Why IIT launch will be a game changer in Tanzania

The entrance of India Institute of Technology (IIT) PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • some Tanzanian schools have significantly raised the bar for outstanding performance

The world-famous Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) will open an offshore campus in Tanzania, according to plans released by the Indian government.
Dharmendra Pradhan, the Indian Education Minister, made the statement after meeting his Zanzibar counterpart, Lela Mohammad Musa, who visited IIT Chennai in November 2022.
In a region where access to high-quality higher education is limited, the establishment of IIT promises to be a game-changer. IIT will fill that void by introducing well-proven standards that have made IIT a brand of such international renown.
Launched in the 1950s, the IITs were India’s solutions for the challenges it faced early in its post-independence years. The goal was to groom world-class engineers to fulfil the demands of a rapidly industrialising nation. IITs were modelled after the MIT, a prestigious American institution known for its technical brilliance.
The IITs became a huge success. In national rankings, they consistently occupy the top spots. They are equally competitive globally, with the top four institutes ranking between 200 and 350 on some lists. In comparison, none of Tanzania’s universities appears in the top 1,000 of such lists.
Similarly, IIT graduates are in high demand inside and outside India. At least 25,000 IIT graduates have been employed in the US alone. IITs now boast some of the most influential names in the world of technology among its alumnae. These include the CEOs or founders of Google, Twitter, Infosys, Vodafone, IBM, Tata Consultancy Services, and Bell Laboratories.
As a result, getting into IITs is ultra-competitive. Only 2 percent of those who sit for exams get admitted. The IITs are reputed to be the hardest schools to get into in the world. Even a young Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Laureate, failed to get a chance.
IIT offers courses in Information Technology, Metallurgy, Mining Engineering, Chemical Engineering and so on. These can meet the needs of local talents for Tanzania and Africa as a whole.
Students can expect the academic standards to be quite high. The syllabuses are progressive. The faculty is competitive. And the learning environment generally better than comparable institutions.
Most students at IITs take B.Tech programs for four years, which includes a year of industrial attachment. Some students take five-year dual degrees, combining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The government typically subsidises those programs by 80 percent. Ultimately, students pay only $700 for tuition and living expenses annually.
In recent years, some Tanzanian schools have significantly raised the bar for outstanding performance. It is now quite common for students to score all As in their O-level and A-level exams. As the pool of such performers increases, the big question is, where do they go afterwards?
Tanzania’s higher education institutions generally have poor teacher-to-student ratios, a lack of concentration on R&D, bad learning environments, low proportions of international students, and so forth. They are designed to simply be teaching shops that churn out as many “graduates” as possible. Excellence is not their target.
Two months ago, I talked with a high school graduate who had been denied admission to the University of Dar es Salaam’s Faculty of Law despite having a respectable Division One. He stated that one must have at least five points or better to have such a chance nowadays.
That is a very high standard indeed. But how can it be reconciled with the dismal results when those students face bar exams?
This year, only 26 of 633 candidates passed the bar exam, leading to widespread outrage. As a result, a committee was formed to probe what happened. The committee concluded that the candidates the LST receives are poor in quality.
What happened to the top performers who joined the various universities earlier?
Given the calibre of our institutions, we will be continually disappointed if we expect those students will be groomed to be globally competitive. Hopefully, this is the void that IIT Tanzania wishes to fill.
The IITs model will be quite novel in the Tanzanian higher education landscape. To begin with, as elite tertiary-level institutions, they are designed to take the best and produce even better graduates. The laws that establish these institutions define the standards that must be met. One will have to change the legislation to establish new IITs in India.
Similarly, they are autonomous institutions. That allows them to set their objectives without being influenced by politics. In Tanzania, politicians control everything, even academics. They can even decide how many students a college should accept, regardless of capacity. The IIT model would forbid that.
Finally, IITs are accorded special status. In India, they are known as “institutions of high importance.” As a result, they receive four to eight times the funding that other institutions do. That is the investment that the government makes in increasing standards. The outcome is a vastly improved learning environment and performance.
If that is India’s vision for IIT Tanzania, then this is a highly welcome development. Indeed, it is the kind of import that Tanzanians are truly desperate for.
Today, Tanzania requires at least 20 percent of its people to have tertiary-level education to power its economy. But only 5 percent have university degrees. Similarly, whereas Tanzania requires 33 percent of medium-skilled and 12 percent of high-skilled workers, the vast majority are low-skilled (84 percent).
The IIT model focuses on producing those 12 percent of elite workers. That is the portion of the workforce that attracts investment, launches innovative ventures, integrates the economy with the rest of the world, and pulls it forward by its bootstraps.
One can only hope that IIT Tanzania will be as successful as IITs have been in India. That game-changing effect will have a lasting impact on how Tanzanians do higher education, particularly technical education