Brand IIT versus GoI. It’s only the latest battle in this summer of seemingly endless discontent. Union minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal continues his on-off battle to snap away at the heels of the IIT-combine in his quest to rewrite the statute books. Sibal’s goal of a single engineering examination for the centres par excellence and all engineering colleges has caused consternation and heartburn. But, more importantly, it has led to plenty of confusion (and even fear) among the hundreds of thousands of students lining up to enter the portals of the country’s premier engineering institutes.
Sources in the HRD ministry insist the entire exercise was conducted democratically. But when Sibal found very few takers for his proposal, which he wanted to introduce by 2013, he decided to ram them home. The result—a mutiny by the IITs.
The media has reported extensively on how the IIT combine shot down Sibal’s proposal back in 2010 when he had constituted a committee under Damodar Acharya, director, IIT-Kharagpur, to propose a common engineering examination with adequate weightage to Class 12 examinations. When this was rejected, another committee recommended a two-tier exam—one for screening, and the second, an advanced one, with Class 12 exam scores having 40 per cent weightage. This, too, the IITs rejected. And now, yet again, they’re raising the banner of revolt, citing that IITs are autonomous institutes governed by an act of Parliament and whose affairs the GoI should stay out of.
Are the IITs then really as cussed and resistant to change as they’re being made out to be? At the 44th meeting of the Council of IITs (comprising ex-officio members of IITs, directors and chairmen, secretary-MHRD and other officials) in the HRD ministry, held on May 12, with the exception of IIT-Guwahati, it was decided to retain the existing examination format for next year. The IITs also broadly agreed on the following:
- Nothing should be done to tamper with the existing system in a hurry. It will only lead to confusion.
- Other broad agreements included a screening test for the purpose of admissions to the undergraduate programme at the IITs, from which a limited number of candidates would be eligible for an advanced test.
- There was no clear majority view on whether school board performance would count in the final merit list.
- Details of the advanced test were to be finalised in due course after a discussion with all the IITs so that it could be implemented from 2014.
Says A.K. Chaturvedi, dean, IIT-Kanpur, “We are open to discussions. But we strongly feel that what Sibal is proposing will not only lead to more stress but also lead to the mushrooming of thousands of coaching institutes—both of which the minister wanted to bring down. The proposals suggested by him defeat his twin purposes.” Each of the IITs has a separate senate, which exercises control on the admission procedure. In this raging debate, the senates, at times, are at variance with the council. Broadly, the senates of IITs, with the exception of IIT-Guwahati, have agreed on the following:
- The current practice will continue.
- From 2014, the National Entrance Test will be used as a screening test for the purpose of admissions.
- From those who clear it, a certain number of candidates will be chosen to take the advanced test.
- IITs will conduct the advanced test. Only this test will determine whether a candidate gets a seat.
- Board performance will not be used for the final merit list.
While seeking time, the IITs’ resistance to board exams serving as markers for admission stems from a concern: the heterogeneity in syllabus, instruction and evaluation process across boards makes standardisation unfeasible. Evidently, the ministry hasn’t factored this in.
Sibal too has his supporters. “Since the boards and their examination standards were different, it was felt that the candidates should be evaluated through a common examination,” says Damodar Acharya, director, IIT-Kharagpur. SAT in the US, he goes on to add, forms one component of the basis for admission, the other components being school performance and recommendations from teachers. In India, admission to engineering schools is based entirely on a student’s performance in the JEE. Academically, this is not the best solution.
Dr Pritam Singh, former director of IIM-Lucknow and a prominent management teacher, feels that globally, all leading institutions have followed a common thread without any impact on their own systems. Says he, “Universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell have a common exam along with smaller colleges and universities. That has not eroded their brand value. The branding of an academic institution is not through an entrance examination but through the kind of intellectual capital it produces. The Brahminical arrogance of some institutions which consider themselves superior and others untouchable is not fair.”
As someone who has considerable stake in this raging debate for the sheer effort in enabling the most depressed sections dream of getting into the IITs, Super 30 coach Anand Kumar’s mobile phone has not stopped ringing. He even has anxious students and parents land up at his doorstep. “My students, current, past and future, are calling me up and expressing concern about the proposals. Will poor students be affected by the change, they ask me.”
Poor students will be affected if school marks were accorded weightage. “The marks awarded are so low that they cannot compete with ICSE or CBSE,” says Anand. “If the new system comes into being, they would be overlooked. They would have to go back to being sweepers and compounders in spite of having the potential to be engineers and scientists.”
