By Dr. M Gopal
Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, created the IITs because India needed knowledge in science and technology to build up a prosperous nation. Today, the IITs are a brand in technology, known all over the world. The IIT alumni have significantly contributed to the knowledge power of India and the world. These premier institutes of India are known for selecting the cream of the country and making this cream even better.
In 2012, over 520,000 students had appeared for about 10,000 engineering seats across India. A total of seventeen colleges use JEE as sole criterion for admission to their undergraduate programs, namely the 16 IITs and the India School of Mines. The number of students who get into IITs is minuscule. Lakhs of students, constituting a cream-slab of the country, aspire to get into these centres of excellence, and a few thousands, the so called ‘top layer of the cream’, is able to get in. In 2012, the number was just over 9600.
While this article is not on the IIMs, the premier management institutes of India do not paint a very different story. Over 250,000 students every year take the CAT (common entrance test) competing for 2600 seats (1%). For the average Indian student — whose parents can afford it — it is possibly easier to get into MIT than IIT or to Wharton than IIM.
The knowledge power of India in the global village is visible through this layer. However, our top technology and management institutes have produced very few heroes on role models. Coming back to the IITs, can the creamiest layer of technology wizards lead India to the status of superpower? The answer to this question is ‘probably no’, for two reasons.
The first reason is that the minuscule set of executives and techies from IITs can’t possess the required reach, power and impact. The second reason for our doubt on the impact of IIT alumni stems from the concerns reported about the deteriorating quality of IIT graduates. Some of the reputed private sector organizations have given alarming signals for the decision-makers to wake up and take some remedial steps.
One of the reasons for quality deterioration seems to be that the selection process for admission to IITs is not fail-safe. The IIT selection process claims that it selects topmost layer of the cream. So seemingly, while the cream slab has in it lakhs of intelligent aspirants for admission to the IITs, the selection process allows admission to only a few thousand. However, it is not guaranteed that the JEE filter allows only the top layer and blocks the others. In fact, what can happen (may be already happening) is that a larger part of the truly motivated students gets blocked. Merely through extensive coaching, the bottom layer may pass the filter. Not that the selected students are not intelligent enough to be a good IIT product, but many of them lose motivation and excitement because of unbearable hammering of their brains while being coached. This can result in low quality education passed on to the students, and weaken the goodwill of the IITs, turning them into average institutions as per global standards.
Because of admission policy of IITs, the coaching industry is flourishing. That also we don’t mind; the higher national cost of this policy is that it has affected school education. In fact, school-education effectiveness has become a slave to the IIT admission policy. The most crucial years of personality growth of a child are not spent in exploring his/her passion for academics, sports and other extra-curricular activities, but are spent within the four walls of coaching centres. How many students of a particular school have crossed the JEE filter, has become the matter of pride for the schools and they advertise it.
The new proposed selection process, recently approved by IIT Council, is not going to improve the situation either; it rather has the potential to make it worse. The aspirants to the IITs will be under increased stress as they would be now need to perform at three tests/examinations rather than one, as in the present system. Coaching centres might be celebrating this change in policy.
In our national interest, the IITs have accepted student of varying quality into the system. By putting in extra effort on academically weaker students, we try to bridge the gap during the four years of training at the IITs.
A slight tweak in our overall approach can make significant difference. For example, improving the School Education System? If we take away the pressure of admission to IITs at the school level, the learning environment at schools will be healthier and create among the students the motivation, excitement and thirst for knowledge, enquiry, exploration and further learning. If these highly motivated, knowledge seeking, inquisitive students make it to the IITs, the IITs will then prepare these students to take on the positions of leaders across multiple fields of science and technology.
One national test for all, along with performance at the school level could be accepted as indicators of their intelligence and would then be sufficient considerations for admission/short listing. Heterogeneity in levels of learning and evaluation across Boards, doubts on the capabilities of agencies conducting the national test, etc., are being cited as reasons for IITs to go their way. While they may be valid concerns, we should jointly work towards finding solutions to these issues, rather than distancing from them. In this process, IITs may not get the ’best’ students, but this process would create a possibility of transforming a truly exceptional and different set of students to the best quality during their four years of training. Today they give out the best product when the input is of matching quality. When the output is the ‘best’ for ‘normal’ input; the credit will entirely go to four years of training in IITs. This will be a real pride for IITs. Today, the nation is paying heavy price for the pride of IITs because of the impact on School Education System.
India needs more quality educational institutions, and this is an undeniable necessity. This is because knowledge power is our biggest asset. While inaugurating PAN-IIT meet at Bandra-Kurla complex in Mumbai on December 23, 2006, President APJ Abdul Kalam said “There may be many hidden Ramanujans and Einsteins amongst the vast majority of the students whom the IIT system does not touch. The greatest challenge for the Pan IITians and the nation is to find a mechanism to identify those needles in the haystack”.
The IITs cannot reach the entire ‘cream-slab’; they can touch only the ‘top layer’. Increasing the number of IITs will not solve the problem; the solution lies in spreading the IIT system of education to as many institutions as possible. The pressure of admission into ‘IITs’ will disappear, the educational environments in schools will become healthier, and knowledge power of India will become larger with higher impact factor; having the potential of leading India to the status of superpower.
Dr. M Gopal*
Director, School of Engineering, Shiv Nadar University
(Former Faculty at IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay)
*The views expressed here are the personal views of the author, and is not representative of the views of the academic community of the Shiv Nadar University, the Shiv Nadar Foundation or the IITs.
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