Kalpana Pathak & M Saraswathy / Mumbai Jun 15, 2012, 00:13 IST
Should board exam results be factored in for admission to an IIT? Who gets to decide? These are the key issues fanning the flames of this debate
A firestorm of controversy has engulfed one of the pillars of the Indian education system—one that’s considered sacrosanct and enjoys a pride of place for Indians worldwide—the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). These schools, started by the government of India after independence, attract arguably the country’s brightest science students, who get admission by writing what is widely regarded one of the toughest entrance exams in the world.
The stakes are high. Admission virtually assures a gateway to full scholarships abroad for Masters or Phd programmes in engineering or computer science, or careers in some of the best homegrown technology companies. Droves of IIT alumni have discovered entrepreneurial opportunities in Silicon Valley and made piles of money at global investment banks and consulting firms.
This is why the world surrounding this temple of science and engineering was thrown into tumult when Kapil Sibal, the minister of human resource development, decided that the IITs need a new test. This was to make the institutions more inclusive and relevant to high-school education. Ostensibly, the concern was that people were expending all their energies in trying to crack JEE rather than focusing on getting the right formal education.
Here is what the new rejigged exam would look like: Under the new format, exams for admission would be conducted in two parts, JEE (joint entrance examination)-main and JEE-advanced. In the initial screening, candidates numbering five times the number of seats available for admission would be selected, based on both the JEE main exam results as well as a candidate’s class XII board/equivalent scores, which would be normalised on a percentile basis by a formula. Then, this pool of candidates would be evaluated solely on the ‘advanced’ portion of the exam.
This 'magic formula' that would determine the initial pool of applicants was suggested by an IIT Madras professor, who said it was the best possible solution to the entrance examination debate. "The human resource development ministry adopted this formula after months of deliberation and research. We have been neglecting school education to the extent that students go to schools merely for attendance. This has to be reversed. Schools should be relevant to students and performance in those should be considered for getting into IITs," he said.
He added that since the Supreme Court had said that board exam results should be declared by May every year, this new pattern could be implemented from 2013 itself.
So, why are the IITs so incensed?
First, not all IITs are furious about this decision. IIT Guwahati, IIT Bombay and IIT Madras have by and large been on the ministry’s side, although the issue does have dissenters on campus.
IIT Delhi, Kharagpur and Kanpur are dead against the new policy. IIT Delhi’s alumni association is so worked up about the issue that they have decided to take the ministry to court. IIT Kanpur has followed by announcing it will conduct its own JEE in 2013 and co-ordinate with those IITs that choose to join in its admission process. IIT Kharagpur's director Damodar Acharya finds himself alienated from his faculty members in backing IIT Delhi and Kanpur's decision.
The problem, these IITs say, is that the new format is a retrograde step and challenges their autonomy. "IITs have become what they are because they have been allowed to function independently, and set appropriate standards in carrying out their academic responsibilities. The IIT Council proposal, if implemented, will seriously compromise the autonomy so essential for IITs to remain what they are," IIT Kharagpur said in a statement.
Second, the ones in favour of the changes do not want the examination to be conducted in 2013. "Hopes of hundreds of thousands of students each year rest on these exams. So, the government shouldn't take it lightly. The decision on JEE should be taken after proper research and figures are taken into account," says IIT Kanpur professor, AK Chaturvedi.
Supporters of the new move find this dissent puzzling. “I fail to understand why the IIT faculty is protesting so vehemently. I think this will facilitate better students, as, when you get weightage of two examinations, it will be a good proposal,” says M D Tiwari, director, Indian Institute of Information Technology Ahmedabad
One main reason why Sibal was so vocal while spearheading this change was to discourage the coaching industry that tries to game the system and purportedly produces candidates better at memorising solutions to problems rather than learning how to think independently.
‘MAGIC FORMULA’ FOR A NEW TEST
Board exmanination scores will be considered in the admission process
This, however, doesn’t seem to have gone according to the plan. Big players in this field like Career Point Infosystems and Resonance in Kota have already begun courses for Class XI and XII since January. "The new pattern that gives equal weightage to board examination marks will actually increase the business in the tutorial space," says Pramod Maheshwari, CEO, Career Point. The new pattern will just require tweaking of the delivery model, since the final merit list will be based on the performance in the JEE advanced test, he adds.
Praveen Tyagi, managing director, IITian's Pace, says, "This decision is a big boon for us, because we have already been offering coaching for the board examinations. In fact, about 90 per cent of the admissions are for the integrated programmes we offer in colleges."
Ultimately, however, the reason for this controversy hinges on broken promises, say detractors of the new policy.
Apparently, Sibal had made a promise about incorporating the views of the faculty members in the final decision on the IIT-JEE exam, but this never happened. “Sibal asked all the seven senates of the IITs (older ones) to give suggestions on JEE 2013 and said the final decision would be taken after all the senates had given their views. He suggested an IIT council meeting would be held, which would come up with a proposal based on the feedback given by the senates,” says a faculty member from IIT Kanpur. “But the second meet never took place,” he adds.
Sibal claimed the changes were approved without dissent at the IIT Council meeting and had the backing of the senates—comprising faculty—from four of the seven IITs. He maintained he had categorically stated at the meet that if "there was a single dissent" he would not go ahead with the proposal.
"The council consists of the IITs, the IIITs and the NITs. There was not a single dissent. It was unanimously adopted. Therefore, I went forward," the minister says.
Meanwhile, Sibal has made it clear that there would be no rollback of his decision. This virtually assures the next round of pitched battles to be fought over the stakes of how a seat should be assigned at one of the most sought-after education Meccas in the world.