Rise of new IITs: Indore throws freshers into the deep end with research

One distinctive feature of the Indian Institute of Technology-Indore (IIT-Indore) is that it has delinked research from post-graduation. Instead, it prepares under-graduates to plunge into in-depth, applied research very early on in almost all the semesters and even more intensively — making it almost mandatory —  towards the end of their course. 

This emphasis has been incorporated into the very ethos of the institute through a scheme called the Promotion of Research and Innovation Among Undergraduate Students.

"When IITs induct students through the rigorous JEE test, we get the top two per cent of the country's talent. Yet, typically, institutes in India have not fully utilised the research potential of undergraduate students and that is what we are doing. We engage our undergraduate students in research without compromising on their conventional theory courses," said IIT-Indore Director Pradeep Mathur.

In a year where no Indian institute was ranked in the top 200, the second generation IIT Indore made its debut last month in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019 in the 351-400 band. What's more, the institute was the top ranked among all IITs, ranking second only to the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and outperforming older peers such as IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay, and IIT Madras. What accounted for this position was its 86.5 score in research citations. The only other Indian institute to come close was the Mysore-based JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research with a score of 80.8.The scale and quality of research has been helped by the fact that almost all faculty members have at least one international collaboration. IIT- Indore has been so good at foreign tie-ups that people in the government have noticed. It has been appointed by the government to be the nodal body for all universities on coordinating collaboration between India and France. "Additionally, we are recognised as the core leader of collaborations between IITs and TU9 - an alliance of leading institutes of technology in Germany. We also have active involvements with institutes in the US, Canada, Russia, Finland, and Singapore. We want to further increase our pace of engagement with foreign universities," said Mathur.

The bulk of the IIT-Indore faculty has been trained abroad. "We do our faculty recruitment rigorously through several rounds of interviews and don't depend on newspaper advertisement responses,” said Mathur. “Rather, we go out all over the world scouting for best people. So much so that 80 per cent of our faculty are foreign trained and the percentage is increasing.”  

He pointed out that the IIT-Indore management prizes diversity of all kinds – in the faculty as well as the student body – and actively tries to promote it. Mathur is gradually building a pool of international faculty to boost diversity on the campus. 

"We didn't have clear cut rules under which we could take in international faculty. Now the picture is getting clearer. From this year onwards, not just us but all the IITs have gained clarity on this and now we can induct international faculty,” he said. 

Gender diversity is being encouraged. The current academic session has 41 female students enrolled, up from 17 the previous year. In terms of diverse nationalities, there are currently only two foreign students enrolled at the institute although up to 20 foreign students come every year for short-term courses. Mathur plans to increase the intake of international students to 5-10 per cent by 2020. Funding is a problem that Mathur has to grapple with constantly. Research depends on it yet the competition for whatever meagre funds are available is intense. So far, IIT-Indore has relied on government grants to equip its laboratories with the latest technology. "Things are a bit difficult,” admitted Mathur. “We have to focus a bit more on getting funding from non-governmental agencies which is a challenge. We will be writing to external research agencies.” 

However, he added that the cash crunch would not make the institute slow down its research. "We must continue with research, shun mediocrity and actively pursue excellence. 

And the rankings will follow."Without a plan, such words can seem little more than wishful thinking. But IIT-Indore has set itself a specific target: to feature among the top 200 in global rankings such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. And not in some vague future. “In the next two to three years,” said Mathur.

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