It is now nearly two years since the “OBC reservation in IITs” issue first captured the public imagination as a consequence of some remarks of HRD Minister Arjun Singh. At that juncture, with passions rising high on both sides of the debate, I had suggested (Open Page, May 7, 2006) that the dilution in the quality of education in IIT was already too egregious for the proposed measures to make too much of a difference. My views were considered reactionary and unconstructive, and in hindsight, I find this criticism to be not without justification.

Having experienced life within IIT as well as without, I feel that I might be able to make a suggestion now that will turn defeat at the hands of the nation’s convoluted political interests into victory, not just for the proponents of the erstwhile status quo but also for the IIT system as a whole.

To do so, consider first a widely held view that the strength of the IIT undergraduate population rather exceeds the capacity of the campuses’ infrastructure, and that a high student-instructor ratio reduces the efficacy of the education dispensed. With a 27 per cent increment in the total number of seats, this situation is likely to be exacerbated in the near future.

Furthermore, unlike in several progressive education systems, the IITs have persisted, so far, in seating entrants in different disciplines of engineering based on the rank that they happen to have secured in the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). This nearly always causes the high rankers to choose disciplines like Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, whereas the lower ranking entrants are offered an extremely sparse set of choices, several of them unlikely to be particularly attractive with future prospects in mind.

Stark contrast

A stark contrast is presented in, for instance, the U.S. education system, where undergraduates are encouraged to register in a broad spectrum of courses, and are required to declare a major in their third year.

The usual argument against adopting a flexible system here proceeds along the following lines: “We are a developing country, and our efforts must be directed towards churning out young innovators capable of responding to the manifold challenges of an ever-changing spectrum of technological needs. Thus, it is imperative that students at IIT focus on core subjects and restrict their scope of inquiry from the inception of their studies.”

Even if we withhold judgment upon the validity of this argument, it is still incontrovertible that the first year of study at IIT covers a universal syllabus across all specialisations and that this is the period where the foundational courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics are offered, so that students may use these as tools in their specialisations later.

A solution

Given this important detail, I propose a scheme that would terminate, in one stroke, both the problem of over-population (and the underlying fear of brand dilution) as well as the restriction on intellectual freedom imposed by the current system.

I propose that entrants not be required to declare their majors upon securing admission. They may merely indicate the campus which they would prefer to attend, a preference that will be accommodated based on the rank secured in JEE. All students take the same courses and tests during the first two semesters. Subsequently, students are required to declare majors and are allotted majors according to their preference.

At the end of three semesters, however, students will be rated based on their GPA within their specific specialisation (taking into account performance over the first three semesters), and a certain fraction of the underperformers will be allowed to take courses in Operations Research/IT/Financial management and be required to leave IIT at the end of four semesters with a partial degree/diploma that will have equipped them with sufficient skills to be competitive in the job market, while allowing students who have demonstrated an aptitude for engineering to pursue their studies more efficiently.

This solves the problem of over-population effectively and fairly viz. all students — general and OBC — stand an equal chance of elimination after having been offered equal privileges for three semesters. This also solves the problem of lack of intellectual choice in an innovative way. Since all students have freedom to choose their majors, they will chose specialisations they believe they could excel in, irrespective of market conditions, to avoid being relegated to the back of the class and being removed.

(The writer completed his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras and is currently a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Minnesota)