Home A HaRD Interview with Minister Pallam Raju

A HaRD Interview with Minister Pallam Raju

by Bakul Desai
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God has indeed been very kind to me. He put me through the best school and the best college one could possibly ask for. Hyderabad Public School (HPS) was originally Jagirdars’ College that was built for the Nizams and royalty of the Nizam state and was thrown open to the “public” in the early sixties. While many of my schoolmates were still princes, there were a whole lot of other contemporaries who went on to become eminent businessmen, industrialists, Tollywood stars, cricketers, ghazal singers, CXOs, diplomats, media barons, MPs, MLAs, Central ministers and even a Chief Minister. Likewise with IIT Bombay. My contemporaries in HPS, amongst so many others, include AP CM Kiran Kumar Reddy and Minister HRD Mallipudi Mangapati Pallam Raju. My contemporaries in IIT, again amongst so many others, include Goa CM Manohar Parrikar and Nandan Nilekani.

MMP-that’s what we called Pallam in school, became a member of Lok Sabha when he was barely 27. His grandfather was a freedom fighter and his father too was a Central Minister in the eighties. Pallam was ranked highly as a Minister of State for Defence and his performance caused his elevation to a minister of cabinet rank and he was given the important portfolio of HRD. Apart from that, Pallam has served on many Boards of public limited companies, has served as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, has represented the Country in the United Nations General Assembly at New York, USA in October 2004. The Institution of Electronics & Telecommunications Engineers (IETE), New Delhi, has recently conferred a ‘FELLOW’ on him.

Just as it exists in IITB, the spirit of camaraderie is high amongst HPS alumni. You can greet each other with a back slapping bonhomie. You can poke a minister in the ribs and need not address him as “sir”. You can whisk him away from a party into a quiet corner and put forth a whole lot of demands without offending him. In one such party at a common friend’s place, I cajoled, browbeat and coerced MMP to give us an interview for FUNDAMATICS. It was on our mind ever since we got the news that he was given the HRD portfolio last year. After all, all matters pertaining to IIT come directly under the HRD Minister’s purview. Besides, we have launched the Global Alumni Business Forum at IITBAA and during our pilot launch in Goa last July, there had been a constant clamour from alumni to rope in Pallam and his MHRD since most of our entrepreneurs who participated in Goa were working in the space of education.

The unexpected meeting gave me an opportunity to also broach these and similar issues with Pallam. Despite his various pre-occupations, travels abroad and stormy Lok Sabha sessions, Pallam found time to give the interview.  Another privilege that I enjoyed as a schoolmate was to pose tough questions set by my colleagues on the Board of IITBAA. If the questions can be likened to an IIT weekly test, Pallam cracked a straight “A”. Normally, this interview would have passed off as one conducted under one of the bee pseudonyms, in the same manner that we conducted interviews in the past. But my boss on the editorial Board Queenbee insisted this time that given the status of our interviewee and the importance of the interview, I should step “out of the closet” and conduct this interview as the Chair of IITBAA.

Bakul Desai

pallam raju caricature high res

Image courtesy: Shreyas Navare, Hindustan Times

 

BD: You were promoted by the Honourable PM from MoS rank to cabinet minister level and given charge of the HRD ministry with Shashi Tharoor as your MoS. What do you attribute your elevation to? Your good record in the defence ministry? 

PR: I would expect that my almost seven year track record in the Ministry of Defence would have certainly been one of the main factors in my elevation. I am grateful to the Prime Minister and the Congress President for reposing their faith in me.

BD: Your ministry is an important one and all aspects of education come under your purview. But as alumni of IITB, we would like to restrict this interview to IIT related issues. Firstly, what is your broad vision about IIT education in general and the role it can play in nation building?

PR: It is my belief that for IITs, the challenges emerge from the increasing globalization of education. As modern academic institutions, IITs are expected to operate in a dynamic and a competitive ecosystem where stakeholders namely – students, faculty, non-faculty, industry, alumni, society, technology and market forces are redefining the education industry every day. Staying competitive in such an environment means continuously adjusting and adapting an Institution’s approach to meet the changing needs and expectations of today’s youth and that of the country.

