reasonable quality but subsidized education to those who qualify (either by competition or by quota). At the end of the day they are a set of legacy government institutes.

    They neither have the mandate, nor any motivation to change. Take the simple example of EDUSAT. It was supposed to change-everything, turn the world of education upside-down. IIZs were supposed lead that network and educate 10s of millions (not 10s of thousands it does today). After 6 years, have you met anyone who has taken even a single course via EDUSAT? The reasons? No motivation, no incentive, little-to-no-accountability, tenured jobs, etc. The list is endless. OR maybe EDUSAT was always a bad idea. Probably. The new national broadband plan (which could’ve started 6 years ago) may eventually undo this mistake. But not before 2014, provided the bureaucracy and vested interests don’t delay it yet again.

    As far as community of smart people is concerned – There are equally good, if not better, communities online, Wikipedia, LibreOffice, GitHub, Android etc.

    Blue-chips hiring from Elite-colleges argument – At least few well respected new-economy companies are no longer relying on that. Take Zoho, Infosys, SKS MicroFinance, A2Z Group etc. They are happy training fresh under-grads for extended durations to get what is actually required by real paying customers.

  4. Umang Saini says:

    Also the no-time, too rigid argument – Are you implying that it’s easier to graduate from MIT, Yale, CMU, Stanford vs. IIZs?

    Do read Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness. He starts off with how me passed out from Harvard and then joined Oracle. Link.

    OR about this Nuclear Engineer from MIT who joined BCG. Link.

    OR about what Japanese graduates face. Today’s NYtimes article

    From my personal low-expectations vantage point, IIZs are doing great. Because my thumb rule for evaluating work of government institutes follows this quote –

    “Don’t believe them, don’t fear them, don’t ask anything of them.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Laureate, Referring to the Soviet government.)

    It looks like, you are simply asking for too much vs. asking anything in first place.

    Best, Umang

  5. Umang Saini says:

    I posted wrong link for the book. Here is the correct link –

  6. >> Also the no-time, too rigid argument – Are you implying that it’s easier to graduate from MIT, Yale, CMU, Stanford vs. IIZs?

    I don’t know where you managed to conclude I was implying anything of the sort .
    Rigidity has nothing to do with a “high standard” which MIT and the like have .
    For example , out of about 30 courses only about 4 or 5 would be compulsary @ MIT .
    Whereas at IIT about 35 out of 40 would be fixed . ‘m talking about rigidity and inflexibility which gets into the way of any effective learning . Fixed courses , large number of compulsory courses , out dated stuff . Just like how a paath-shaala is more rigid than a modern day school ; but doesn’t necessarily have a higher standard . So yes there’s a loaded curriculum but not one which is very effective . BTW , let me share this secret with you IIX isn’t doing anything , their pre-filtered students and pass outs are .

    Also , this isn’t a problem necessarily unique to IITs , probably holds true for most other colleges in India as well .

    Regarding what I’m asking for ; well you need to be inside the fence to figure out that there’s nothing unique in what I’m asking for . Fewer courses and more flexibility. Pretty much everybody feels the same way . The only thing good about IIXs is their student quality .

    And for all those links you’ve posted – nice read ; but irrelevant to the context .

  7. >> Take Zoho, Infosys, SKS MicroFinance, A2Z Group etc.

    Well , to each his own . But if at all I wanted to take up a job in a company I’d prefer to have the best choices available to me . Infosys would certainly not figure on that list .

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