The present selection system has failed to bring in students who are genuinely interested in path-breaking engineering work

Last week I came across a remarkable report on international education tests conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Pisa 2009 tests indicate that China has an education system that is overtaking those of many Western countries and that Shanghai was on top of the international education rankings for schools. Andreas Schleicher, responsible for the highly-influential Pisa tests, claimed that the results showed the “resilience” of pupils despite tough backgrounds, and the “high levels of equity” between rich and poor pupils. He believes that it's a philosophical difference — expecting all pupils to make the grade, rather than a “sorting mechanism” to find a chosen few — and, that anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed; the real challenge is to push through the entire cohort.

This forced me to focus on the imbroglio regarding the entrance test for undergraduate admissions to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). The Ministry of Human Resource Development believes the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted by the IITs should be discontinued and replaced by a common entrance test conducted by an independent agency. The marks obtained in this test should be combined with weighted results of high school board exams to determine a student's percentile ranking in the country. These rankings could then be used for admission to all engineering colleges including IITs. It is claimed that this new procedure will give weightage to students' performance in school (ignored at present) and reduce stress by not forcing them to take multiple examinations as they are forced to do at present. At first glance, perfectly logical and reasonable.

However, many faculty members of the IITs are upset that the government is interfering in academic matters and compromising the autonomy of these institutions. The Senate of IIT Kanpur has already passed a resolution that they will not abide by the directions of the MHRD and that the institute will conduct its own entrance exam in 2013. Senates of some other IITs may pass similar resolutions, though it appears that IIT Kharagpur, Madras and Guwahati will not. Faculty Forums of the dissenting IITs and some alumni groups have expressed views similar to those from IIT Kanpur. The attendances at meetings where these dissenting resolutions have been passed have been a small proportion of faculty strength of these institutions. It is clear that views are divided among the IIT faculty members across the country. It would be worthwhile to expand the terms of the debate and arrive at a consensus that includes the best interests of students and of society at large in preserving the academic standards of IITs.

A system that works

IITs have a formidable reputation in the country and abroad for producing outstanding graduates over the last five decades. The reasons for this includes the selection of high performing students through the JEE, which the IITs have run without blemish. This has happened because those running the system take pride in their work as loyal members of the IIT system. IITs have also developed reasonably democratic systems for academic functioning and selection of course content, fair and open systems for grading and evaluation, and student management. Faculty selection and promotion processes are also reasonable considering the environment we have to operate in.

However, the glass is only three-quarters full. It is important that we now focus on why it is one-quarter empty. Mr. Schleicher has a point in that “anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed”. The success of our BTech products is partly due to the selection process. Unfortunately, many IIT faculty members and alumni base their entire pride and self worth on this “success”. The fact is that if we admit only those from the top few per cent of a national exam, they will do well no matter how the test is conducted.

It is time to consider what kind of students we want from among those who are excellent in mathematics and the sciences. Anyone teaching in IITs is aware that many of our undergraduate students are just not interested in engineering. A small proportion of them know they will never take up an engineering career even before they enter IIT. They just want an IIT ‘stamp' and opt for these institutions because of parental pressure or a lack of excellent institutions offering liberal arts or science education. A significant proportion of students develop a dislike for quantitative and laboratory work after entering IITs. They just do not have the aptitude for engineering work. This latter group is sending a strong signal that the current JEE is not adequate to select the right students for an elite engineering education.

There are other reasons why the IIT entrance procedure needs a major revamp. The present selection system depends on machismo in physics, chemistry and mathematics — ideally suited for coaching classes, condemning young boys and girls to a concentration camp atmosphere for two years or so. This is the period these youngsters should spend exploring their interest and aptitudes but are prevented from doing so. This straitjacketing is probably filtering out the innovative and curious ones who hate such narrow perspectives, ensuring that IITs are denied some young Indians who might be truly interested in path breaking work. It is time for a rethink on the objective of the selection procedure for IITs.

Real contributors

Another unfortunate aspect of the JEE debate is that it obfuscates the real issue facing IITs. The future of IITs does not depend on the selection process of undergraduates. No matter what process is adopted they will do well. Within a decade IITs will have little to show for as academic institutions unless policymakers and faculty members start taking pride in the MTech and PhD programmes. It is worth remembering that BTechs comprise less than half of IIT graduates every year. The majority are MTech and PhD degree holders. They make a huge contribution to technological development in India in the public and private sector. It is this group that needs constant improvement, encouragement and recognition. This will not happen unless IITs transform from mid-20th century, narrow-visioned technical institutions to modern, multidisciplinary research universities.

This can be done, as is evident from the Chinese experience. The prestigious Global Research University Profiles publishes a ranking of the top 500 World-Class Universities (Shanghai rankings) by their research output every year. In the 2011 list only three made it from India — Indian Institute of Science (300-400), and IITs at Delhi and Kharagpur (400-500). Those from China totalled 35, Brazil seven, South Africa three, Saudi Arabia two, and Iran one. They also list the top 100 for engineering. From India only Indian Institute of Science made the grade, but there were eight from China! Obviously, we have a lot of catching up to do. Just ensuring the purity of JEE will not do it.

But there is an impasse at hand and it must be resolved amicably. Those protesting from the IITs have a point — that they must have a role in selecting their students. Any university should, as long as it is done within the concepts of fair play, social justice and societal obligations. An ideal entrance procedure should include high school performance, marks in a common all-India quantitative entrance examination and, if desired, any institution should be able to set their own entrance test/criteria also.

If an institution wants to conduct its own test it must be very different from the current JEE and not require students to prepare too much. It must test aptitude and not just mathematical prowess as that would already have been tested by the common all-India test. It would have to be free from language and class biases.

Devising such a test would need collaboration with national and international education and testing experts and will take time, but it would free IIT faculty from wasting their time on the JEE and focus on what will actually benefit their institutions. It should be possible to design IIT specific aptitude test procedures within the next year. If the IITs agree to such a change in entrance procedures the MHRD should agree to introduce the new system in 2014. If not, the current proposal of MHRD should stay. As for the JEE, it needs to go.

(Dinesh Mohan is the Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus, Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme, WHO Collaborating Centre, IIT Delhi)

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