The IITs should provide an education that is current and comparable with that given by the best universities in the world. The Institutes are achieving this standard at the undergraduate level and graduates have made important contributions to nation building and progress in several field. The IITs must now focus on excellence in postgraduate education and research, especially at the PhD level. Such manpower with high qualifications is needed for R&D based innovation to address the nation’s problems and to make Indian businesses more competitive.

But it is not just about the market aspect of education, the nation too needs greater engagement of IITs to tackle some of the burning issues. It’s here that we need to exercise imagination to explore ways in which specific competencies, and I know there are many, in the IIT system can be brought forth to address various issues. IITs need to engage with private and public sector industry as also the governments, both at the Centre and States, to play a greater role in the development of the nation. IITs have started to engage with national challenges like urban development, transport, sustainable solutions to energy, water, affordable housing, defense research, food security. 

IITs need to move into value creation with substantive benefits to industry and society for achieving competitive advantage. IITs are setting up Research Parks for promoting research and business entrepreneurship and for addressing industrial needs.

In last one year, we have tried to put on table a number of ideas for IITs to emerge as modern institutions of excellence. A framework for Peer Review of IITs has been prepared and the IITs have already begun the process of Internal Review, which will be followed by the External Peer Review. Similarly a framework on Green Office is being put in place and I hope that the systems are being put in place for IITs to become living examples of application of technology and modern ideas.

BD: Last year, there was a huge controversy about changing the format of the JEE exam and your predecessor Kapil Sibal met with a lot of resistance from various IIT senates, students and even alumni. Though a compromise was arrived at, many feel that the JEE format should be rolled back to its earlier state where it was free from controversy and considered the most honest, foolproof and tamperproof system. Would you consider a relook? Or is a rollback simply out of the question?

PR: Last year’s changes were questioned more because we were trying out an untested system against a well established one. You will be aware that as far as IIT system is concerned, earlier absolute percentage (say 60% for general category) in Boards was the cut-off criteria against percentile (top 20 percentile) criteria adopted in 2013. The major argument for this change was that the percentiles of different Boards, who evaluate differently, can be compared, while comparing absolute percentages will be unfair to the students of some Boards, especially the ones known for strict marking. The system based on absolute percentages was therefore not fair to all. The percentile system is fairer, and therefore it is being continued.  

BD: While the effort of your ministry at expanding the number of IITs is laudable, many feel that the IIT brand will suffer dilution and we may see a comedown in standards. Where will you get top class faculty at GoI pay scales? How will you build such a huge infrastructure? Where will so much money come from? I am told that out of the total education budget of Rs 66,000 crores IITs will get Rs 2,200 crores in 2013-2014. Till 2012-2013 all IITs put together got just over Rs 1,000 crores.

PR: There has been a lot of discussion around whether new IITs have dented the brand IIT. I would answer the question from a slightly different perspective.  After success of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Rastriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhiyan (RMSA), a larger number of students are entering the higher education. Therefore, you would agree that we need to enlarge the space for quality education. New IITs were needed to cater to this increasing number of students wanting to go for quality education. Otherwise, these students would start looking for off-shore education, which may not be good for the country.

I do agree with you that there is an acute shortage of faculty when you perceive it from the 10:1 student/faculty ratio. However, the current ratio of 16:1 is not bad at all when you see other premier institutions world over including in our neighbourhood like NUS etc.

To attract the best faculty, the salaries of the faculty have significantly improved after the 6th Pay Commission. In fact, the faculty members now get the best salaries in the government sector. Recently, we have approached the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider our demand to relax the US$ 25,000 limit for Visa with a view to allow foreign faculty. We expect a positive outcome from these efforts.

PRaju

I am also of the opinion that with Massive Online Open Course (MOOCs), the concept of classroom teaching has undergone change. Therefore, there is a strong case for networking across IITs for use of online and offline resources to make pedagogy not only interesting but more engaging as well.  

