BITS Pilani Vice Chancellor V Ramgopal Rao: We need greater, better sources of revenue in academia

Ritu Jha–

Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao, the vice chancellor at the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) Pilani, was a keynote speaker at the BITSync 23 conference held June 10 in Palo Alto, California. While speaking to indica on the sidelines of the event, Dr Rao shared issues that premier Indian institutes like BITS Pilani face, its research challenges, and discussed the means to mitigate these problems.

BITS has campuses located in Pilani, Hyderabad, Goa, Mumbai and Dubai.

“We thought BITSync 23 is a good opportunity to meet with a large number of alumni. Next, we will visit multiple cities in the US and connect with the local alumni there. It’s more like fundraising for activities in BITS by engaging with alumni, telling them about our new activities that we are planning to take up in the BITS,” said Rao, who joined BITS three months ago.

Prior to joining the BITS Group in 2023, Prof. Rao served as the Director of IIT Delhi for 6 years from 2016-2021, and is a co-founder of two deep technology startups at IIT Bombay (Nanosniff & Soilsens) which have successful commercial products in the market.

Asked why the number of Indian students heading abroad for higher studies Rao said agrees but says not from IITs.

Surprisingly, our data shows that less than 5 percent of students from IIT Delhi are actually headed for the US. That number used to be 80% 20 years ago. There is a drastic fall in the number of students of IITs coming to these countries. Now, more IITians are into entrepreneurship ventures, startups, and all the unicorns that you see in India. Two-thirds of the unicorns in India have IIT alumni.”

But, while IIT students are not many are coming to the US anymore, some other colleges located in tier two, and three cities are headed for the US for higher studies. “I think the problem is in India the gross enrolment ratio is still pretty low. It is about 27% right now. And there are not enough seats for all Indian students if they wish to pursue higher education. We haven’t scaled up adequately and the competition is still very high.”

“Even for the master’s degrees, it’s still like one in 100 students get admission. So where will the remaining 99 people go? With not many good colleges available in India, the gap is huge – unlike in the US. In the US of course we have this Ivy League kind of schools. But even if you go to the next best school in the US, it’s still as good as the Ivy League. You know maybe the nature of the research they conduct may be different. But the quality of education is still as good as the Ivy League. But as in India, you cannot say the same thing.”

Rao believes that that’s one of the reasons good students are not able to find a place in a higher educational institute like IITs. “When they cannot get admission in the IITs, the students don’t want to go to other colleges and tend to apply for institutes in the US. With the income levels going up now, more middle-class parents can send their children abroad for higher education,” the professor said.

Prof. Rao said that the one thing missing in India is endowments for academic institutes. “Public-funded institutions receive grants from the government. That’s one way to run the institutions. But in the private space right for example if you look at Stanford University in the US, they have multiple sources of revenue, and tuition fee is just one of them. Tuition fees maybe 25-30% but they have endowments right. The giving back culture is so strong in these countries that all these schools are able to get the endowment.”

Rao pointed out that US universities also earn money by doing research. “Universities earn money by collaborating with industries. There are also philanthropic components which the universities benefit from. And there is the tuition fee too. In India, other than tuition fees, all the other models of getting endowments are missing. The giving-back culture is also not so well established. Thanks to the government of India policies and the no inheritance tax like what people have here, people tend to pass on their wealth to their children rather than giving it away during their lifetime. As a result, the philanthropy aspect hasn’t picked up all that much. We used to be much more philanthropic before independence but after independence, I think that component has come down now and everybody is trying to keep as much as possible with them and pass it on to children.”

Research doesn’t pay in India. Rao explained said “Even if we do $50 million worth of research every year, the money goes towards the execution of research projects. But there is no overhead component to the research which comes to the university.”

The fee contribution to an IIT’s revenue is just 6 percent and they don’t have to rely on the fee at all. In a private university, the fee is 70 percent of the total revenue. The fee in private institutes has to be high to offset the lack of government grants which IITs get. So in BITS the problem right now is we are on par with IITs when it comes to quality of education and research. But we don’t have government grants. So the fee is pinching the students a little bit. To rectify that we are looking to diversify and build that culture of giving back, and start an endowment fund, involve alumni in the governance structure of the institution, and take their advice.”

Delving deeper into the financial shortcomings of India’s education system, Rao said: “There are multiple avenues to collaborate with industries but there is no funding available for any such collaboration. We still need to raise our own money for such collaboration. The government says that we should collaborate but then there is no funding to back it up.”

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