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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  • Correct me if I am wrong… you mean to say that IITs are not really that good (as compared to other world-class universities), but its only the hype (Placebo effect) that has kept them going on so far?

  • Amiya

    Not exactly – What IITs have is their students – who themselves are the biggest assets – In terms of infrastructure, research output IITs are not world class – So if you take the students in IITs and keep them in almost any University they will perform equally well. So anything that even slightly affects the intake of students will have a large consequence on the standards. What I’m saying is if you take the students out of the equation – IITs have nothing credit worthy.

    A really good Univ is not meant to behave like that – A good Univ is one that provides ample opportunity to expand and progress without relying too heavily on the students being extraordinary.

  • Bibek

    the answer is not so simple,what make other univ better is the phds coming out of them and no of publications and citations these publications get along with industry collaboration.Consider stanford which has tie-ups with google or microsoft along with the quality of phds coming out of their univ many of who are indians from iits. If iitians leave for the foreign univs how will the ranking go higher. Thats why you dont see korean univs higher up the ranking,all the brilliant korean or israelis are in US enjoying the dollars.Dont mind these comments are not personal.

  • @ Amiya: agreed 100% 🙂

    @ Bibek: Why should any prospective PhD not go to the US if he gets a better research environment and better facilities? If you think people do PhD in the US for the money then your are greatly mistaken. If all they want is money they would not do a PhD, but get an MNC job.

    • Bibek

      Precisely thats the point why they cant do a phd here if they think they are the best in the country,almost everybody wants to do higher studies outside India,50-60% say money,the rest say facilities and infrastructure for diplomatic reasons.Ofcourse they have better labs and wonderful facilities but the real topic here is why is IIT declining,not why iitians shud stay in india?i am saying if they stay only then can the raise the standards of iits.

      • I can’t understand where is the point? So you say if you’r the best you should knowingly select a shit hole to do your PhD? 50-60% say Money? How many have you asked 2 people? Those doing MS may be doing it for money but PhD – no way. You thing a guy will spend 5 years on study at a low scholarship if money was his motivation? That is like dating Rakhi Sawant because marrying was your intention….

        • Bibek

          the thing is most of the indians or iitians always want to do it the foreign way
          i mean if it were not for their prestige issue then what else is it?if
          someone says he is doing his phd in stanford,what do ppl ask?u must
          be enjoying a lot,loads of money,nice american chics.But if u r doing from
          iit they say why u didnt get a job or do u want to go to academic line as if u
          are a loser or something.Even when friends chat all they talk abt is girl or
          money and very little about research,obviously if a guy is doing phd
          at iit he has nothing to talk abt but research.So what is the motivation when
          u r studying abroad money,love and research , but in India its only research.
          So a guy doing phd in India have to spend his research yrs in isolation,only
          if doing a phd in iits would be considered great why would not iitians do
          their phd at their alma mater…Its just the case how football and cricket
          are treated in India…
          @Amiya compared to iits foreign univs pay more.that was my point,i know
          abt u doing a phd out of sheer interest and passion,but what about the rest
          ,u will find that many phds from iit go and stay and settle in USA…If it is
          not money is it cooler climate?

  • In fact, I would like to go one step ahead and say that even the student quality is horrible. True, there are some students who really are full of passion for something, they want to bring some kind of change in the world etc etc. But most of them are losers who just want to spend their lives sleeping, watching movies and getting high with friends. The reason why IITians are at the frontier of so many things in the world is because these are the IITians who graduated twenty years ago. At that time, IIT’s were not a money making machine, and so only those people used to get through the JEE who were genuinely interested in the subjects they were studying. A very large fraction of people getting through the JEE now consists of people whose only motivation is to get the IIT stamp on their CV’s so that they can get a well paying job. I don’t think that IITians will continue to be at the frontiers of things 20 years from now.

    • Hmm…Vinayak…I’m feeling a little uncomfortable saying this but the loser you described here in somewhat fits me (in terms of sleeping and watching movies) 😐

      @Prabhu Agree, if making money is your target then going for PhD is the worst decision.

