A government committee on higher education reforms described the Indian Institutes of Technology as "islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity", commending them as a model for other universities.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, hailed them as "temples of learning", and they are regarded as the success story of Indian higher education.
The first was established in 1950, and there are now seven dotted across the country: Delhi, Kanpur and Roorkee in the north; Mumbai in the west; Chennai (Madras) in the south; Kharagpur in the east; and Guwahati in the northeast.
Although the institutes are widely seen as a post-independence phenomenon and credited to Nehru's vision, their origins lie in a blueprint prepared in 1946. Records show that the idea came from a committee set up by Sir Jogendra Singh of the Viceroy's Executive Council, Department of Education, Health and Agriculture, to "consider the setting-up of higher technical institutions for postwar industrial development in India".
The committee recommended the establishment of four higher technical institutions in the east, west, north and south, possibly on the lines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US.
"The standard of the graduates should be on a par with those from first-class institutions abroad," the committee recommended.
The report was not implemented until India gained its independence, and the first institute was established in Kharagpur in 1950.
Most institutes started as engineering colleges and were only later recognised and renamed as "deemed" universities, with unprecedented academic and administrative freedom.
The degree of autonomy they enjoy in contrast to other universities is at the heart of their success. They are encouraged to engage in industry-related research, form ties with leading foreign institutions and develop their own programmes without going through government bureaucracy.
Admissions are made through a nationwide competitive joint entrance examination taken by thousands of candidates every year - but only a few get in. The intake is kept low to ensure a healthy faculty-to-student ratio. At IIT Delhi, for example, there are about 5,000 students and a faculty of 1,256.
"The idea is to provide an invigorating and creative environment with special emphasis on student-teacher interaction," a spokesman said.
All have advanced research centres specialising in scientific areas from electronics and computer sciences to biotechnology and atmospheric sciences.
"IITs are widely cited in international publications, and their alumni are working in some of the best Western universities and research institutions," said Ravi Singh, an academic publisher.
Their world status has been confirmed by The Times Higher survey of 200 top international universities, but there is concern that the institutes are in danger of becoming victims of their own success as central Government comes under intense pressure to set up more of them in the face of mainstream universities' failure to meet the growing demand for world-class technical education.
More institutes are planned, especially for educationally backward regions, but experts have warned against assembly-line production.
"The reason IITs have done so well is because they were conceived as elite institutions and were free from political interference," a former director of IIT Delhi said.
"If you're going to set up IITs the way many universities and colleges have been created, to appease political constituencies, then standards are bound to fall and we can say goodbye to IITs as we know them."
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