Similar scenes of confusion prevail in Hyderabad as well. Many students who were packed off to coaching centres from Class 8 onwards to conquer the IIT rainbow are now grappling with the implications of Sibal’s proposed monster. While the common test is being offered as a solution to many ills, students and parents are unsure about the experiment. Avinash Dal, whose son Ashwin will take the test in 2014, says that one man (Sibal) should not decide the fate of so many students. “IITians have done our country proud,” he says. “This change may dilute the quality of IITs. It appears to be a move to take over the autonomy of IITs and bring in foreign universities.” Ashwin, a student at Narayana Institute, shrugs off the hullabaloo but wonders what the main exam would consist of. Would it be language, mental ability, physics, chemistry or math? “The suspense is what is making many students nervous,” he says. Academicians have mixed feelings about the test. Renowned educationist and MLC, Chukka Ramaiah, who runs the IIT Ramaiah coaching centre, says the change would bring Indian students on a par with international standards. “IITs are ranked 147th in the world. Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore are ahead of us. When IITians enter the global market, they sometimes appear to lack in comprehension, reasoning capacity and analytical thinking,” he says. If coaching centres are the target of Sibal’s policy, they do not seem to have taken any hit yet. The intake into these centres continues to be mind-boggling.
In Kota town of Rajasthan, better known as the epicentre of IIT-JEE coaching, the centres have woken up to the import of the new policy in the offing. Out here, many appear for exams from the centres at Kota or from their hometowns, not from the schools they have studied at. Sibal’s changes would mean these centres will have to reorient their package to include preparations for board exams—the results of which will matter in Sibal’s scheme of things.
Tamalika Basu, who has been at the famed Bansal Institute in Kota for 20 days, thinks differently. “The Bansal Institute,” she says, “is teaching me five steps to learning. When I can clear them, they say I will clear IIT—so I would certainly be able to clear my board exams. And I don’t need to attend school for it. I’ll stay on here in Bansal by registering my centre in a dummy school to write my exams.” As things stand, such dummy schools (or schools where one appears for Class 12 exams) will provide the cushion for students to continue with their IIT-JEE preparations alongside board exams.
Former IITians, who never really sever the umbilical cord with their alma mater, feel there has been too much interference with the IIT system. Arjun Malhotra, an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, chairman of global IT giant Headstrong, and one of the most prominent voices amongst the IIT alumni, says, “I don’t know the objective behind the common exam, but it is completely irrational. My view is simple: why try and fix something that is not broken?”
People attached to the IIT universe say that Sibal’s attempt to equate the combined exams for engineering colleges with GMAT/GRE is faulty. Students get several chances in a year to take exams like the GMAT or GRE and the scores are valid for a specified period of time. No such system has been proposed for the new joint entrance exams. A bigger problem is that, with all the major engineering exams coming under one umbrella, should a student miss the date or is unable to take the exam, he/she loses an entire year. Again, there is total ambiguity on this aspect.
Says an IIT professor, “You are making the whole system completely uncertain. This will bring 18 different boards with their own systems and their own judgement into one system and open doors for corruption.” Concern is also being expressed over the enhanced logistics Sibal’s proposal for a combined exam will entail.
Fundamentally, it’s a deep-rooted opposition. A common examination would equate the IIT brand with “smaller” entities and take away the vaunted IIT-JEE control away from them. Says Sandipan Deb, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, “The IITs were built to be centres of excellence, with the best students and the best teachers. It was an elitist concept, as out of a lakh applications only 2,000-3,000 could get in. But all great education systems, like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, are elitist.”
It was probably because of this closely-controlled IIT system that the Singapore government in February this year expressed a desire to have an IIT campus in their country, which already has campuses from great universities like Johns Hopkins. In fact, PanIIT, an influential IIT alumni association, too has written to the HRD minister voicing its concerns against standardisation, and advising him to respect their autonomy.
Whether you see merit in Sibal’s proposal or in the IITs’ opposition to it, one thing is clear: the current stand-off isn’t helping anyone, least of all, IIT aspirants. Five lakh of them take the JEE, and another 10 lakh the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE). They are uncertain about how Sibal’s proposed combined exam will work for them—and whether it will be fair. There are many doubters at the moment. Sibal will need to do more than standardise the system. He also needs to get back to the basics, starting with sorting out our schools.
By Anuradha Raman with Arindam Mukherjee, Chandrani Banerjee, Madhavi Tata, Dola Mitra and Pushpa Iyengar