      • saying @ Prabhu links to some other guy on Twitter that is not me… 😀

        • LOL Damn this auto parser….

  • Karkare

    @Vinayak – Dude, the IITians who graduated 20 years ago were also ‘losers’ when they were in IIT. I know (personally) plenty who were supposedly ‘losers’ in IIT but today are at some top notch position.

    @Amiya – Totally agree

    • @ Karkare thanks for the encouraging words 🙂 I can do it…

  • Chitresh

    I partially agree with Vinayak. I agree that by the time students graduate from IITs, most of them (easily > 50%) are not at all concerned to do anything good. The only thing they want is a good/decent paying job. But this is also fact that not all of them were like that few years back, when they got into IITs. IIT, as a university, failed to provide proper facilities and opportunities which just killed all the tempo. I am not sure about all the departments of all the IITs, but with my own personal experience, I can say without any doubt that IIT faculty is really really horrible. In my opinion good faculty can compensate the poor infrastructure to some extend. What I expect from a good university is that it can motivate and direct even less motivated students, providing facilities, infrastructure etc. IITs scores less than 0 on this ground. It expects its students to to do all the good work, while the faculty and administration is busy with chilling-out and scamps.

    I also agree that there has been some change in the mind set of students. There is no doubt that most of the students coming through JEE are smart. But only a small percentage of them come to IIT to pursue science and engineering out of their own interest. Most of them get into IITs without even knowing what engineering is all about. They just follow the ‘hype’ among fellow students or even worst: fulfill the dream of their parents. I would also condemn the whole Indian education system, which is just about scoring good marks in exams and not at all about the actual knowledge.

    • Well said Chitresh. I think faculty is an avenue which is easier to handle and can have large effect on the standards. Although the way professors are paid in India is too problematic. If you pay peanuts you will only hire monkeys. Professors much like doctors are highly talented people and one should not expect them to get stuck with a low paying job for the society’s welfare.

      I say the government should pay professors better than what they are paid in the states (in terms of PPP). Now that could be tricky as it would mean discriminating profs from IITs from other univs.

      • Chitresh

        IIT faculties already have different pay structure than other universities. I do not know the exact hierarchy, but it would be easy to find. In any case I am sure its different. Remember, once there was a strike of IIT faculties and the agenda of the strike was that IIT faculties were getting smaller perks and/or salary than faculties in other universities.

        • Bibek

          @chitresh if you think the faculty is so bad,why dont u become one
          and prove it wrong,most of the profs like (pregnent of elec,am) dont even
          know how to speak because they graduated from jadavpur univ or some
          stupid college,more so due to lack of iitians going into academics bcos
          they love either foreign univ or mncs these losers came into iit to destroy it.
          Look what they have made it,u think twice b4 coming into their class.

          • Behera is taking Ganga these days…

          • Chitresh

            Bibek, Let me state and re-state few things.

            1) PhD is NOT at all about money. Reason is not that they pay less (they give you just enough money to get a “below average” life. My stipend is half the median salary of USA & I am quite sure that its among the best PhD stipends you can get in US) But at the same time they screw you like anything. If you are not interested in the topic you would prefer to have half the salary with normal job life.

            2) People do go to IITs for PhD, if the concerned field has reputed faculty, like micro-fluid dynamics at IIT-kgp. Other go to abroad just to get better faculty and better research position.

            3) India also does not have any good politicians. This does not make me responsible to become a good politician. If I am able to complete PhD & like teaching after that with all other factors are in place, then I might end up being faculty at some IIT.

            4) No Indian gets even a single American ‘Chick’, forget about ‘chicks’. For that matter they also do not get any Korean / Chinese / Mongolian / African or even Indian Chick. Dont worry, you are not losing anything.

