Interview




About V. Ramgopal Rao

Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao is currently the Director, IIT Delhi. Before joining IIT Delhi as the Director in April 2016, Dr. Rao served as a P. K. Kelkar Chair Professor for Nanotechnology in the Department of Electrical Engineering and as the Chief Investigator for the Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics project at IIT Bombay. Dr. Rao has over 450 research publications in the area of nano-scale devices & Nanoelectronics and is an inventor on 40 patents and patent applications, which include 15 issued US patents. Eleven of his patents have been licensed to industries for commercialization. Prof. Rao is a co-founder of two deep technology startups at IIT Bombay (Nanosniff & Soilsens) which are developing products of relevance to the society. Dr. Rao is a Fellow of IEEE, a Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering, the Indian Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Indian National Science Academy. Prof. Rao's work is recognized with many awards and honors.

"Currently, there is a lot of bias against private institutions when it comes to research funding- the government needs to address this issue at the earliest, and the best way to do it is by distinguishing the good institutions by implementing IoE (Institutes of Eminence) scheme. Once you have that filter, give them more freedom and more autonomy” said V. Ramgopal Rao, Director, IIT Delhi while having a conversation with Rana Jyoti, Associate Editor, India Education Forum.



Question: There are many reports that suggest that only a small fraction of graduates are employable and fit the job market. Where is the system going wrong in producing employable graduates?
If you look at institutes like Shiv Nadar and Ashoka University they are doing well but other private institutions are not at par. The thing is that in our country, the ecosystem for private universities to flourish is minimal; our policies are not in place. Also, in the beginning we made a mistake by allowing anybody to open an institute without conducting a thorough quality check, so today’s problem is the result of yesterday’s mistake. Having said that, in times to come, the bad ones will be out of the league, and only the fittest ones would survive. Infact, I would like to see some of these private institutions compete with IITs, which surely is not happening today.If you look at the western countries like the U.S., you will find that the private institutions do better than the government institutions, it can happen in India too, but with more government support and quality assessment.

For us, it is important to bring in innovative models- Ashoka and Shiv Nadar (A model where individuals come in and put money to start an institution) - these models are good, these models must be promoted, and government support is a must here. In the U.S., there is a model which is used by many private institutions- the 1/3 rule model- in this model 1/3 of the expenditure is met by the philanthropists, 1/3 come from the research projects that the institution undertakes and rest 1/3 from the student fee, India will have to come up with something similar to this. We also need to understand that practically it is not possible for private institutions to stand in the long run, if they don’t have a good ROI. However, involvement of just one corporate is not the answer to a long run success.

Currently, there is a lot of bias against private institutions when it comes to research funding etc- government needs to address this issue at the earliest, and the best way to do it is by distinguishing the good institutions by implementing IoE (Institutes of Eminence) scheme. Once you have that filter, give them more freedom and more autonomy.

The other problem is, these private institutions are looking at IITs as a model, and I believe it is a wrong thing to start with, because if we focus at building institutes like IITs, we won’t be able to build Stanfords and MITs in our country!

Institutions will have to work towards improving their quality- they should hire good quality international faculty- offer them sufficient research funds and industry standard salary- at IIT we have restrictions, if we want to hire a good reputation international faculty, he/she might not take up the job due to government salary parameters, but private institutions don’t have such restrictions, they must invest in good faculty. Otherwise, I doubt their quality would ever improve.

Question: At current, what are the innovative steps taken at IIT Delhi to provide better opportunity and experience to its students, fueling the idea of growth?
There are many innovative schemes that we at IIT Delhi keep launching. We have been known for producing the best graduates, but now our mantra is to produce students would provide employment to others- we aim at creating entrepreneurs! We believe that there are many problems at the ground level that must be solved- so we are trying to churn out “problem solvers”. We have launched many programmes through which we connect our students to the problems in the society, and fund them and support them in solving those problems. For instance, our students work with AIMS doctors closely to understand the technological support that doctors require, what are issues that these doctors face- and once they identify the problem, we encourage them to solve it. In last two years, we have started 100 such projects. Besides, we send our students to villages; we have a programme called- Village Internship Programme, where our students stay in a village for two months with farmers, then understand their problems, once the problem is identified, we support them under our “student startup action plan”. Also, we have internship with industry wherein an alumnus comes in and narrates us a problem, provides us with sufficient fund- our students find solution, in this, we have also introduced Grand Challenge Initiatives.