All of the new IITs are functioning in temporary premises with provision for classrooms, labs, equipment and hostels. Some of them, starting from IIT Mandi, have started moving to permanent campuses in a phased manner. The number of students in the eight new IITs is 5011.  They have also been given the freedom to recruit faculty and non-faculty staff within the norms of faculty, non-faculty and students ratio of 1:1.1:10.  To draw good faculty and non-faculty to these Institutes, Cabinet approval has been obtained to allow mobility of staff from old Central Engineering Institutions (CEIs) with old pension scheme on 10 year long term deputation to the new CEIs.

BD: IITs rank a distant 200+ in the QS world ranking despite employing the best faculty talent and attracting the best students. Do you attribute this dismal performance to inadequate funding and below par research facilities made available to IITs? Look at MIT that spends $ 40,000 per student whereas IITs spend less than $ 2,000 per student.

PR: We have set up a Committee to look into the ranking issue. The Committee has interacted with QS and the THE ranking agencies. The Ministry has been actively facilitating this engagement.

The table below indicates Ranking of IITs among World Universities by Times Higher Education (THE) in the years 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Year Name of Institute World University Rankings
2011-12 IIT Bombay

301-350

The other IITs were ranked below 400. Therefore, they do not appear on the THE website.

2012-13 IIT Bombay

251-275

IIT Kharagpur

226-250

IIT Roorkee

351-400

 

The table below indicates Ranking of IITs among World Universities by QS in the years 2011 and 2012 as per information available on their website.

Name of Institute World University Rankings 2011 World University Rankings 2012
IIT Delhi

218

212

IIT Kanpur

306

278

IIT Bombay

225

227

IIT Madras

281

312

IIT Kharagpur

341

349

 As shown in the table above, the rankings of IIT Delhi and IIT Kanpur have improved in 2012

The variation in rankings is primarily because the different ranking agencies use different indicators and assign different weightages for each indicator.

The Ministry has organized workshops in coordination with the THE and the QS ranking agencies for informing heads of academic institutions about the issues involved in the ranking process. Based on these discussions, the following issues have emerged that enable a better understanding of the rankings methodology.

  1. IITs are primarily science and technology oriented institutions. The typical World and Asia Rankings are meant for universities and consider items like arts, medicine, social sciences, etc. In terms of rankings related to Engineering and Technology, IITs are ranked between 30 and 100 and are therefore within the top 100 institutions.

  2. Also in most of the widely publicized rankings, like QS and THE, a large percentage (from 40% to 60%) is based on surveys and not on hard data like graduates, publications, citations, etc.

  3. There is a 15% weightage on internationalization where the IITs score low as they have low presence of international faculty and students. On the other hand IITs have very strong international research collaborations with industry which is not counted.

  4. IITs have a very good track record in international terms when it comes to research publications / citations and are rated very high on this count. But this does not count for more than 30% weightage.

  5. IITs are also affected on faculty:student ratio as some of the agencies count research staff as faculty. Since as of now IITs do not have a large non-faculty research staff with PhDs, they get adversely affected by such calculations. This also accounts for about 10% to 15% weightage in some cases.

  6. Computation of citations is fairly disparate for different agencies and they are themselves refining and modifying the same from time to time.

  7. Most agencies do not consider important areas of contribution of IITs like contribution of alumni (top 10 in the world), impact on national development goals, entrepreneurship generation, etc. where IITs have excelled compared to others in the world.

  8. In some cases, complete data is not taken (like industry income set to 0 in a recent survey for one IIT), which seriously affect the rank.   

 The Committee is expected to come out with strategies to address these issues. Systems are being put in place for sharing information with rating agencies in an active manner.

I would only partially agree that inadequate funding may be responsible for this performance. IITs get the highest funds among all the institutions in India. In fact, on an annual basis, we give nearly 3900 crore to IITs from MHRD only, with plan funds constituting 2400 crore and non-plan another 1400 crore. Besides this, different departments including DST, DBT, DRDO, MSME etc provide research funding to IITs on competitive basis. We are also setting up CIHEC (Council for Industry and Higher Education Cooperation) with a view to enlarge the scope of Industry-Academia engagement for mobilizing additional research funds.