  • Bibek

    @Amiya remember i dont require ganga to be high

  • Tushar

    The issue was why IITs are slipping in rankings. Well, they never were up, as far as I know. If they were up ever, it must have been because of the methodology of the rankings, or some goof-up (as already shown). As far as not making to the top notch is concerned, forget about it. Any Indian university will not be able to make it ever. The reason is simple. The number of people. You have limited resources, with which to feed the billions and make prosperous a few thousands out of those billions (like the IITians/IIMains, etc). There has to be struck a balance. No matter what you do, you cannot decrease the population, and no matter what you do you cannot increase the resources in the proportion that would assure you the level of prosperity, of which high quality education is an indicator. You would have heard that UK govn. has decreased it research grants to a third of that given last year. It’s never gonna happen, unless we find a God who is not Google.

    • Yes I heard about the new policy of UK govt. I agree we cannot be on top in the true sense (at least for next 20 years or so) but we sure can continue producing top notch students who will be on top of these top univs/companies…So that indirectly we will gain more than what a top univ can.

      • bibek

        tushar very negative attitude,if you are not going to stay in India in academics how can u talk abt it not going ahead,i think we are constantly progressing,compare to the infrastructure that we had 10 yrs ago,we will continue to do so,who knows by the time ur child comes to iit the ranks me be a order higher

        • Tushar

          I am not leaving India 😛
          And it is not about the attitude, I just said what’s true. You cannot do that. It’s a statistical impossibility.

          • Tushar

            And if we want to improve the situation to some level (best is not possible, sadly), the only possibility is that somehow we get word-class professors (I don’t know how), we increase the research grant to the IITs/IIMs/IISCs/AIIMS etc. etc. by a disproportionate amount, another highly unlikely situation and we decrease the intake of the students (close to impossibility). Any one of these would help improve the condition, but not above what was there a decade or two ago.

    • sanat

      guys i suggest root cause analysis here..
      1)IIT going down due to poor policies of management.
      2)poor management due to country governed by band of robbers.

      so if u want to get rid of the filth , u have to get rid of source first.
      no amount of cleaning at downstream can make a river clean if source of pollution is intact.
      To improve the quality of education in general and IIT’s in particular, we need people with vision at the helm. So pull up ur socks and jump into the murky world of politics.

  • KishoreKumar

    I absolutely agree with Amiya & also with Vinayak Pathak “there are some students who really are full of passion for something, they want to bring some kind of change in the world etc etc. But most of them are losers who just want to spend their lives sleeping, watching movies and getting high with friends.” Couldn’t agree more on this but the reason behind this is those damn professors and their #$!@%# teaching. When these so called “loser” students entered IIT they were not losers. They were successful persons who were & still are capable of doing amazing things. They entered into IIT with lot of hopes and great expectations. Its these professors and the kind of education system that ruined their hopes. In fact if you see most of these losers are good in their first/second semesters.

    Problem is teachers don’t have the same passion that students have when they entered IIT. They got some best class 12 students in the country, it is purely responsibility of the teacher to cultivate interest among the students. Frankly, just think about how many teachings have made you think about the subject? How many teachings have made you attend the classes because you found them interesting? One example that can be pointed out here is lectures of Prof.Pawan Kumar. I heard about him from my 2nd year but took his class in 5th year. I’m really surprised to see that students were attending his class even if he was not taking any attendance.

    I did three courses on operating systems (CAOS, OS, Adv. OS). In all three courses I went to professors and asked if will I be in a position to write a new tiny operating system by the end of the course. They said “no, its very complex”. I said “OK. I’ll take up that complex task will you guide me through this”. Their response was not again motivating. What kind of courses are those even after completion if I won’t be able to understand what’s happening in the operating system I’m using. In my 3rd year I designed 14 experiments for Computer Networks course thats going to be started. I carefully designed these experiments by discussing it with real world Network Administrators and Network security experiments. Even my professor was very impressed with the work. But what’s the use? I did that course after 2 years, they were never included my experiments in to that course. I know many of my friends who did these courses got Ex & A grades but don’t know how and whats of the networks they are using. I can go on and on. My point is courses are far away from the real world. They are not interesting. All the courses take bottom up approach. They never take a top down approach. They do not motivate a student. Under these circumstances how can one expect a class 12 student to get motivated by himself and be successful? How can one expect good research when there is no relation (continuation) between projects done by a senior and junior?

