Dispatch from India: Tyranny of the IIT

Can one institution hold the key to all innovation? Could it be that one very tiny minority is the brain trust of a whole nation, and the font of all knowledge, insight, wisdom, entrepreneurial energy, and superior practices?

If this sounds silly to you, that is what Indians promote and practice. As a culture, we are obsessed to wear the badge of such alma maters as the Indian Institutes of Technology or Indian Institute of Management on our sleeves. Those diplomas have become the yardstick by which we evaluate and weigh a person’s worth, personality, effectiveness, capabilities, capacity to achieve, and integrity.

I should acknowledge that I do not belong to that club — that elite band of super men and women, who have been annointed by the Western media as capable of the most incredible feats. Does it bother me? It used to, but no longer as I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin. It has prompted me, though, to reflect on our middle-class need to identify with and project an exclusive membership.

Until about two decades ago, a quasi-socialist India that preferred to look inward and put its beliefs in the infallibility of the state rather than the ingenuity of the individual, set up a system that dictated that success was assured to those who graduated from elite education institutions.

Nothing wrong with this as opportunities were few, mostly in government, and the few private sector jobs clearly belonged to those who proved themselves by some measure. That measure was graduation, and specifically from the IITs and later the IIMs. Other universities stood out for other classes, but the IITs reigned supreme.

Times have changed. Private enterprise now drives more Indians than the security of a safe, government job. Competition in the market is the order of the day. Organizations now have to innovate constantly to survive and grow. Are the IITs our trojan horse in the quest for leadership? Or is that faith misplaced in the executive suite and the living rooms of our middle-class homes?

I argue the latter. Recent research from academia consistently show no correlation between IQ and success in life. More importantly, it is not clear if IQ correlates to entry into the IITs. I know several brilliant folks who never made it to IIT. In the U.S., where I spent almost two decades, it would be laughable to argue that individual worth directly correlated with graduation from an Ivy League university. Yes, assuredly, they are the top of the heap in academic research. But as anyone who has studied American enterprise would tell you, some of the most significant innovations and business success came from individuals without a college degree, let alone one from Harvard.

In the sphere of Indian entrepreneurship, more new ventures and great ideas in strategy and practice have come from individuals who never saw the insides of an IIT campus. Of all the successful Indian companies, such as Nirma, Reliance, Suzlon, CavinCare, ColorPlus, Subiksha, Nilgiris, MTR, Matrix Labs, Biocon, Air Deccan, Odyssey, Pantaloon, Apollo, Airtel, Landmark, Kotak, can the average person name which is headed by someone from IIT?

I do not mean to belittle the IITs, but to point out that success is defined by hard work, persistence, and a will to achieve. Those qualities are not restricted to the products of elite institutions. As a country, we need to keep that in mind, to let young minds achieve in whatever ways they choose, and not prejudge the issue of intelligence or success. India needs creativity and innovation, and lots of it for wealth creation, regardless of where it may originate.

Jay Srinivasan worked in health care consulting in the U.S. for 15 years before returning to his native India to leverage that experience in India’s booming health care market. He is based in Bangalore and Chennai.

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2 replies »

  1. I’d agree.
    Beyond the lack of correlation between the alma mater and the likelihood of success, and beyond the discrepancy between “inputs” and “outputs”, the issue of creativity and innovation is perhaps the most concerning of all.
    Creativity and innovation (along with hard work and the drive to succeed) is absolutely essential for sustained entrepreneurial success.
    New ideas are easily imitated. Success based on doing the same thing less expensively aren’t sustainable…eventually some degree of equalization occurs.
    The only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to adapt, to innovate, and to take risks.
    I wonder how much these competencies are being emphasized in both the admission processes as well as in the curricula of the IITs…and yes, these are competencies that are not just the domain of prestigious institutions.

  2. The author raises a valid point. A vast majority of Indian engineers graduate from non-IITs. So the archetypal notion of the successful Indian engineer in industry and academia owes in large measure to the non-IIT engineers.
    The IITs themselves rank at the top of some merit lists because of their very low acceptance rate owing to the large number of students who take the IIT entrance tests without preparation, just to “experience” the test. If there was a pre-screening test, this acceptance rate would be much higher.
    Though the IITs rank at the top because of “input” indices such as acceptance rate, “output” measures such as the quality of instruction and faculty research output are inadequate and lag far behind those of even the most mediocre among the US institutions. Unless this situation changes, the comparison of the IITs to the best of the US universities is meaningless.(Disclosure: I graduated from IIT Kanpur in 1991)