Besides this, we are also encouraging IITs to increase their internal revenues. A part of this increase will come from increased fee, which has been increased for the new UG students from Rs. 50,000/- to Rs. 90000/-from the current academic year. A new Block Grant Scheme has been put in place to rationalize the non-plan support to IITs. As part of this scheme, IITs can build their corpus fund. They also get matching grant (additional) from the Central government for revenues generated in addition to the 30% of the non-plan expenditure.

World over, the best colleges get large contributions from their alumni and have large interest incomes. This is slowly but steadily happening in IITs. But IITs need greater engagement with alumni world over.

 BD: Most IIT graduates do their post graduation in some of the best universities abroad, come back to their alma mater and end up getting disillusioned with the system which apparently suffers from inadequate funding, insufficient autonomy and bureaucratic clearances. What can you do to improve the situation? Can the IITs be granted greater financial autonomy? Can there be greater devolution of powers to the Board of Governors of each IIT?  We are told that everytime IIT faculty member needs to travel by an airline other than AI, they need to get permission from a JS in Ministry of Civil Aviation.

PR: We have been providing greater autonomy to IITs over years. There is no representative of the ministry on the Board of Governors of IITs. IITs don’t have to seek ministry’s approval for recruiting the faculty. This year, we extended this to the recruitment of the non-faculty besides allowing them to have their own management structures. So, the IITs now have a chance to put in place modern management systems with best human resource.

Autonomy is what I am committed to ensure so that that these institutions of national importance, achieve greater international excellence.  However, autonomy has to be complemented by greater accountability and transparency as these are public institutions. The IIT Council website is one such effort to ensure transparency and accountability besides brand communication to a bigger audience of stakeholders and greater peer learning. The Kakodkar Committee has suggested a framework for governance and autonomy. However, a consensus needs to emerge on these issues.

I think IITs need to seize the moment and take these institutions to greater heights.  

BD: Talking about our own IIT Bombay, when I was here from 1977 to 1982, our campus was green and pristine. There were lots of open spaces. Our hostels rooms were not great, but we all had a room to ourselves. But now, IIT looks like a concrete jungle. 2 people are packed in a 6’X8′ room. One of the students has to live from a suitcase packed under the bed. One uses the study table while the other has to sit on a chair in the corridor outside. There is also a shortage of study spaces and other important infrastructural facilities. Obviously, your ministry’s guidelines about scale-up in the number of students is causing this situation. Can we not advise a structured expansion?

PR: I agree that the sudden expansion of IITs on account of OBC reservation did put a lot of pressure on the IIT system. But I am sure these are short-term troubles and soon the situation is going to ease out. The student population has increased considerably. In IITB itself 9000 students are now on the rolls from the time when you were a student. I think just about 2000 were on the rolls then.

The built up area has consequently increased. The Institute has a master plan in which significant areas are designated as green areas and will not have any buildings. In the remaining areas taller buildings are being built to conserve green areas. The campus has far more trees than in the 70s. As per the decision of the Council of the IITs, each IIT is expected to set up a Green Office. We would ask the Green Office in each IIT to look into the issues of greenery, open spaces and the optimum capacity for each IIT. There are plenty of open areas all over the campus; the only densely built up area is the academic area. This is intentional to keep the academic area pedestrian – faculty and students can easily walk between classes and labs in different departments.

The number of students admitted into the Institute is based on classroom and laboratory resources available. This has led to overcrowding in the hostels but at the same time provided a much larger number of students the opportunity of a great education. 1500 rooms have been built and 3800 are at various stages of construction. The doubling of students will end in three years time.

Several new study spaces are being built including in the Library and the Lecture Hall Complex. The Departments also open class rooms for study after class hours.