    Like Karkare said (above) “IITians who graduated 20 years ago were also ‘losers’ when they were in IIT.” Because the system has been like this from then and it is after getting out of IIT (or in final/superfinal year) with matured minds these so called ‘losers’ become successful persons by making “real” things in this “real” world. What find most funny is that they take feedbacks from passing out students but they never really “feed it” to the system to improve its output.

    IITs could have been in top ten institutes if these students (Human Resources) were properly used.

    • @ Kishore you summed it up well man.

      Just go to MIT open course ware or Stanford Center for Professional Development My god the courses are beyond imagination. The way the professors teach is mind blowing; if students at IIT get such teaching God knows what will happen!!

      And at the end of it students submit a project implementing what they learned – take a look at them each project is worth publications. I hope something is done about it in the near future.

    • Chitresh

      yeah, very well said. what IIT and JEE does is to find excellent students at class 12 level with maximum probability and keep them in a rotten bin for next 4-5 yrs. Then after completion of these 4-5 yrs they are expected to come out with world class excellent outputs and they are criticized, if they fail to do so. And ironically they are criticized, by media and few other ppl (like someone above in comments), even more if these people go abroad in order to get proper amenities to produce excellent output.

  • I wish Bibek is correct!!! It’s freezing here in Chicago and I think I can handle my research well. Now all I need is lot of money and a cute American “chick” for his prophecy to come true!!!


  • The world would be a much better place if people identified their own flaws before ranting about flaws in others. Ranting about flaws in others is, in my opinion, a good recipe for a deadlock. If we keep complaining about the quality of the profs in IIT’s, you can go and ask any prof in IIT who has been there for a substantial amount of time, he is probably pretty pissed with the constant decline in the quality of students. Things would be quite different if those professors would for once stop ranting and instead design some good motivating courses, take up some world class research projects and involve more students in them etc. Similarly, things would be quite different if all these students stopped ranting about the profs and instead tried to become the people they dream to be, become more and more productive everyday, understand all the problems the world is facing today and do the best they can to solve them.

  • For example, since all of us here agree that the present education system has too much scope for improvements, and since all of us are IITians and therefore have the potential to be, in Karkare’s words, at some top notch position, let’s do something concrete about it. We should be able to do something. May be we can identify what went wrong in what Kishore Kumar tried to do and this time try to make sure that the IIT faculty does bring about the change in the curriculum. Or if the IIT system resists, then may be we can start something of our own that fills up the motivation gap among students that everyone here is talking about.

  • Ritesh Kumar

    Why blame Arjun Singh or Kapil Sibal for reservation and opening up more institutes ! The author seem to have no idea over the gravity of “decison for providing reservation and opening more institutes !”
    Such decisions are very sensitive issues and are discussed in the cabinet before an action be taken by the head of ministry! The decision is taken by the cabinet as a whole, which means all the ministers decide such matters! Further, You know that India is a democratic country! Who has chosen the representative of people?Has the author has cast his vote? If the people of India have chosen their ministers by their own right to franchise, they have no execuse to blame them. We have chosen them with great sense of responsibity! Our confidence must rest in them!

    • Its the same way you blame a CEO for a failing company. Being the Ministers of Human Resource Development if they are not to be blamed then who is? When you are in charge of something – no matter how many people are involved you have to take responsibility for both good and bad.

      And regarding resting confidence on the Government – I have none…you never trust asses. The voting system is all about selecting one ass over another. But the sorry state of affairs is not just the Govt’s responsibility but also equally ours. That is a topic in itself so may be I’ll write on it later on.

  • Hey Amiya,

    I agree with your idea regarding IITs being prime only because of its students who’re filtered through by the JEE. But what I don’t see is the basis for your claim that “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!”

    I find no basis for this claim! Show me one university that lets in 40000 or 50000 students in a year and I’ll bow to you. But this is simply not true. In fact in my own experience I’ve seen awesome universities keeping their student intake very low for a more focused academic environment.

