Did Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, pull a fast one on IIT alumni on the issue of joint entrance exams for engineering education?
If you were to ask Somnath Bharti, president of the IIT Delhi Alumni Association and Supreme Court lawyer, the answer is a clear yes.
Bharti told Business Standard in an interview that Sibal promised them that he would not implement the common entrance exam if there was any dissent from the IITs, but he didn’t keep his word. Says Bharti: “We sent our analysis to the government’s proposed plan and then met Kapil Sibal, the minister, on 24 May and voiced our concerns. Sibal categorically declared the government would not go ahead with the proposed common entrance examination or (make) any change if there was even one dissent. He obviously did not keep his promise.”
Bharti is now considering a public interest litigation (PIL) to challenge the new common entrance exam decision on the ground that the institutes’ autonomy has been compromised. According to him, the senates of each IIT are empowered to decide the “mode and manner in which students will be admitted to the respective IITs…This stands violated, with MHRD (the HRD ministry) having ignored the dissents of the IITs’ senates, breaching the autonomy granted statutorily.”
Bharti also believes that Sibal’s promise of “one nation, one exam” is a myth since the joint exams will cover only the IITs, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and the Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs). Not the regional engineering colleges and other institutions.
Sibal’s reason for having a common entrance exam, where equal weightage is given to Class 12 marks, is simple: to reduce the number of exams a student has to give. A side objective is to reduce the importance of coaching classes.
But Firstpost believes that what he will end up achieving is a diminution of the IIT brand and an increase in the importance of coaching classes.
The IIT brand’s value comes from the quality of the students getting in, and this is in no small measure due to the Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) which the institutes administer. If IIT-JEE is going to be diluted with the addition of “normalised” Class 12 marks from various boards all over the country, JEE will lose its importance and credibility.
A better alternative would have been to make IIT-JEE the qualifier for all engineering colleges – with the higher rankers getting into the IITs and the rest into the other institutes.
As we noted some time back, the proposal to give weightage to class 12 results is even more controversial. There is an assumption that once Class 12 marks become important, students will depend less on coaching classes.
But will it happen that way?
When Class 12 results are given equal weightage for entry to IITs and the National Institutes of Technology (which get their student feeds from the AIEEE exams), will students go more to coaching classes or less? Even today, students take a year’s break to go to Kota and other special coaching centres to focus on IIT-JEE. If Class 12 becomes important, some students will, no doubt, drop out of coaching, but more of them will take even more coaching – for both IIT-JEE and Class 12. Their future now depends on maxing both exams. Who will take chances?
All Sibal would have succeeded in doing is making entrance exams an even bigger lottery. To insure against that, students will invest even more in coaching.
The challenge in Indian engineering education is not the quality or number of entrance tests we have, but what one gets after crossing these hurdles to reach the portals of an IIT or an NIT or REC. Unfortunately, this is not an area receiving much focus since the attempt, as Sibal says, is to get the aam aadmi into engineering institutes.
No one can object to the democratisation of education, but this calls for an improvement in the supply side of things – better faculty, better curriculum, better research, better mentoring of backward class students – not a lowering of the entry barriers which the entrance exams now set.
Last year, the negative impact of enhancing reservations for OBCs was obvious on IIT campuses: a huge faculty shortage of 2,500. RK Shevgaonkar, IIT, Delhi, director, said last October: “Every IIT is short of 30 percent faculty. This has happened due to the addition of 54 percent seats to accommodate more students in the OBC quota in the past few years. IIT, Delhi, has 416 faculty members against the required 800 teachers.”
But we are still talking only numbers – a shortage of 2,500 faculty for the IITs – not quality.
Little wonder, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh said some time ago that the IITs were known more for the quality of students they got than the quality of education they imparted.
Sibal’s initiative will level the field: now, both the standard of students getting in and the quality of education received will be in better alignment at a lower level.
This, of course, is not the best way to build excellence.
To understand why, look at Harvard. It is (arguably) the world’s greatest educational institution because it is autonomous – both financially and otherwise. It does not depend on the government for funds. The virtuous circle of autonomy works like this: first, you build a great institution by refusing to compromise on quality; then, your products will succeed and plough back their own wealth into the alma mater, and this money, in turn, will allow the institution to continue hiring the best faculty and students – if necessary by subsidising the best and brightest who can’t afford to enter Harvard.
Governments can legislate equality, but only institutional autonomy will ensure that quality is not compromised on the way to inclusivism.
What do we see in India?
The government continues to interfere with how the IITs are run, not only by lowering entry standards, but also by legislating expansion without the necessary investment in quality faculty and research facilities. The net result: a steady deterioration in the quality of IIT end-products, too. Not to speak of engineering education in general.
As Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy lamented some time ago, the top 20 percent of IIT students “can stand among the best anywhere in the world,” but the quality of the remaining 80 percent is variable – from average to pathetic.
His solution: get government out of managing the IITs. According to Murthy, most of the IIT governing councils should come from past alumni. “Nobody is bothered about an institution more than its alumni. We must somehow persuade the government of India to let go of its control and make sure a majority of the council members is the IIT alumni.”
But Sibal’s move on the common entrance test shows that he is heading in the opposite direction.
The message to Sibal should be clear: standardisation of entrance tests is fine, but without institutional autonomy we will merely be standardising mediocrity.
For this reason alone, one hopes that the IIT Delhi Alumni Association’s PIL does some good. Kapil Sibal’s unnecessary meddling in the IITs’ autonomy needs to be exposed for what it is: a political ploy.
(Parts of this post were published earlier in another Firstpost article. Read the full earlier report here)