BD: You may have noticed that IITans excel not just in the realm of technology, but have made a mark for themselves in diverse fields like politics, policy making, administrative services, NGOs etc. Within your own political fraternity, we have Jairam Ramesh, Manohar Parrikar, Ajit Singh, Jai Narayan Vyas, Sudheendra Kulkarni, ArvindKejriwal, Nandan Nilekani and a few others.  Can we look at developing humanities, social sciences and management disciplines within the IIT system?

PR: I am convinced that a holistic development of an individual requires not only imparting engineering education and skills but also providing humanities, social sciences and management inputs. Each IIT is free to take a call on these issues. Strong humanities, social sciences and management departments are needed for interdisciplinarity, which is the need of the hour. We had a Design workshop recently to focus on cross disciplinary education. IITs have been encouraged to set up Design schools so that a more holistic curricula and perspectives evolve.

IITs are primarily science and technology oriented institutions. The typical World and Asia Rankings are meant for universities and consider items like arts, medicine, social sciences, etc. In terms of rankings related to Engineering and Technology, IITs are ranked between 30 and 100 and are therefore within the top 100 institutions.

 BD: What are your views on expanding the IIT system to foreign students and foreign faculty and possible funding of foreign students?

 PR: As far as foreign students are concerned, the IIT Council has already taken a decision to allow nearly 10 percent foreign students. It is now for IITs to implement it.

On the foreign faculty, as I mentioned to you earlier, we have approached the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider our demand to relax the US$ 25,000 limit for Visa with a view to allow foreign faculty. We expect a positive outcome from these efforts.  However, IITs can recruit foreign faculty on a contract for a limited period.

BD: IIT alumni, and IIT Bombay alumni in particular, are among the most active alumni with a good track record of paying back to the system and to society. There are hundreds of alumni who would like to engage with your ministry and help with policy making, improving the system and moving things forward. Can you look at a system where IIT alumni associations are recognized by your ministry and can we evolve a formal working relationship?

PR: I don’t think there is any need for recognising alumni associations as they are a vibrant and progressive force of highest standing. But, I agree that we can engage with IIT alumni in policy making, improving the system and moving things forward. I will positively consider this issue if the IIT alumni body comes up with a draft proposal for formalising such an engagement. We may involve the IIT Chairman and IIT Director so that there is a greater coherence and convergence in ideas and actions.

We are also encouraging IITs to increase their internal revenues. A part of this increase will come from increased fee, which has been increased for the new UG students from Rs. 50,000/- to Rs. 90000/-from the current academic year. A new Block Grant Scheme has been put in place to rationalize the non-plan support to IITs. As part of this scheme, IITs can build their corpus fund. They also get matching grant (additional) from the Central government for revenues generated in addition to the 30% of the non-plan expenditure. World over, the best colleges get large contributions from their alumni and have large interest incomes. This is slowly but steadily happening in IITs. But IITs need greater engagement with alumni world over. 

BD: IITBAA has floated a Global Business Forum for its alumni entrepreneurs and innovators and the current focus is on education and skill development. We had a pilot launch in Goa last July and the initial response was overwhelming. Can you meet us one day and allow us to make a presentation and extend your ministry’s patronage to us?

PR: Sure. We can decide on a convenient date for the meeting. My office can coordinate with you on a mutually convenient date for the meeting.

I agree that we can engage with IIT alumni in policy making, improving the system and moving things forward. I will positively consider this issue if the IIT alumni body comes up with a draft proposal for formalising such an engagement. We may involve the IIT Chairman and IIT Director so that there is a greater coherence and convergence in ideas and actions. 

BD: One last question. IIT alumni contribute substantially to IIT and get a 100% tax rebate. But a few great programs are administered by IITBAA and donors to IITBAA get only a 50% tax rebate. Can you help us get a 100% tax break for IITBAA donors? This may result in more donations flowing in and will strengthen IITBAA’s hand to run programs which cannot be implemented directly by IITB.

PR: Please send a proposal on this issue and we will forward it to Ministry of Finance with our strong recommendations. 

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