    Anyway, if I may, I’d like to invite you to visit our website which is http://www.stopmanufacturingus.com

    We’re an online journal who write about the Indian education system and let anyone publish their qualified opinions of the same. You should try writing an article for us. Think about it!

    • Thank you for your feedback. I should have been more clear, when I said 40 to 50k I was talking about total capacity not annual intake. I believe that figure is not an over exaggeration. Here are some univ’s total capacity as a comparison against that of some IITs (source wikipedia)

      UC Berkley 25530 UG + 10313 PG
      Texas Austin 38168 UG + 12827 PG
      Purdue 31145 UG + 8552 PG
      NTU 23500UG + 10000PG
      (I agree these are some of the larger Univs in terms of capacity)

      IIT Bombay 3000UG 3100 PG
      IIT Kharagpur 4500UG 4600PG
      IIT Kanpur 2800UG 2500PG

  • Anonymous

    Most of the communities in the entire Indian sub-continent(such as Bengali) succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is genuinely regret ed or ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses). Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour(values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting children those are born out of ignorance, extreme poverty. It seems that all of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production of (social) Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), initiate a movement by heart, an intense attachment with the society at large is very much required – one different pathway has to create, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101.

    • Anonymous


      • Anonymous

        Failed to follow.

      • Anonymous

        Failed to follow.

  • Vamgadu

    do you even know how an university is awarded with a rank?
    well You better get to know of it. “IITs are not in the top 200 institutes of this world” its true. But, why is it so? It so happened that IITs don’t have a med school or a law school and not a very great business school. They are set up with a motto of developing technology in this country and they are doing pretty much well in that regard. check the ranking of IITs technology wise and you will find IITs in  the top 50 universities of this world.
        when i sit in a class, i see only 30 students around me and the a professor very curious and concentrated in the understanding of each pupil. what else does a student want madam amiya?
    are IITs popular only because of JEE? no. they are popular because of the system they adopted to help the young minds grow. these are the kind of institutes where the faculty get what they want for their beloved research, all they have to do is to guide the young minds.when was Harvard univ set up–1636 thats nearly 4 centuries ago and what is the age of the oldest IIT- not more than 70 years. how can you even compare these two universities infrastructure wise.
    I just don’t get it. what is wrong with an old man trying to change this system. have you ever read his profile before telling that he is of no good?

    • AmiyaPatanaik

      Yes I do know how ranks are awarded. If you look department wise, only a handful (IIT-D, IIT-B) will appear in the lower 50 ranks in a handful of departments (CS, Electrical). You don’t need med schools to be at the top…but probably you don’t know how big some of the IITs are. IIT Kharagpur for instance provides courses in law, humanities, medical sciences and technology. The motto WAS to develop technology in the country few decades back, now it is a playground for political doodling. 

      I’m curious as to which IIT and year you are in right now. Because you can take my word for it that I have more experience than you, and I and my friends have experienced other Universities through out the world. And I stand by my statement that IITs are worst than the worst univs in Europe.  Many of the professors in IITs are sub-standard (though many are world class without doubt), the environment doesn’t cater to research. Although salaries of profs in IITs is much higher than other Indian Univs, it is far less compared to foreign univs. It is not surprising that if one wants to be a professor India will be their last destination. If you pay peanuts you will only hire monkeys. 

      A clear indication that IIT’s are not good is that IIT’s are known for the under-graduate students! Universities are rarely judged by the undergrads, that is because for an Univ undergrads are simply a liability and a source of income. The main output of univs come from the post graduates – who do the real research work pushing the boundary of technology and science (and for that right education of undergrads is of utmost importance)  

      While MIT is old I can give you instances where univs much younger than IITs are in the top of every field. You don’t have to look further than China. Right now I’m a doctoral candidate at NTU which was established in 1991 and is currently a top university. 

      I tend not to judge people only based on profiles. I judge people based on the work they do and the way they behave. And I repeat again – that guy is useless arse. Congress has been screwing with the education system every time they come in power so this really is nothing new…   

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