By Shalini S. Sharma
Alumni networks can be a potent force for any institution. Unfortunately, in India, institutions are yet to wake up to their potential in a big way. The ivy league institutions of the world, such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale get a big chunk of their funds from donors who are mostly alumni keen on giving something back to the place which had given them their future. Being privately funded, these institutions are perhaps more attuned to the requirements of the market, also more adept at marketing themselves and reaching out with a call for support.
In India, the culture of giving back to the alma mater has not reached anywhere yet. Our industry leaders either set up their own institutes or give fat alms to foreign institutions, such as the ones mentioned, in return for seats for their sons and daughters. The institutes have perfected this game to the level of an art form. There is nothing hush hush about this barter arrangement either, or so it appears from afar. Going by the ease with which the offspring of the rich and the famous in India are able to get admissions in the rich and the famous institutes of the world only points in that direction. But the same cannot be said for India. Because none of the private institutes here are in that league yet and all famous institutes are public-funded. They are hence purely driven by merit and function as limited membership clubs – open to all strata of society but limited by students’ ability to ace the formidable entrance tests.
One experiment in this direction which seems to have worked in India, though one is getting to hear about it only now, is the IIT Alumni Centre which was set up in Bangalore as a physical centre by a group of IITians of Madras vintage in 2010. Since then it has been functioning out of leased premises as a Club in the City and is now set to move to the IIT Madras Research Park. To be spread over 40,000 sq ft and fashioned as a Hub in the Sky, the hub has been designed by Hafeez Contractor for “close interaction between IIT alumni, faculty, industry, research scientists, professionals from different fields and venture capitalists”. The centre’s website says that the hub would be an “ideal place for business meetings, conferences, batch get-togethers and private parties”. The inclusion of “private parties”, the openness which this new system exudes is something which has been missing in the Indian higher education system for long, specially in the public-funded part of things. It is exactly this adda kind of atmosphere, which the centre aims to create, which will act as a fertile ground for new and exciting ideas to germinate and flourish.
The Americans have this feel in their café culture and such cafes dot their institutes liberally, acting as boiling pots of ideas. In India, canteens inside institutes can serve that purpose but don’t end up doing so because by their very design they are limited to those who cannot afford slightly more swanky places. They are not, for example, places where faculty from different institutes or even departments would like to chill or discuss something. The alumni centre will serve this purpose very well. It will be like an India International Centre or an India Habitat Centre, exclusively for faculty, that too IIT faculty. Membership fee ranges from Rs 15,000 annually for IIT faculty to Rs 1 crore for lifetime for Patron Members who can be non-IITians.
One wonders what is it about a place which spawns such a culture. Bangalore can do this, Madras (IIT) can do this, but a similar thing somehow sounds strangely implausible, in say, an IIT Delhi or a IIT Kanpur. Some food for thought for alumni?
(The writer is a freelance journalist)