How IIT Madras beat all the odds to become India’s top engineering college

Getting the basics right.
Getting the basics right.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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The Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M), the country’s best engineering school, according to the government of India, hasn’t had it easy. Not by a mile.

The engineering college, which topped this year’s National Institutional Rankings Framework (NIRF) of India’s human resource development (HRD) ministry, has received much bad press for issues as varied as its canteen food and purported caste bias on campus to alleged subversive activities by students.

Yet, IIT-M has managed to get its “basics right,” observers say. While the NIRF ranking considers a gamut of factors, academic and research categories hold the maximum weightage, they say.

“What should an engineering institute do—I think they’ve got that right. Rather than doing fancy stuff, they keep it simple so it is easy to achieve,” Narayanan Ramaswamy, a partner and head of the education practice at consultancy firm KPMG in India, told Quartz.

Why IIT-M?

It is the third time in a row that IIT-M has been ranked India’s No.1 in the engineering colleges category, ahead of its older peers such as IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur. It is also No.2 in the overall ranking of institutes of higher learning.

The HRD ministry’s parameters for the NIRF ranking, instituted in 2015, include teaching, learning and resources, research and professional practice, graduation outcomes, outreach and inclusiveness, and perception. “We have improved our performance on most parameters, and quite significantly, too, on some key ones,” Bhaskar Ramamurthi, the director of IIT-M, said in a press statement on April 04.

For instance, the institute received the best job offers among India’s top engineering colleges during the December 2017 placement season, with pay packages reportedly touching Rs1.4 crore per annum. In the same period, students also received job offers from global firms like Apple and Nasdaq for the first time. It surpassed even IIT Bombay, which usually bests the placement criterion.

And all this, experts say, is because IIT-M has a solid academic and research foundation.

In 2016, IIT-M filed more patent applications than all the other IITs. It operates India’s first and biggest research park, supporting industry-academia collaboration, and a startup incubation cell that has churned out over 140 firms since 2006.

“They (IIT-M) have ensured that the pedagogy (is strong)…also, the student mix they get, the kind of faculty and facilities…show that they’re serious. Some of the research that happens here is giving output in terms of IP (intellectual property),” said Ramaswamy of KPMG.

The institute has also drawn up a roadmap to improve its performance: Its “IIT Madras Strategic Plan” spells out quantified targets like increasing faculty strength, student exchanges with global universities, and high placements, said the institute’s press statement.

But what’s most remarkable is that all these strides have been taken against strong headwinds.

Getting off the rough road

IIT-M has perhaps been the most controversial of all IITs, constantly battling an image problem.

Curiously, the college canteen has been the centre of several rows at least since 2013 when some 800 students protested against the quality of food served there. After the Narendra Modi government took power at the centre in 2014, another debate broke out following reports that the HRD ministry under Smriti Irani may have suggested setting up separate eating spaces for vegetarians and non-vegetarian students. The spotlight fell yet again on the facility in mid-2017 following a brawl over beef-eating.

While food may seem to be the issue in all these cases, some observers read a caste and religious subtext.

In any case, allegations of entrenched caste bias isn’t new to IIT-M, with other rows, too, being attributed to it.

For instance, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student body professing allegiance to the anti-Brahmin icons Bhimrao Ambedkar and Periyar EV Ramaswmi Naicker, was derecognised in mid-2015 for allegedly instigating students against the Modi government. Following an uproar, this move was reversed within days. APSC sympathisers often refer to IIT as “Iyer Iyengar Technology“—Iyer and Iyengar being the Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state in which the institute is located. The mostly vegetarian Brahmins form the upper crust of the caste hierarchy in traditional Hindu society.

“Not only students, the composition of the faculty at IIT-Madras is also overwhelmingly upper caste with 464 professors drawn from the ‘general category,’ 59 other backward castes, 11 scheduled castes (Dalits, formerly deemed untouchable), and two scheduled tribes,” Open Magazine reported in June 2015.

Another issue that IIT-M—like other top institutes in the country—has faced is student suicide. There had reportedly been some 14 cases at IIT-M between 1981 and 2016. The reasons for these incidents are many, including academic pressure.

IIT-M isn’t immune to the larger politics of Tamil Nadu either. The state, part of the Dravidian linguistic region of southern India, has for decades resisted any hints of dilution of its identity. So, a row erupted in February this year when students opened an event with a Sanskrit prayer instead of the Tamil Nadu state anthem. Sanskrit is dubbed by many proponents of the Dravidian identity as a “north Indian” or Brahminical language as opposed to the native Tamil.

Nevertheless, the institute has not let up on academic excellence through all this.

“At the end of the day, why do you go to IIT Madras? Do you go there for the ambience? Do you go there for the culture that is set there? Do you go there for the facilities? It is a combination of all but what matters is the result that you get out of it,” Ramaswamy said.