At IIT Delhi, we get representation from all across the country, so we are coming up with a unique programme through which we will encourage students to solve problems that exist in their hometowns by using IIT resources, contacts etc., this initiative will inspire many more people to contribute towards their birth place. Our students get the liberty to take a break from their academic session to start their company, so we are supporting our students in every possible way!
I am sure in next few years, IIT Delhi will be more visible in the society.

Question:What makes the faculty at IIT Delhi one of the best in the world? Also, how do you inculcate the spirit of lifelong learning in them?
At IIT we have a culture of peer learning and I think that is what makes our faculty so good. Every week we roll out emails mentioning our faculty achievers, accolade holders etc., this inspires other members to do better every day. Our innovative programmes are not limited to our students, we have programmes like FIRE (Faculty Innovation and Research Driven Entrepreneurship) and FIRP (Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Project for our faculty too. Also, our incubation centre gives preference to faculty based startups- there is a screening process and if they are successful-they get fund support and can start their company. FIRP is our initiative that promotes inter-disciplinary collaboration, because we believe that the biggest hindrance in India’s growth is no dialogue between two interdisciplinary faculty members. Problems don’t have any discipline- to find right solution we all will have to work beyond the boundaries of disciplines. Our FIRP scheme has generated 45 crores worth research grant.

At IIT, we pay extra attention at recruiting faculty, we never lower our bar for any reason. You must be aware that we have 300 faculty positions vacant today, and we receive more than 2000 applications every year, but we have very transparent yet strict hiring process- we have different stages involved, and we only hire faculty who meet all the set criteria. Moreover, our system is based on trust and transparency, we do not monitor their timings, we evaluate them basis their efforts, research collaboration, student engagement etc. That is one of the reasons; we have no court cases related to faculty recruitment and management.

For this, we would also like to give credit to the government- there is no government intervention in faculty recruitment and student admission, we have full academic autonomy, and that is very helpful.

I believe IIT has successfully worked on this particular model; I am yet to understand why this part of the model can’t be replicated in other Universities!

Question:Today technical education has come up with courses like AI, Machine learning etc, and they seem to stay, but for students who are still opting for traditional domains, what does their future look like in the next 15 years?
For IIT graduates from any domain it won’t be a problem because at IIT we imbibe the spirit of learning in them, we teach them to be lifelong learners. Our methodology for training is based on encouraging students to become better learners. The pace at which the world is changing, a skill that you acquire today will be outdated in next five years, so the solution here is to make the students better learners. We believe in giving our students all the fundamentals so that they can change as per the needs of tomorrow, at the same pace. Also, we need to start more online programmes- this will help people upskill and learn new skills.
There is a role for IITs to play- so we have decided to reach out to more people, in next few months we will announce major online programmes. We are also revising our model- the new model would focus on making entry points comparatively easier but exit tough, so that we can impart knowledge to more number of people.
Question:Old IITs are the finest institutions in the world, but if we look at third generation IITs, they are not at par with IIT standards. What would be your suggestion for making them more competent and quality rich?
If you look at the last three years of IIT Jammu, it is doing much better than what IIT Delhi did in its first three initial years, so it is a matter of time. If old IITs are Tatas and Birlas, then newer IITs are startups, so we need to observe them for a couple of years and you would find out that they are eventually doing as good as old IITs, even better. The government is doing a very good job, since we have mentored IIT Jammu we know that MHRD is spending something around 1300 crores (every year) for five years at helping them build good infrastructure, get quality faculty etc. I am sure in times to come, newer IITs will do very well. What concerns me is, if old IITs don’t think about coming up with innovative initiatives they might not remain as prestigious as they are today, and chances are newer IITs will beat old IITs. So now government needs to look and find out what are the things that are hampering the growth of old- generation IITs, and the government should also think about offering financial and administrative autonomy to old IITs.

As you mentioned the cutting down of budget for IITs, we have started to look for different financial avenues like alumni connect and we are aggressively seeking other modes of funding! Again, we need the policies in place, we can’t increase our fees by 10 times and generate funds, it is a long term process and requires government attention, so that 10 years down the line we have a robust ecosystem to help institutions flourish.

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