April 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

Home of India's best and brightest faces global pressure

SATOSHI IWAKI, Nikkei staff writer

Technology institutes across India produce some of the world's best engineers and mathematicians.

NEW DELHI -- Indian Institutes of Technology, a group of engineering and tech-related colleges, have generated graduates in mathematics and engineering who have gone on to lead the country's industrialization and economic development since the first institute was established in 1951.

     The institutions attract the best and brightest students from the 1.2 billion-strong population of India, which has sought to produce domestically everything from sandals to satellites since independence from Britain in 1947.

     At the Delhi tech institute, students study in run-down classrooms and laboratories, using outdated PCs. Nevertheless, graduates are in high demand all over the world.

     In December, a local media report carried a story about foreign companies seeking to hire graduates of the institutes at high salaries. U.S. computer technology giant Oracle, for example, offered 13 million rupees ($218,000) as a starting annual pay.

     Leading companies are eager to hire such graduates as they are highly competent in mathematics and engineering, fluent in English and work hard. Information technology companies all over the world flock to institutes on "Day One," when they are allowed to begin interviewing students for recruitment.

     India was an undeveloped country for decades after independence. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru established the first of the institutes in 1951 to create an elite engineering school modeled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S., stressing that excellent manpower and technology were indispensable for national development. There are now 16 of the schools across the country.

     Alumni include prominent figures such as N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, who is often called the Bill Gates of India, Arun Sarin, former CEO of British telecom giant Vodafone, and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of U.S. IT firm Sun Microsystems.

     The institutes' grads often work overseas, especially in North America. Silicon Valley has a well-established network of Indian nationals working there.

Only the best

Only about one in 140 applicants is accepted to the institutes. An old adage is that students who fail the two-stage entrance exam by one point end up at MIT.

     All students live in dormitories. Tuition, accommodation and food expenses come to 90,000 rupees per year.

     "Some 80% of the world population live in India and less developed countries. India's IITs have a mission to generate things that serve the needs of other developing nations," IIT Delhi Director R.K. Shevgaonkar said in a recent interview with The Nikkei.

     Shevgaonkar stressed, "IITs do not teach students what they should do after graduation." They encourage students to get a wide range of experience throughout their academic years. According to Shevgaonkar, half of alumni change their fields of work within three years of graduation.

Success stories

Quite a few success stories have arisen from this system. Alumnus and current Reserve Bank of India Gov. Raghuram Rajan majored in electrical engineering, but switched to finance after receiving a master's degree in business administration in the U.S.

    But the institutes themselves are not as highly esteemed as their graduates. In the latest World University Rankings by the Times Higher Education magazine of the U.K., the highest rank was in the 351-400 bracket. The low grade is due to the presence of only 198 foreign students and infrequent citations of papers from the schools.

     The institutes, which began with basic research as their forte, began promoting practical studies due to India's shift from a planned economy to an open one in 1991. This has helped produce grads who can meet the needs of IT companies, although some critics say opportunities abroad have created a brain drain.

    So the institutes are nurturing a more international and interdisciplinary focus to create new industry within the country. Some 90-95% of the professors at the prestigious universities are alumni, they must have at least three years' experience before they can teach.

     The creation of tech-driven jobs in labor-intensive secondary industries, especially in the manufacturing sector, is a pressing task for India. Some 10 million people are expected to join the domestic labor force every year.

     The popularity of the institutes was triggered by the rapid growth of the IT industry in the U.S. To further enhance their presence, the institutes need to increase exchanges with not only the U.S. but also other countries and come up with world-leading academic achievements.