IITs and the Placebo effect

On October 26, 2010, in Blog, Faith and belief, Serious, by Amiya

Can you believe that?

A country of over a billion people; India - one of the fastest growing economy in the world with an extremely large young population which is arguably the most valuable resource for the country's future. Is it not surprising that not even a single University ranks within the top 200 in the world! What is even more surprising is that Indians are still at the forefront of every field - be it Industry and Finance at one end or corruption at the other! What is it that makes us so special that we seemingly work in ways that will surprise even God (for God our lives are like thriller movies directed by John Woo). Rather than analyzing everything I will consider the declining rank and status of the IITs - the premier institutes for engineering studies in India.

The Times Higher Education Supplement or THES which publishes the most influential international ranking of world's top universities, ranked IITs at third position, after MIT and UC Berkley for the year 2005!! Third in the world!!! If you do not believe me check the THES site for yourself. What happened since 2005 that an institute that was thought to be worlds third best got kicked out of top 200. Many would attribute the wonderful (negative) progress to our highly talented and very honorable Ministers of Human Resource Development - Mr Kapil Sibal (2009-present) and Mr Arjun Singh(2004-2009). While Mr. Arjun Singh can be considered the most worthless person on earth making the baseline so low that Mr. Sibal may appear a gizillion times better!  The reality is that both of them are no good - while Sibal may be making genuine effort to improve the situation his Harvard degree is blinding him from that fact that India is not US. You cannot just bring the system that works in US and implement it in India hoping that it will have the same impact. While these ministers could not help but finger with the already working and well established IITs the progressive decline of these institutes can be pinned on to two critical points -

  1. Reserving a disproportionately large (50% to be specific) percentage for students from backward categories.
  2. opening up dozen more IITs in quick succession.

While many would agree that these are the prime reasons why the rankings dwindled, it would be too naive to settle there. Just opening up of new institutes and reservation of seats should not be a reason for dilution of standards. For a country of over a billion without doubt the IITs are too small, even after considering the new ones. If you look at any other university outside India the student intake will be easily around forty to fifty thousand which is many times over what one IIT will be housing!  So why should we think that increasing the intake will hamper our standards?

The answer lies in small sugar tablets. Yes it is the Placebo effect. A sugar tablet given by the physician with a strong superstition that it is infact a potent drug  and taken by the patient with an equal compliance can actually work better than the actual drug. The effect of the Placebo is real and measurable although the placebo is nothing more than a piece of inert material completely bootless.  The paneroma of treatment since antiquity provides ample support for the conviction that, until recently, the history of medical treatment is essentially the history of placebo effect[1].  IITs are the sugar pills that was given to us with the belief that they were world class and we were the patients that took it with confidence. The ONLY reason IITs have the name and reputation is JEE - an exam considered to be the toughest in the world, a selection procedure so stringent that less than 1% can survive it. And those who survive that are convinced that they are the best and they are at the best place. It is the belief of the selected few that IITs enjoy the status - when it comes to real parameters like infrastructure, research facilities, research output that measures how good an University is IITs cannot even be compared with the worst European Univ.  That actually explains the ranking by THES as well. For the year 2004-05 the ranking was based on peer appraisal rather than true parameters. The top echelon of every field is headed by Indians (may be including THES itself) - it is not shocking that IITs ended up third. As THES moved to real indicators of how good an University is IITs started losing their grip. The reason why the standards cannot be maintained if the number of IITs are increased or reserved for a specific group is because everything depends on selecting a very small number of highly motivated people and placing them together in a physically demarcated boundary AKA the IITs.

In the modern era the IITs are not created to cater to engineering needs of India rather they are created to develop a small army that will drain the developed world off its riches to bring prosperity to India.  I certainly do not say that the number of talented people is in any way limited but the field of high end research and world class higher education is very costly; something a developing country cannot justify spending on. Rather it should leave the way IITs were a few years back and concentrate of further developing more NITs and deemed Universities and provide quality education. The country certainly needs a large pool of good universities; while they can provide a bulk of highly talented people the IITs can provide the brand image and marketing. I conclude by saying that we must let the placebo effect continue until we are capable enough to develop our own drugs.

PS: Do share your view in the comments section and share this post.

[1]. Book - The placebo effect: an interdisciplinary exploration By Anne Harrington


The Parliament is supreme - So if the parliament says Arjun Singh is a do***bag he will agree.

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