IIT-Bombay broke into the top 150 universities in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2024, the only Indian institution to make it to the list, eight years after the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) made it. The rankings, released late on Tuesday, highlight how the institute rose up the ranks within just a year of being ranked 177th globally to 149th in the latest edition.

For IIT-Bombay Director Prof Subhasis Chaudhuri, making it to top 150 in the global rankings is a good feat, but he believes that any good academic institution must not worry over rankings and should rather keep up with doing “work that creates an impact”.

According to the rankings report, from 2018 to 2022, IIT-Bombay generated 1,43,800 citations from 15,905 academic papers, registering a research growth of approximately 17%. The institute’s research quality is further demonstrated by the fact that 30% of its output is published in the top 10% academic journals by impact. This figure surpasses the global average by 6% and is a staggering 15% higher than the average among Indian institutions.

In an interview with News18, Prof Chaudhuri talked about how students and faculty used the time during the pandemic to file record patents and publish papers and how the “core of engineering is changing with time”. He said students should be left free to pursue their dreams and should not be “over-specialisng” at undergraduate level.

He also touched upon the challenges involved in hiring foreign faculty from advanced economies, the need to invest more in resources to produce good quality research and how the pandemic caused a “discontinuity” in the system leading to mental health issues among students and what is being done to fix the flow.

Edited excerpts

IIT-Bombay broke into the top 150 universities, rising 28 points from last year, in the QS World University Rankings 2024. It is the only Indian institution to do so eight years after the IISc made it. What do you think gave IIT-B an edge over others?

The rankings came after the end of the Covid-19 pandemic when many of the schools across the world faced difficult times, including us. But thanks to the strong support of our staff and faculty members, we could very quickly launch into online education. We opened up fast and because of that, if you look back at the performance of many of the universities all over the world, we could strictly maintain our academic calendar.

Secondly, during this time, at many places, the labs were closed. We opened it up first for PhD students and then for Masters students. Since everything else outside was shut, they used this time to file patents and write papers. This is the time when the institute filed lot more patents than ever before. Similarly, our faculty, along with students, published a lot more papers than before and many of these were in the top journals.

So, it adds up in terms of quantifying performance, which is what these ranking agencies do, either in terms of quality of publication or the number of citations. Hence, this proposition that IIT-B is a good research institution goes up. This is what I think really helped.

How important are international rankings for Indian higher education institutions? Is there a conscious effort to make it to the top 200?

Frankly, I believe that any good institution should not worry about ranking, because ranking agencies measure only parameters they want to measure. Some of the yardsticks may be completely meaningless for us. This is one way. But what is import for any good university or academic institution is that they should keep on doing what they should be doing and do it well to an extent that it makes an impact whether its research, entrepreneurship or just purely teaching. This is the principle.

Now, while doing it, if you get a good score in the ranking, that’s great. But even if not and you continue to do the good work, then too one can be happy. But, ranking is not the goal by itself, it should never be.

India lags behind in several indicators, including international faculty ratio, international student ratio and international research network in the QS rankings. Are these important concerns?

About the first two indicators… In the Indian context, this exercise is completely meaningless. Through these parameters, what they want to measure is diversity in your institution. The way these ranking agencies measure it is just looking at the colour of your passport. We have more diversity than say Europe or anywhere else.

Now, about foreign faculty; what one should be looking at is academic diversity, not passport diversity. The US has people coming from all over the world and has a number of those teaching from say China or India and many other countries. In India, at IIT-B, of the 700-odd faculty, we pan across the country, we have people from Arunachal, Kerala, Gujarat, and Kashmir, among others. We have regional, cultural and linguistic diversity, so what other diversity do you want.

Is there an effort being made to hire foreign faculty?

We do get applications for lecturers from different places and we ensure that we get them. But, in terms of faculty from western countries or other advanced countries, say Japan, where there is large disparity in terms of income when compared to India, we need to look at the challenges involved and the practicality of the situation.

