The International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore - popularly known as IIIT-B - isn't just one of the thousand-odd colleges dotting the Indian technical education landscape. In its ten years of existence, the institute has graduated 1,000 M Tech students (another 130 will graduate in July this year) - a record unparalleled in the country. But Director S Sadagopan is quick to point out that IIIT-B's laurels don't rest only on these numbers. "Our programmes are of high quality and have consistently been bracketed with the premier institutes in the country," he notes. Last year, the National Science Foundation (US federal agency supporting research and education in the field of science and engineering) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology selected IIIT-B as one of the eight institutes where students could spend a year as part of their Ph.D programme. The two other institutes selected in Bangalore were the prestigious Indian Institute of Science and the National Centre for Biological Sciences. A justifiably proud Sadagopan says, "To be bracketed with the 100-year old IISc and 50-year-old NCBS is very encouraging for a ten-year-old institution like ours." IIIT-B (and the other IIITs that followed thereafter) was conceived during the height of the technology boom in the late 1990s. The idea was to create a talent pool that could transform Indian IT from a low-cost software maintenance player to higher-value complex work, including product development. To ensure the talent thus created wouldn't end up just writing lines of code cheaper and faster but would be part of an eco-system creating tomorrow's innovations, it was considered necessary to focus on graduate programmes which would arm students with design, research and product development capabilities. It wasn't as if there was a dearth of engineering institutes in the country - but all of them put together did not produce more than 50 Ph Ds in a year compared to 3,000 in the US. Apart from specialisation, it was also thought necessary to ensure that the talent nurtured in these IIITs should be in sync with industry needs and requirements. A public-private partnership model was mooted for this purpose. In 1999, when IIIT-B was set up the role of the state government was restricted to the seed capital of Rs 10 crore and land. The running of the institute was left to academia in collboration with industry. "Of the 15 board members on IIIT-B's governing body, the state government has one member as does the Union government. The balance is made up of represetatives from industry (Infosys, HP, Microsoft, Intel, ICICI Bank, etc.) and academia (University of California, MIT, Stanford, IIM-Bangalore, etc.)," says Sadagopan. The other way IIIT-B forged industry links was by allowing them to set up research labs within the institute. Almost all the seven labs at the instittue have been funded by industry - like the Nokia-sponsored mobile computing lab, HP-sponored multimedia sub-systems lab, Honeywell-sponsored automation lab, Intel-sponsored community PC lab, etc. In addtion, instead of taking a 'blue-sky approach' to research IIIT-B works in close collaboration with R&D outfits of IT firms on research ideas and projects. "We have limited resources - there are 20 faculty members and 300 students we cannot spead ourselves too thin. Besides, on our own we can do only theoretical research," says Sadagopan. Although IIIT-B works closely with industry, Sadagopan and his team have ensured that the institute doesn't not end up looking like a training unit of a corporate. Also sticking true to its original objective, IIIT-B offers only graduate programmes like MTech, MS and Ph D - it does not offer any under-graduate course. "Graduate programmes, unlike under-graduate courses, isn't lucrative and this is why many technical institutes shy away from higher education. Our objective is different sure we need funds - we don't get any government grants - but that's not our raison d'etre, " says Sadagopan. MTech is the flagship programme and consists of four semesters, of which the first three comprise academic course work. In the fourth semester students either take up industry internship or opt for research work at one of the seven labs at the institute leading to a thesis. Prior to the first semester, all students have to go through a 'preparatory semester', a three-week programme covering introductory programming, mathematics & statistics and introduction to systems analysis and design. The idea, says faculty member S Rajagopalan, is to ensure that everyone is at the same level by the time the core courses commence. "Most of our students come from Tier II colleges and, hence, have varying degrees of knowledge," he offers by way of an explanation. The first year comprises core courses that include algorithms, databases, operating systems, software engneering, networking and communication, advanced programming, etc. In the second year, students can opt for electives - i.e. their area of specialization. Rajagopalan says the most sought after electives are embedded systems, database & information systems and computer science. The MTech programme also includes a nine-week session (between the second and third semester) in non-technical areas like accounting & finance, marketing, strategising and verbal communication. "These skills come in handy when people move up the career path and don managerial roles or turn entrepreneurs," notes Rajagopalan. The course fee, at Rs. 50,000 per semester, is a tad expensive but the lack of any government grant makes freebies impossible. There are 25-30 industry-sponsored scholarships for meritorious students though. About 80 per cent of IIIT-B's funds come from student fees and research grants. "Of all the IIITs we got the least amount of government funding but today our corpus is the biggest," boasts Sadagopan. A consistent 100% placement record and the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research work have seen a flood of applications flowing into IIIT-B each year for its MTech programme. Rajagopalan says the institute received 2,000 applications for 150 seats last year. No mean achievement considering a first-class bachelor's degree in engineering is the minimum qualification to apply. Selection is through an online exam which tests problem-solving skills and analytical capabilities as well as a personal interview that comprise a 5 minute talk on a technical subject of the candidate's choice.Engineering streams like electronics, electrical, computer science account for about 80 % of the 150-strong MTech batch. IIIT-B's students typically come from tier-II engineering institutes. Says Rajagopalan, "Students from premier institutes prefer going abroad for further studies. Those who stay in India usually like to continue in their own institute." Until this year, IIIT-B had an impeccable record in placements. 70% of MTech students get placed during their industry internship, while the balance find employment by convocation day (the second Sunday of July). Recruiters include IT product companies, semiconductor firms, R&D centres of IT services firms and start-ups. This year the situation is different - although official numbers are yet to come in, sources say only half the batch has been placed so far. While some companies have officially said they won't recruit, large recruiters have scaled back numbers. Unlike MTech which is largely instructional in nature, the MS programme is essentially research-focussed. The first semester alone comprises academic work - the second, third and fourth semesters are devoted to research work in a particular area under the guidance of a faculty member. If the institute is convinced the research work is valuable and of high-calibre, they can upgrade the MS programme into a PhD programme. On an average, IIIT-B admits 20 students into its MS programme every year and almost all of them are working professionals. IIIT-B also houses an unique innovation centre. The institute proudly claims having incubated five companies in the last ten years with mixed success. One (online tutoring firm Tutorvista) has scaled up well and is considered a big success, another one failed to live beyond the prototype stage. Three other incubated firms have seen but moderate success - they haven't scaled up as expected but are attracting sufficient attention. This is encouraging indeed! The institute has recently also launched a six month refresher course called 'Yogyata' for engineering students from smaller towns and cities. This course aims to enhance the skills of engineering students and help them become employment ready. IIIT-B is amongst the few of its peers to have attracted the kind of attention it has. Apart from getting big names on its governing board, it's the locational advantage that's playing to the institute's advantage. Being based in Bangalore means close proximity to the IT capital of India. But more important, this is helping IIIT-B attract an enviable faculty that is difficult to replicate. And as we all know, a student is only as good as his teacher!
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