Contrary to the HRD Ministry's plans, the new system will still benefit the coaching centres even as it lowers standards

J.C. Chaudhry must be a worried man. He is the managing director of Aakash Institute, which makes crores charging huge fees to coach aspirants for the IIT- JEE (Joint Entrance Exam). And the Human Resource Development Ministry has announced that there will be drastic changes in the JEE from next year, which will make coaching classes redundant. Is that why Mr. Chaudhry appeared on TV last week to say this was a bonanza for coaching institutes who could now offer three different courses each?

Under the new format, admissions to all Central government engineering institutes will be through a common exam, scrapping the current system of JEE for the IITs and the All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE) for other institutes. A common merit list is to be prepared with an unprecedented 40 per cent weightage for Class XII board examination marks and 30 per cent each for two examinations — JEE Main and JEE Advanced — to be held on the same day.

The Ministry claims its main intention is to reduce the stress of multiple entrance exams on students. It should have asked students their opinion. More than the difficulty of the exam, the stress associated with the JEE is due to the huge imbalance between the number of seats and aspirants. The proposal does nothing to change this. In fact, the pressure now to do well in three exams is sure to increase stress.

Also, by keeping both exams on the same day, a random event — the candidate falling ill, even a bus breaking down — can destroy a student's future. Whereas previously there were options if one entrance test went badly, the new system has an all-or-nothing feel to it. It's no surprise that parents are thinking of taking the matter to court.

The Ministry also aims to re-vitalise school education by giving more importance to the Class XII board examinations which, it feels, are ignored by students. Again, had it asked students it would have realised why. Though nominally the syllabi for the board examinations and the JEE are the same, board examination papers are based on memory-based learning with easy, expected questions, while the JEE's focus is conceptual with unexpected, challenging questions. No JEE question is ever repeated.

Besides, most State board examinations are plagued by rampant copying and question paper leaks, while the practical examinations are famously a farce. The final issue with board examinations is normalisation. Even though normalisation across the 42 boards in the country is statistically possible, the vast differences in question styles and marking schemes make such a comparison meaningless.

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal claimed on TV that he is proud that the proposals have been passed without dissent. Perhaps the five IIT Senates that have disagreed with these changes — with IIT-Kanpur threatening to have its own exam — don't count as dissent.

A senior professor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the move as an assault on the academic autonomy of the IITs — sacrosanct in the IIT Act. These changes, he said, had been pushed down the throats of the IITs by the IIT Council. This is contrary to the IIT Act which states that the Senates are the deciding bodies on all academic matters. It is telling that the Council which approved these changes has a majority of non-academics, while the Senates which rejected them comprise IIT professors.

The Senates had proposed changes to the current system — including a screening test followed by a subjective-style main test, giving detailed reasons for this. The consultations of the Council with the Senates were pure posturing, the senior professor said, since none of the latters' proposals were considered.

The skewed rural-urban and poor-rich ratios among those entering IITs is what bothers the faculty most, said another professor, attributing this to coaching classes being out of reach for most poor and rural students. The proposed changes, however, would do nothing to solve this problem, he said; in fact they would increase dependence on coaching classes.

Under the guise of “democratisation”, reducing stress and destroying the coaching industry, the Ministry wishes to replace an efficient system with one that keeps IITs just as “elite”, which lowers admission standards by including board examination marks, which increases student stress and finally, mints more money for the coaching industry. Surely if all the true stakeholders — the IIT professors, students and teenaged aspirants — can see this, there is no reason Mr. Sibal, a shrewd lawyer and politician, cannot.

(Saaz Sarikar is a second year student at IIT-Bombay.)

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