The value of higher education

I am just back from a trip to IIT Kharagpur, the institute where I got my engineering degree 34 years ago. With its 2100 acre tree-filled campus, 40+ departments, 15000 students and 800 faculty members, IIT Kharagpur is the largest IIT in India. Like everyone who passes through residential colleges, the time I spent on campus getting my degree was one of the best times of my life. I gathered many unforgettable memories and some close friends. Given this background, I would like to talk about why I felt a little unsettled by my trip.

The institute’s 72nd foundation day celebations were going on and there were many special guests and alumni on campus. We were all taken care of really well and the institute’s hospitality was regal. I felt deeply grateful for this and for the chance to walk around in the beautiful campus. The unsettling feeling came on when I saw the flood of boys and girls cycling to and from their classes, and I suddenly felt that most of them were just barely tolerating being there, were looking at the institute as an uncomfortable but necessary interlude on their way to the larger world outside. A professor told me that the situation was unique because of the Covid lockdown, even the fourth year students were like freshers, and whatever campus culture existed before Covid was probably irrecoverably lost.

I also sat through the foundation day function and heard the dignitaries talk about the great work done at IIT Kharagpur and about its aspiration to be among the top 10 colleges of the world. I found all this a little difficult to process. Consider the following:

a. The path to become a top institute. (spending lots of money, diversification, famous alumni etc.)
b. Students wanting a high paying job to live the ‘good’ life.
c. The main institute building in a large lighted sign saying ‘Dedicated to the service of the nation’. And the institute website saying the ‘Vision’ is ‘To improve the life of every citizen of the country’.

I felt that it is time to ask some basic questions about the value that the IITs bring to the people of our nation and the investment that these people have to make to get that value. Like I said, I felt a little unsettled by my trip.

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