Are IIT students selfish ?

In a recent interview with the IIT-Bombay Broadcasting Channel (one of the student associations which runs a social media platform) the former Supreme Court Judge of India, Markandey Katju, made a statement that elicited quite a reaction on social media.

The Question asked and the answer given, is reproduced below:

Q: Students at IITs were often accused of, you know, using the benefits we get, and working in other countries. The counter-argument to this is that we never entered a contract where we need to pay back; it’s a privilege that’s been bestowed on us although, we’ve been funded by tax payer’s money. So, my question is, what do you think of this issue? And do you think there should be some legal provision in place to enforce people like us (in IITs) to pay back to the country? For example, what they do with medical students.

A: Listen, first of all, I regard most of you IIT students as thoroughly selfish. You have no genuine love for the country. You may talk big, you may talk whatever you like, but the truth is you want a comfortable job or you want to go to America to do your Master’s degree and then settle down there. That is what most of you do. You have no genuine love for the country. You see, the game is that, education is very cheap here in India; if the amount spent on your education had to be paid in America (there, higher education is very expensive), Americans would have had to pay 50 times more. So, by paying [a] pittance, they are getting our best brains and serving there in America. You will not serve India. You are going to serve America. I’m absolutely sure about it. So, please don’t have any illusion and I don’t have any illusion about you. You people, you’re not Indians. I don’t regard you as Indians. An Indian is one who thinks about India. You don’t. You may talk anything. You think about doing a . Most of you people, after doing you B.Tech, go to America to do your Masters. And then, you will settle down there. I don’t regard you as Indian and I don’t expect anything from you. People of India should not have any hopes from you people because you will serve America or Germany. You are Americans or Germans. Thank you very much.

Justice Katju, of course, has a history of controversy. His Twitter feed is a goldmine for outrage-seekers, where the former Press Council of India Chairman airs views that are acerbic, strongly opinionated, and with no effort at sugarcoating.

Brand IIT

That does not take away from the merits of the argument he made here – one which, as the questioners themselves acknowledged, is not a new one.

The IIT’s are a brand, almost a law unto themselves. From the entrance exam that is considered the hardest exam to crack in the country, to the legendary tough-ness of the course, these institutes have become the stuff of legends. Having gained admission to an IIT is a stamp of excellence, having graduated from there is taken to mean that the person must be brilliant indeed.

So why has there been a steady clamor of voices alleging that these shining stars of the Indian student body are ‘selfish’?

The evidence

To begin with, we need to look at what it costs to educate an engineering student in the kind of facilities (laboratories, campus, hostels) available to IIT students. Basis the grants given to an IIT, plus the resources raised from students and through research, it would appear that the cost per student is Rs. 3.5 to 5 lakhs per year, as against a fee structure that ranges from Rs. 20,000 – 90,000.

So the extent of the subsidy is a factor of 4 – 25 times the actual fees charged. For a country that already bears a huge subsidy burden, this does appear to be rather excessive. As for Justice Katju’s statement that a similar education in the US would cost ’50 times more’, he is exaggerated the issue slightly, a good college in the US charges tuition fee in the range of US$ 40,000 to 50,000, which means about 30 times the fees charged at an IIT.

Who is paying for this difference? Where is the money to fund this gap coming from? The answer is pretty obvious – taxes. In short, the taxpayers of India are paying to keep the IIT’s subsidized.

And yet, if you have ever been to an airport in the month of August, you would have seen them – large groups of boisterous young men (and very rarely, women), carrying a ton of bags, getting a loud and affectionate send-off as they go to the USA for their further studies. Most of them are engineers, and within that set, a large subset would be from the IIT’s. (Again, easy enough to identify. They travel in groups, those from other engineering colleges tend to travel individually.) It hardly needs anecdotal evidence to point out that very few of them ever come back.

So the benefit of this world-class education, this education that is being paid for, to the extent of 80% of it’s cost, out of the taxes and cess that you and I pay, is reaped by the countries to which they go, to become academics, employees and businesspersons. They will pay their taxes there, they will bring laurels to their adopted countries, and create employment there as well.

The ideals

With what objective does India bear such a cost? It is worthwhile here to note the words of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the first-ever convocation ceremony at IIT – Kharagpur, held in 1956:

Here … stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.

It is clear, then, that the IIT’s were established with a viewpoint to invest in India’s future. From the elegant campuses to the legal autonomy to the subsidy itself, IIT’s have been given facilities not available to any other institution in India. But far from creating assets or technical know-how in India, we see graduates of these elite institutions rushing to settle abroad. This can, in no way, be the intent of the founding fathers of the IIT’s – Jogendra Singh and Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, through whose efforts these institutions were set up while the country was still young.

To that extent, Justice Katju’s statements seem to ring true. A pampered, cossetted set of young men and women, ambitious but for themselves, who seem to be little invested in the idea of India.

The defence

But before we condemn the IIT students, let us take a look at the issue from their side as well. As individuals, they are not obliged to be anything other than selfish. The subsidy is not one that is asked for, but given by the government. The struggle to gain admission to an IIT is a student’s own. The efforts to keep up with such a demanding course is also his or her own. Having gained a degree through their own efforts, it might be said that it is unfair to expect that the government should then try to influence their future career.


As with many arguments there seems to be no easy answer. To remove the subsidy altogether might put an IIT education out of the financial reach of the students best equipped to study there. Making them give a bond to not leave the country would be an unfair practice and restrictive of individual freedoms.

Perhaps a compromise might be the only way forward. Providing subsidized loans for IIT students while charging full fees would be less of a drain on the exchequer. A provision to write-off such loans for such students who proceed to work in India in a related sector would also incentivise retention of talent within India without imposing an onerous bond or restriction, as is the case with medical students currently. Heaping accusations and criticism on them for their careers choices is unlikely to be very productive in the long run, a fact that Justice Katju should keep sight of.

After all, selfish they may be, but they are the nation’s best and brightest.

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Kunal is an ex-banker with a (largely self-proclaimed) flair for writing. He is an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Mumbai.


  1. In my opinion, I find IITs to be overrated. To the point of how selfish are the students of the IITs, I will rather say that their ego outshines all their qualities. This is where and why they seem to be selfish. When you crack JEE, you are one of the best brains in the country. When this air starts to surround you, you realize that the brains out of your college are not compatible to your IQ. I guess this is where the brain drain plays the game and thus, IITians join the queue of selfish people.

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