CHENNAI, India – In order to reach the various buildings that comprise the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (ITT), you have to catch one of the big yellow buses that periodically comes to transport students, visitors and others from the security checkpoint at the front gate.
From there the bus takes you away from the steady horn-honking, hustle and bustle of the city, and down several kilometers of road that winds through a forest full of banyan, mango and coconut trees on nearly 600 acres of land traversed by monkeys and deer.
Nature seems to serve as both an ideal and idyllic environment to nurse the creativity that engineering students must develop in order to make a meaningful impact on the world. That, administrators say, is the primary mission at ITT, which was launched in 1959 with assistance from the former West Germany.
“Right from the beginning, our objective was to create a pool of engineers who are very competent,” says Professor V. G. Idichandy, an oceanography engineer who currently serves as interim director at ITT. “We wanted to create a pool of engineers to build India.”
As he speaks, Dr. Idichandy—whose career has involved a significant amount of defense contract work that is classified—is seated on a comfy, carved wooden chair with orange upholstery in an air-conditioned office on the second floor of the Administration Building.
A plaque that bears the name of the institute’s half dozen previous directors and the length of their terms hangs on the wall. A stack of education magazines sits on the inlaid shelf of a glass table.
One of the magazines bears a headline that says something about “out-of-the dabba” education. Dabba, as you might have guessed, is a Hindi word that means “box.” Though the headline was referring to something else, it could easily represent what takes place here at IIT, a school that is credited with, among other things, developing Wireless Local Loop technology to bring wireless service to people through conventional land lines, a line of less expensive ATMs constructed out of locally available materials, and a variety of other things that Idichandy says is making a difference in the everyday lives of Indians.
Though attracting faculty that meets IIT’s stringent entry-level requirements, which entail a doctorate and substantial research, is a challenge, research output rivals that of American universities, Idichandy said. He added that professors publish two and a half to three articles each year in a refereed journal, even though IIT only gets a fraction of the level of research funding awarded to its American counterparts. Such are the things, he says, that add up to a quality academic experience.
“This is a place where the best education is imparted,” Idichandy said.
That the “best” education is being imparted here at ITT Madras is not something that seems to be widely disputed, if at all.
India Today recently ranked IIT Madras as the fourth best engineering school in the nation. The other top three engineering schools, also IIT schools, are located in Kanpur, New Delhi, and Kharagpur, respectively, according to the magazine’s rankings.
A July 2011 paper from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) refers to the IIT schools as part of a “group of small elite institutions at the top end of the scale” in higher education that are “internationally renowned for high-quality research and education, especially of post-graduate students.”
Some 60 to 70 percent of IIT Madras graduates land jobs in core engineering or the financial services industry, according to Idichandy. The rest go on to higher studies, often abroad in countries such as Singapore, Germany and the United States.
Though he doesn’t always recollect their names, Idichandy can rattle off several examples of IIT graduates who’ve gone on to serve as executives in major companies, such as India’s global giant, the Mumbai-based Tata Steel.
“Our basic mandate was generating a pool of good engineers,” Idichandy said. “That has been achieved considerably well because, if you look at many of these big companies in India, the top positions are held by someone from IITs.”
A similar account is given in a piece that appeared recently in The Times of India, which related how Indian CEOs are “flourishing globally” like never before.
“When economic reforms began in 1991 Indian managers rarely pierced the glass ceiling of global top management,” says the August piece by magazine publisher Minhaz Merchant. “Twenty years later, that glass ceiling has splintered.”
“Brought up on a tough educational diet at top colleges, IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management), Indian managers find themselves in a cultural-entrepreneurial sweet spot,” the piece adds.
Perhaps more recently, students also see their former peers going on to enjoy success.
At the school’s placement center on campus, for instance, students get the opportunity to interface with companies from around the world.
“We have very good placements every year,” said Prashant, who is pursuing a dual degree (a bachelor’s and master’s tech degree) in aerospace engineering. “We have recruiters coming from the U.S. Facebook has come. We have companies coming from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.”
“Students are getting jobs. We see people getting hired every year. Most of them are fresh graduates on campus,” says the 21-year-old.
Thus, for IIT graduates, who are referred to as “IITians,” indications are that leaving an IIT school to go on to bigger and better things is pretty much guaranteed, almost like it is for, say, graduates of MIT in the United States.
Getting into IIT in the first place, however, is an entirely different thing.
To be sure, just as the IIT campus here is protected by a wall and security officers, admission to the school itself is similarly guarded by a very tight selection process.
Each year, 500,000 students vie to get into one of the 16 IITs nationwide, but there are only 12,000 available seats, and 7,000 of them are here at IIT Madras.
Preparation for the entrance exam often starts in the ninth grade, and some families are said to shell out as much as 100,000 rupees ($2,200) for coaching to prepare for those exams.
IIT, however, does no outreach or pre-coaching to help students gain entry to the school. In fact, administrators frown on exam coaching.
“We don’t do anything,” Idichandy says. “We discourage preparations in the sense we would like people of just raw intelligence to come in.”
Does this quest for “raw intelligence” favor more privileged students over members of what the Indian government refers to as “backward” classes? (In India, the word “backward” is used in the same way that the word “disadvantaged” might be used to describe certain minority groups in the United States.)
Professor Idichandy says there are two ways to ensure that members of India’s “backward” groups can gain access to IIT or other institutions of higher learning: Either through sheer self-determination or reliance on a certain amount of reserved seats for members of “backward” groups, a sort of affirmative action.
“Many parents, even if they are poor, they somehow find this money by taking a loan from the bank,” Idichandy said of the money families pay to get their children prepared for rigorous examinations such as those proffered by IIT.
“The second thing is we have reserved seats for socially backward classes,” Idichandy said. “They have the entrance examination, (but) they are ranked separately. There is quite a bit of priority given to them. Almost 49 percent are for various categories of students from financially backward, socially backward classes.”
IIT also attracts students from abroad. Among them are Florian Woerfel, 25, a German student at Technische Universitat Darmstadt who is spending a second semester at IIT in pursuit of a dual degree in electrical engineering and business administration.
Borne through IIT’s historic relationship with Germany, TU Darmstadt has an ongoing cooperative agreement with IIT.
Woerful says IIT provides a great learning experience that features personal attention from professors and flexibility to put together course schedules that help students pursue their particular interests.
“There is no question about the quality,” Woerfel said. “All of the courses I take here will be accepted (at TU Darmstadt).”
IIT features studies in 16 branches of engineering. Students take mandatory basic courses in welding, carpentry and the like so that they are never far removed from the reality of what it takes to build things.
Students stay in on-campus hostels with courtyards where they engage in sports that range from basketball to cricket.
Students are not allowed to bring cars on campus. The reason is to avoid pollution. And with good reason: IIT not only officially is its own township, but in actuality it has its own ecosystem—one that students say ought to be preserved.
“We just want to be in equilibrium with nature,” said Barannidaran, 21, Students General Secretary, referring to the campus ethos. “We are going to sustain it.”
The large campus provides an abundance of other extracurricular activities.
Though officially banned, a handful of students have been known to climb the coconut trees to get what they have to offer. More common and easier to climb are the campus’s mango trees. But perhaps the tree that really represents what IIT is all about is the banyan tree. One of the most interesting features about the banyan tree is that its branches grow downward and form roots for additional trees.
In many ways, IIT is a banyan tree itself—and its students are the branches.