Why would someone from a western country spend their time in India, which means they would live and retire here, but at the end of their career they would go back to their country, as they are not getting citizenship here to settle down. Also, with the savings made here, they cannot go back and have a comfortable life, so it’s not financially viable for them to stay back here.

But, of course, there could be people from other countries, who would be interested in coming because of the financial level being more equal in India, for example, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or those with similar economic stature.

Even the national rankings report released earlier this month highlighted that good research in India is limited only to a top few institutions and is not expanding at the pace it should. What do you think is the reason behind it?

Technology is moving fast and we do need to keep pace with it. Today’s research requires a lot of sophisticated equipment which comes at a high cost. Now, institutes like IITs, IISc and many others do get government support in terms of funding, but not all are able to get that kind of support.

One can produce good research that can compete internationally only when they have the requisite resources. So, naturally, you see good quality research is restricted to a handful institutions, which is not just IITs but many others where excellent research is going on, but the number of overall institutions getting into it is less for many such reasons.

Now, if you compare, what is the budget of any IIT with that of an international institution, say MIT, which has been the top-ranking institution globally. Their budget is around $4 billion, while that of any IIT is just around $150 million or even less. So, good research is not cheap. We need to invest in it — time, money, infrastructure and people.

Many IITs have recently launched full-fledged B.Tech course in AI along with other emerging technologies. Is IIT-B also headed in this direction? Also, while most engineering students are drawn to Computer Science and now AI, fewer are opting for core disciplines. Is that a concern?

I believe that at the undergraduate level, we should not be over-specialising. What we need to develop at this stage is core competence, which can take you to whichever direction you want because when you are so young, you may not understand what exactly AI or data science entails. So you should go for fundamentals and many of these things evolve.

For example, what is computer science engineering today didn’t exist the same way many years ago. It evolved and was standardised over time. It’s better to make a base of fundamentals first and may be one can do a minor in data science or a Masters to know which part of it one would want to go further into. So I would wait for two more years at least to see how it’s evolving.

It has happened earlier when many people jumped to IT, even we started a course in it and then eventually we had to close it. One has to get the fundamentals right.

Now, to the second part of the question. What is core or what is engineering for that matter? It means applying knowledge of science to make life better. Now, if we look purely at mechanical engineering, we look at internal combustion engine, which is actually the core of any petrol or diesel engine. But now we have electrical vehicles (EV), which is no more a part of mechanical engineering. So things change, and the concept of core also is changing.

Engineering is becoming more interdisciplinary, so you need to have people who have a strong foundation, who can learn laterally from other areas. If you go to any petrol refinery today, it’s all automated. Or look at the semiconductor industry, so much of automation is happening there. So this requires a different kind of skill-set, which is often misunderstood as not being a core area, which is not right.

And finally, our job is to ensure that students have good foundation and analytical skills, after which what they pursue is completely their choice. Every student who enters IIT has a dream, and our job is to put proper fuel to drive their dream engine and then where they want to fly is their choice or else we will be killing innovation. We have to provide them the opportunity to experiment and in the process they create a lot of new jobs, create wealth for the nation. So we cannot put people in a box and tell them to do a certain thing, we need to let them make a choice.

Post-pandemic, there has been a spate of student suicides across IITs and mental health issues on the fore. Are we equipped to prevent and deal with this?

We have been analysing the reasons for the same. So what happens is when you have a system working, like a pipeline, when it has a flow, everything is smooth. But if for any reason, the flow stops, it gets stuck and we have to restart the process. The same way the pandemic broke the flow of continuity and created a disconnect. Students stayed home for two years just studying online. So the continuum of journey for the first years, the exercise when they come here and get used to the environment and get slowly adjusted to it did not occur.

Before Covid, such issues did happen occasionally, but it was not so much. The pandemic created a discontinuity in the system and even when they finally came on campus, there was a disconnect because of not having those interactions or top-down mentorship, which led to some of the students not being able to cope with the new environment and the demand of the IIT system.

So, we have jacked up all our resources to create a system where we can identify when a student needs help that its provided in time. We hope that this system will work in handling this discontinuity and gradually it will improve in addressing these concerns.


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