Quality, or nativity? India can’t ask IITs to acquire global repute, then force them to teach in regional languages

A ministry of education task force to implement NEP 2020 is considering engineering undergraduate programmes in Indian languages. Various authors have argued against this move based on the inadequacy of scientific literature and books in Indian languages. This article reflects on the possible impact of such a change in education in IITs.

IITs represent that rare success where public and not private institutions are regarded as the best India has to offer. This is a result of generous government funding, complete academic and administrative autonomy and high quality faculty.

An overwhelming majority of faculty in these institutions has had substantial exposure to global education and/ or research and is expected to teach courses only in their area of expertise. With the need to teach in a language in which the person is neither educated nor conducting research, the impact on quality of education could only be negative.

Success of alumni both within and outside India has contributed significantly to the current brand image of IITs. Apart from high quality education, living and studying with students from across a continent sized country with varied languages, culture, religion, food habits etc has played a major role in building the personality of these graduates.

Illustration: Uday Deb

Breaking perceptions of stereotypes associated with different people contributes significantly towards reaching leadership positions in national and international enterprises. This aspect may not be widely known, but those who have spent many decades in these institutions understand the critical role this plays.

What impact would it have if each IIT, because of such moves, transforms into a regional institution? IITs have always provided their graduates with global opportunities, significantly helped by education in English.

In the first four decades of their existence, brain drain of its undergraduates was a continuous accusation against the IITs. Once opportunities emerged with the Indian economy opening up, the same alumni network has played a key role not only in the growth of the IT sector but also in bringing global R&D companies to India. Without Indian technical education in English, the massive IT sector growth would have been impossible.

What does Atmanirbhar mean for education? India before the 90s liberalisation was clearly Atmanirbhar with all goods in a typical Indian household being “Made in India” – unless one had a cousin working in IFS or Air India. The quality of Indian products was poor and could not withstand global competition when the economy opened up.

The aspiration of India today is different – we want “Made in India” products that are able to compete with the best globally. In line with this, our institutions have to be globally competitive – not only to attract students from around the world but also to retain the best Indian talent.

The “Institution of Eminence” scheme has energised our institutions to think out of the box to take on the very best in the world. With increased affluence, Indian students going abroad for higher education is growing at 18% pa and even to retain the best Indian talent is a challenge. A move to teach in regional languages is not going to help IITs compete either for Indian or global talent.

Interestingly, from a technology viewpoint, this is an inappropriate time to debate the language issue in higher education. By all indications, real time quality language translation would be a “commodity” in five years whereas speech synthesis in different languages is already becoming commonplace.

Even today, text translations in technical subjects where the language is not nuanced are approaching acceptable quality. If India invests in this area, we can remove language barriers and bring people of different regions closer.

On the other hand, NEP 2020 with its emphasis on multi-disciplinarity of institutions, should encourage IITs to enhance their societal connect. This may include setting up of new departments focussing on regional language, local industry etc. Such connects help in innovations which can have an impact much beyond the region.

I am a Tamilian who grew up in a small town in Rajasthan and was schooled in Hindi medium. Perhaps I will never be able to understand the nuances of Shakespeare. But English in higher technical education never posed any challenge.

Being inclusive is important as innovation and technical strengths are not confined to any class. So conducting JEE in all Indian languages and strengthening support systems for students transitioning from schooling in other languages should be an integral part of the curriculum. I strongly support the NEP 2020 recommendations of early school education in the mother tongue where family and surroundings play a key role in learning and cognitive development.

The same doesn’t apply to higher technical education where the clear focus today is to be globally competitive.

In conclusion, India has thrown a huge challenge to the IITs – to become institutions of global repute. They need to focus all their efforts to attract the top talent including Indian students and faculty. Now to offer technical programmes in regional languages would at best be a distraction, and at worst push them back in these efforts significantly.

Views are personal.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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