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IIT Madras: On a rocket and a hyperloop to academic excellence

IIT Madras: On a rocket and a hyperloop to academic excellence

IIT Madras is trying to democratise IIT education, will open a campus in Tanzania, has consistently been ranked higher than all other IITs, and is doing research on rockets and hyperloop: Prof V Kamakoti, director, IIT Madras.

In November 2022, two major space activities happened-Skyroot Aerospace launched India’s first private rocket, and AgniKul Cosmos successfully tested a 3D-printed rocket engine. Both have an IIT Madras connection.

Naga Bharath Daka, the co-founder of Skyroot, is an IIT Madras alumnus. And AgniKul Cosmos is based in the National Centre for Combustion Research and Development, IIT Madras.

In addition, at the IIT Madras Discovery Campus (near Thaiyur, Tamil Nadu), half a kilometre of hyperloop-a high-speed transportation system-is being set up. The institute appears to be riding a rocket and a hyperloop to academic excellence.

NIRF and global rankings

In the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF), IIT Madras has consistently been ranked higher than all other IITs, but in some global rankings such as the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), it isn’t at the top in India.

“There are 5-6 aspects on which educational institutions are judged by ranking bodies, and in some global rankings, ‘perception’ has a high weightage of about 40%,” Prof V Kamakoti, director, IIT Madras, told FE. “We aren’t sure how that ‘perception’ component is calculated, and possibly that’s why there is this ranking difference. In all other aspects, such as graduate outcome or industry connect or research, I believe all top IITs are more or less equal.”

Three years ago, some IITs, including IIT Delhi and IIT Madras, decided not to take part in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, and the ‘perception’ component was one area where they did not agree with the THE. “All of us are committed to the NIRF, not because we see it as a replacement to THE, but because it has a fair mechanism and it lets us know in which all areas we can improve,” Prof Kamakoti said. “We are not running behind numbers or the highest ranks, but we do keep an eye on these numbers because they give us pointed insights on the areas of improvement.”

There is a valid reason top educational institutions don’t run after rankings. “Every ranking takes a month or two of our time. If we have to be part of every ranking, we might need a dean of rankings,” he said. “One national ranking (NIRF) and one international ranking (QS) is enough for us. One national feedback and one international feedback is enough.”

But in addition to topping NIRF engineering rankings, where IIT Madras has fared better than even the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, it has also consistently topped the overall university ranking (faring better than all institutes in India). Prof Kamakoti said IIT Madras is doing exceptionally well in certain components such as graduation outcomes, industry connect and research, and that’s the reason it has been ranked higher than all other universities in India.

Global expansion

IITs plan to physically expand to foreign countries. For instance, IIT Delhi will open a campus in Abu Dhabi, and IIT Madras plans to open a campus in Tanzania. Prof Kamakoti said it serves the same purpose as it served Germany when it set up IIT Madras in 1959. “If IITs are going to other countries, the aim is to do something great for those countries, by teaching them the best of engineering and science,” he said. “It won’t be called IIT Madras Tanzania campus, but IIT Tanzania. While right now the initiative is in the discussion phase, we aim to start by next year. It should be viewed as our contribution to global educational excellence.”

Teaching in regional languages

The government is pushing for teaching sciences in regional languages, and some engineering and medical colleges have even started the same. Prof Kamakoti said learning in mother tongue is beneficial, even though science has developed in English. A start can be made by teaching in modern lingo, i.e. a mix of English and mother tongue. “If you ask me to teach engineering in Tamil, I will likely mix Tamil and English to teach,” he said. “Students are not learning literature here, they are learning engineering, and dissemination of knowledge should be in the tone they understand.”

Democratising IIT education

Not all students can go to IITs, but IITs can come to students. IIT Madras, for instance, has started the world’s first online BSc Degree in Programming and Data Science, which one can get enrolled in without clearing tough exams such as GATE or JEE. It also has a scheme called Democratising Education in Science Initiative (DESI), under which free online education in biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics is provided to students of classes 9-12.

He added that the aim is to tap rural intelligence of India, which is phenomenal. “We have amazing intelligence in villages, and if we can teach in the languages they can understand, we can tap them to the nation’s and to their own advantage,” he said.

Management and technology

According to the NIRF, management schools at IITs are getting better by the year, and some (like the Department of Management Studies at IIT Delhi) have even performed better than IIM Kozhikode and IIM Lucknow. This year, the DMS at IIT Delhi was the fourth best management school in India after IIMs A, B and C (Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta).

“Today, there is a thin line between management and technology,” he said. “Managers who are good in technology are increasingly valued by the industry.”

Rocket and hyperloop

Coming back to the rocket and the hyperloop, Prof Kamakoti said 3D printing of rocket engines can revolutionise rocketry. “The engine can be made in 72 hours,” he said. “We need to send a lot of satellites, small and large, in the space for futuristic communications. With 3D printing, you can make a rocket engine as needed.”

The hyperloop being set up at the Discovery Campus will conduct international competitions, and the Indian Railways has committed Rs 8.5 crore for it.

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