IIT-Bombay – Building a global alliance, staying nationally focused

In a move to strengthen its global presence, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, will set up a Centre for Urban Science and Progress in New York as part of a global consortium that includes New York University, City University of New York and Carnegie Mellon University in the US, Canada’s University of Toronto and the UK’s University of Warwick.

IIT-Bombay will be the first government-funded institute from India to have a physical presence in an international location after the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) sought bids to develop and operate a new or expanded campus in the city.

The NYCEDC will provide a city land site and access to capital of up to US$100 million for the institution. The six-university consortium was announced as the winning bid late last month.

“When we were invited to participate in the bid we thought collaboration with other universities would be the best way forward. A centre in New York would place us strategically and help us in forging partnerships that would be sustainable,” said electrical engineering professor Subhasis Choudhury, dean of international relations at IIT-Bombay.

But this will not necessarily spearhead international forays by the Indian institutes of technology (IITs) and Indian institutes of management (IIMs).

While the elite institutions have expressed their desire to go global, lack of funds and support from the government mean this is unlikely in the near future.

IIT-Bombay and the New York centre

Key to the involvement of IIT-B was the undertaking that New York University, which led the consortium bid, would set up the centre and bear all costs. IIT-B will not be required to invest financially in the collaboration.

“IIT-Bombay will provide intellectual capital, faculty, students and domain experts to work with partners. We will deliver some of the courses, contribute to research and seed positions on a mobility basis because we do not want to lose faculty permanently,” explained Choudhury.

The consortium will set up the applied science institute to research complex urban issues, working with municipal agencies in partner cities by focusing on actual problems. A similar centre will be set up at IIT-Bombay in Mumbai to study the problems of Indian megacities. Areas of focus include health, sanitation, communication, water, schools and transportation.

The centre will have 50 academic members, an equal number of postdoctoral posts, and 100 to 200 students in the first year. The number of students will rise to 500 to 600 in five years.

But Choudhury does not believe the New York venture is a first step for India’s prestigious IIT brand to go global.

“Our focus is both national and international. There are some problems common to all urban cities, while others will be context-specific. We will establish a parallel centre at IIT-Bombay. If our partners think they can contribute to a project here, they will come to India,” Choudhury said.

Notably, an invitation by the Singapore government to set up an IIT, while agreed upon in principal some years ago, has made no concrete progress since.

A severe shortage of academics and limited sources of funds have been cited as reasons behind IIT and IIM geographical limitations, despite a perceived demand for the high-quality technology and engineering education that they provide.

Staff shortage

According to IIT-Delhi director Professor RK Shevgaonkar, IITs all over the country are short of 2,500 faculty members. Every IIT is short of 30% of faculty.

“The priority today is to give the best faculty to our existing programmes and students. In order to successfully launch an international campus we will require a good faculty pool, infrastructure and funding, and also a local partner,” Samir Barua, director of IIM-Ahmedabad told University World News.

IIM-Ahmedabad had earlier expressed interest in setting up its first overseas campus either in Dubai or Singapore. But Barua said the institute did not want to use its corpus funds to expand globally.

The IIMs in Bangalore and Kolkata gave similar reasons for not venturing outside India. While IIT-Bombay’s winning bid has cheered many in higher education, experts, including at the institutes, also felt that the need of the hour was to cater to national demands for quality higher education.

“The government has opened seven new IITs and five IIMs. The older institutes have the responsibility of hand-holding the newer ones and guiding them. The need is to strengthen the brand name within the country rather than expanding outside,” said a senior government official.

A shortage of faculty was also a reason cited by IIM-Bangalore for shelving a plan to go international.

Lack of funding

A major reason for IIMs and IITs to drop overseas plans is a shortage of funds. As government-funded institutes, they are not allowed to charge market-level tuition fees although the demand for places at these premier institutes is high.

For instance, a five-member committee set up to suggest a roadmap for IITs' autonomy and growth, recommended that IITs increase their fee from Rs50,000 to Rs250,000 (US$919 to US$4,590) a year.

This would make the IITs more self-sufficient, reduce dependence on grants and enable them to create faculty and non-faculty posts on their own, without seeking government clearance.

This proposal was rejected by the government.

While the IIMs have individual corpus funds, they said they have been drawing on them to meet needs on campus. IIMs are now exploring various means of raising funds including tapping into their alumni pool.

International character

Both the IITs and IIMs are well known internationally and have a pool of alumni all over the world. Alumni and teachers feel that the national institutes don’t physically have to go out to build an international reputation.

IIT-Kanpur alumnus Abhay K Bhushan, who has mentored a host of start-up ventures in the US, said it was not easy for IITs to set up campuses abroad.

“The IITs should go international with their ability to attract foreign students and faculty, similar to some top institutes based in Singapore and China, among others. Meanwhile, they should strengthen the newer IITs,” Bhushan said.

According to Choudhury, IITs today are very international in terms of brand, popularity and quality of research output.

“If you look at some of the best universities, they have not opened branches outside their cities to build a reputation,” he pointed out.