India’s tech innovation engines must raise their game

Graduates at the Indian Institute of Technology throwing their caps in the air on campus

The Indian Institutes of Technology, such as IIT Delhi (pictured), are world-renowned for the quality of their students and faculty members. But India’s Auditor General has expressed concerns about some of the newest institutions.Credit: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times/Getty

There probably isn’t a country in the world that isn’t looking to build or expand billion-dollar tech corporations. The United States and China dominate the landscape of ‘unicorns’, privately owned technology start-ups valued at US$1 billion or more. But now some of the most rapid development is happening in India.

According to government data, India recorded 44 new billion-dollar technology companies last year, compared with 10 in 2020 and 9 in 2019 (the country has a total of 83 unicorns). Some analysts are predicting that 2022 will see another surge, with new companies in financial, agricultural and educational technology joining new life-sciences companies, games companies and online marketplaces.

A proportion of the founders and staff of these companies are graduates of the swiftly growing and prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). There were 7 of these institutions before 2008; by 2016, the number had more than trebled, to 23. This rapid expansion is the subject of a report by the country’s Auditor General, published at the end of last year. It should make for uncomfortable reading for the eight IITs assessed, which were established in 2008–09.

These IITs are criticized for not meeting targets for research and faculty- and student-recruitment. All have been hit by infrastructure delays, and in some cases students leave after enrolling. This is deeply concerning, not only for the institutions themselves, but for the richly deserved global reputation of the IIT system as a whole. Together, the national and state governments and the IITs must turn things around — and quickly.

India’s emergence as an engine in global technology innovation is entirely expected. For decades, students and staff from the first generation of IITs have excelled at US universities and in Silicon Valley companies, something that has been repeatedly acknowledged as “brand IIT” by business, political and scientific leaders, including former US president Bill Clinton, as well as Amazon and Microsoft founders Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

The founding vision of the first IITs in the early 1950s was to provide education and research in engineering and technology, with an additional emphasis on knowledge and skills in management and humanities subjects. The first IIT, at Kharagpur near Kolkata, opened in 1951, with 210 undergraduate students and 14 postgraduates. In 2021, more than 700,000 applicants competed for 40,000 places across all IITs.

Some graduates will no doubt want to follow in the footsteps of alumni such as Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna. But the overwhelming majority are building and working in companies at home. Although there are no publicly accessible pan-IIT data, Anurag Mehra, a chemical engineer at IIT Bombay in Mumbai, told Nature that “in the early years after the inception of the IITs and almost till the later 1990s, a very large fraction — sometimes as high as 60–70% — used to go abroad. Now the numbers are down to a few per cent.”

Some in India want more of the IITs and their graduates to consider careers outside technology, and to do more to address India’s socio-economic and environmental challenges. But the Auditor General’s report shows that the newer IITs are beset by problems that threaten to limit the quality of their future expansion — and therefore their potential. In 2008, a policy was set to vigorously expand the numbers of IITs; by 2016, a further 16 had been established. The funding for all IITs subsequently rose, from 49.8 billion rupees (US$670 million) in the 2016–17 national budget to 83 billion rupees in the 2017–18 budget.

Last year’s report looked at how eight IITs performed between 2014 and 2019. Some of their areas of research include 5G, mobile sensor network technologies, metal additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, bio-inspired engineering, catalysts, energy and health care. But at four out of the eight, research was taking place without the strategic oversight of the Research and Technology Development Councils that each IIT was supposed to establish. Five of the eight did not set PhD enrolment targets, and the three that did fell short. Five received no patents on any of their inventions or innovations during the audit period, and none attracted significant external funds (such as from businesses). The report also found that in half of the institutions, around one-third of faculty positions were unfilled during the audit period.

In addition, the report says that all of the IITs assessed are experiencing delays to infrastructure, with construction of new buildings delayed in seven of the eight. Perhaps not surprisingly, students have not been coming. Only around one-third of an expected 19,000 students were admitted over the first 6 years of their operation.

Some of the other IITs (not assessed in the report) have taken steps to fund more multidisciplinary research, encourage start-ups and address a long-standing gender gap in recruitment of faculty members. IIT Madras in Chennai, for example, is attempting to raise $2 million for a new endowment fund to increase the proportion of women in assistant-professor roles from 15% to 20%. And last June, IIT Bombay received funding to establish the institute’s first faculty-chair position to be held by a woman. Such practices need to be shared more widely across IITs.

It is true that high-quality universities do not become high-quality institutions overnight. For example, when the Nature Index compiled a list of some of the world’s leading universities under the age of 50, around 70% were at least 20 years old. But youth is not a reason for infrastructure delays, nor for failures in research governance. India’s national and state governments must work with IITs to address the audit report’s concerns quickly. All need to grasp the nettle so that the IITs can continue to provide science and technology leaders for India — and the world.