IIT Madras Zanzibar plans new courses, shift to permanent campus in 2025

IIT Madras Zanzibar aims to shift into its permanent campus by 2025 with many new courses and departments.


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Preeti Aghalayam, director, IIT Madras ZanzibarPreeti Aghalayam, director, IIT Madras Zanzibar

Sheena Sachdeva | April 18, 2024 | 04:38 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras Zanzibar, Tanzania, started operating in October 2023. Preeti Aghalayam, its director, is also the first woman leader of an IIT. She spoke to Sheena Sachdeva about bringing together the values of both countries, scholarships and courses, the high expectations, challenges and more. Edited excerpts.

Q. There’s a debate on how to keep the Indianness of off-shore campuses intact. How do you look at such conversations?

A. Whatever we do, we are IIT Madras. In the DNA of this institute, Indianness naturally comes in. IIT Madras has brought in the academic curricula, student selection process, admission format, faculty selection, and pedagogy. Plus, we bring whatever we have learnt in 65 years of existence in terms of maintaining academic rigour, catering to an ever-changing world and ensuring that graduates are relevant in society.

Q. Both countries are former colonies. What is being done to ensure their indigenous knowledge and cultures are brought together?

A. This is a very unique partnership. We have had tons of discussions in order to ensure that this is a partnership with synergies and without the ‘I-bring-what-you-lack’ kind of environment. We are supported very well and when we came, we wanted to articulate the same thought of bringing our indigenous cultures together. After six months here, we have genuinely become a family. We call ourselves the IIT Madras Zanzibar family and our students have come from across the world.

Faculty mostly comes from India. We have local staff from Zanzibar whom we work closely with, the ones that look after hostels, catering and security. We are learning Swahili; they are learning whichever Indian language we bring to them.

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Q. Zanzibar’s President described the IIT as the high point of his term and hoped it will drive economic change, help achieve the nation’s Vision 2050. There’s a burden of expectation.

A. Coming from an IIT, we are used to it. Because we are an Institute of National Importance and an Institute of Eminence, we are pushed to the forefront. So, we are used to it and accepting of it. Here, we have come as an actor and mentor. Further, we are not just a college. We are here to do a lot more!

Our strengths are very deeply and materially grounded in research and innovation, and student-led innovation and entrepreneurship.

We constantly say to students that they have to think about everything they can do while studying. We are also engaging with government bodies. It's early days but we are offering skill development courses.

I myself have travelled across the continent. We often meet ministry of education officials and people from the Indian diaspora, and foster relationships with them for research and consulting.

We are very close to securing funding from a major corporation for setting up a lab on this campus. A centre of excellence will be set up in the lab. In terms of working on government policies, they invite us. Already we have had several invitations to participate in panel discussions or to join teams writing policy documents.

Q. How many seats is the institute planning to increase?

A. Knowing the IIT Madras system for the past 20 years, I would say that you can expect the selection process to be stringent enough that while the number is likely to increase, there is no guarantee. If we get good students, we are ready for an increase.

We will definitely have more students in this batch but I think it is hard to put down a number because the process is not based on ranking.

Q. Did you face challenges while setting up?

A. We just finished the first semester and we have opened our applications for the second cohort. The classes for semester two started in the second week of March. We did all this so quickly.

I think when we first came in here, this was still a bit of a construction site. I was concerned because students were arriving in three days. But we overcame those challenges. The biggest issue was that on November 6 we had a big gala inauguration of the campus. A galaxy of stars was supposed to come with the President. But it poured heavily. We have an outdoor place where we planned the event but because it poured, we covered the place with special nets. Though the event went really well, the rain scared me.

It is the month of Ramadan. In our main campus in India, many students fast but here, there is a palpable difference. In India, you don’t have to explain IIT Madras. That's not the case across Africa.

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Q. What has been the composition of the UG and PG batches?

A. We have 27 students in the undergraduate programme, 16 from Zanzibar/Tanzania and 11 Indian. Of the Indians, one has come from North Tanzania. In the postgraduate programmes, we have 17 students, 13 are Indian, one is Nepali, and three are locally from Zanzibar. The three locals are from universities here and come with a bit of experience. The Nepali student did his undergraduate studies in India. Applications are looking like more countries will be represented in the coming year.

Q. Did the institute offer scholarships? What are your plans for scholarships and new courses?

A. If a student is really meritorious and high-performing, we don't want them to be excluded from the programme because of financial constraints. In the current cohort, students have received various kinds of support. The government of Zanzibar has supported all Zanzibari students by paying partial tuition.

Further, IIT Madras alumni have put together a fund for scholarships and some non-Zanzibari students were supported by that. The master’s students also get various kinds of support. Many master's students from Africa are supported by IIT M alumni.

We are also looking for support as in our main campus there is a concept of teaching-assistantship. Master’s students and Phd scholars get a stipend for helping with teaching. We are considering things like that.

We are also actively looking for sponsorships and scholarships to support students who may deserve it. While I said that we don't want any student to lose out, we did miss a couple of them. We had some students from countries in Africa for whom we just could not find the financial support. We want to do better this year. Generally, for an undergraduate it is $12,000 per year and for masters, it's $6,000 per year. Living cost is around $4,000-$6,000 per year for on-campus accommodation.

Q. And courses?

A. All our programmes will be interdisciplinary in nature. We want to ensure all our programmes cater to the interest of young people. This is one of the reasons for data science, a no brainer. Further, we want to keep in mind the strength of IIT Madras – the many departments and experts. We are looking at infrastructural engineering, sustainability, communication and computers, chemical and biochemical engineering courses. Expert committees at IIT Madras are working on it and a large number of faculty are involved. We are very excited about it!

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Q. When do you aim to move to the permanent campus?

A. In 2025 will be our third onboarding and from then on you can expect us to have the land for the permanent campus. The foundation stone has been laid by the President of Zanzibar and we have started the development. I think by the time our second cohort graduates, we may have fully moved into the 225-acre permanent campus. We still may retain this current land for a student innovation hub or centre.

All our classrooms are smart classrooms and will continue to be the same in the new campus. We spent a lot of effort on tech with facial-recognition entry and no-touch exit from all the classrooms. All of that we will retain in the new campus.

We don't have a fixed date because the master plan has to be developed and signed off.

Q. What academic and research collaborations have been forged with international institutes and organisations?

A. We have semester-exchange agreements with the University of Birmingham, UK, and Deakin University, Australia specifically for IITM Zanzibar students. We have agreements with the African School of Economics and Nigerian University of Technology and Management. Already some of the French institutes have expressed interest to come on board. We are planning collaborations with Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology, University of Zanzibar and a bunch of other academic institutions in Zanzibar.

Q. How do you see your journey as the first woman director of an IIT, that too, the first international one?

A. Because of being at IIT Madras, it sort of runs in my veins. My husband is also an alumnus of IIT Madras. It's been in our lives for the past 30-35 years. I started my career at IIT Bombay and got a sudden call from IIT Madras. After I completed my Phd, I always wanted to get into an IIT. Teaching was always my passion. I found many opportunities and a lot of supporters.

I feel bad that I gave so many interviews but there is a team here. We have Paresh Pattani, vice-president of institutional development and Raghunathan Rengaswamy,

dean of global engagement and chair of advisory council. We have two professors who came to teach here for a semester.

Being a woman in science, yes I am a minority. Even in my chemical engineering department, we were only two women out of 30 teachers for a long time and only recently we have doubled our number. I am lucky to have good support across the board. Without the support of others I wouldn't have reached here.

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