More than 50 years back, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were formed to provide engineering education of high standards to create able engineering manpower aimed at overcoming the poverty-ridden Indian nation. In addition to the objective of overcoming poverty, the nation had to look at making itself self-reliant in all walks of life and it was felt that it was possible only when we had a capable scientific and engineering manpower capable of not only executing projects but carry out research.
Education expenses were to be grossly subsidized at these IITs. This subsidy facilitated large number of talented students, right across the income levels and social spectrum to seek engineering education. To select the best for the limited seats, the Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) was evolved. The exam was tough and competitive and was equal playing field to students who had learnt their subjects at the 12th standard level and were quick in answering them at the IIT-JEE. Based on performance at this test, a merit list would get prepared for the students to select the stream of engineering they were to opt for. Admission to IITs was strictly on merit. No paper leak took place and everything appeared to be just to everyone. To sustain this standard over five decades is no mean performance. If changes are sought, it must be well thought out.
However, with the IT boom in the 1990s these young bright IIT graduates began to be picked up not just by universities but by IT firms in the US for employment. Hitherto they went to universities for higher education and many returned to IITs as faculty to teach and do research in their homeland. About 30% of faculty at IITs is IIT alumni. With the IT boom, competition to join IITs became severe and private coaching classes not only mushroomed all over but more so at a small town of Kota in Rajasthan, known till then for the sarees and floor tiles.
Students would concentrate on coaching rather than learning at the 11th and 12th standard classes and some even spent a year or two at Kota in preparation for the IIT-JEE. It was obvious that those who could afford these classes and reside at Kota would do so. They have looked at the education as business—focus, invest, get returns. It was only those who were so bright that they did not need rigorous coaching managed to be among the small number that were given admission out of two to three lakh aspirants. Many among those who missed a seat were equally bright; it was just that in that particular “one-day match” these aspirants fared marginally less than their potential.
When you pay much attention to your 11th and 12th standard course, there is an overall development. If you focus only on the JEE, it is at the cost of that development. IITs are not institutions churning out robots; they are to bring out thinking persons with all-round interests and abilities. Therefore IITs themselves have been thinking for some time now of how to make 11th and 12th standards relevant.
With this as background, let us jump to the “compromise formula” that has been agreed upon by IITs and the ministry of human resources—the Two Tier Exam. The first will be to shortlist a lakh of IIT aspirants from among now five lakh engineering course aspirants based on the merit list. The second tier examination will be the IIT-JEE style but with a rider that only those who rank among the top 20% of their respective boards will be eligible for admission to IITs.
Let us now look at whether critical criteria are met or not.
Currently all together IITs offer about 10,000 seats per year. This is 10% of a lakh being shortlisted from five lakh engineering aspirants in the country. The shortlisted one lakh anyway form 20% of five lakh, which is a substantial proportion. All aspirants would be eligible barring the exceptionally bright who might have fared poorly in their 11th and 12th standards. In the current system of near continuous evaluation in the 11th and 12th standards, it leaves very little scope to exceptionally bright student from not performing well enough to fall within the 20% of his or her board exam.
Now the question that is raised is about injustice to students of boards of better standards not falling within the top 20% of their boards but are by that virtue better than many of lower standard boards. Prima facie this appears to be true. But if you see that in the first tier exam this student from boards of better standards has not performed well and has got eliminated while the one from “lower standard board” has got through, first ‘just’ filtering has taken place.
The question to ask is whether IITs must take only the ‘best’ students or should they also have a collective ‘best’ which provided equal opportunity to the collective best? Doesn’t the nation have the responsibility of providing opportunity to the bright young student who was born to less affluent parents and also has belonged to boards by virtue of being resident in a particular state or town where no other “better standard” boards exist and also cannot get coaching but like Ekalavya, has worked hard with high motivation and crossed the first tier barrier? Should he or she be deprived of the education IITs provide? One must remember that this youngster is Ekalavya.
In our democratic polity, Ekalavyas must a find place. Students of IITs are bright no doubt, but it is the IIT experience that brings out the best out of the one who entered the institute. Ekalavyas will always shine if his or her thumb is not cut off as Guru Dakshina.
(Sudhir Badami is a civil engineer and transportation analyst. He is on Government of Maharashtra’s Steering Committee on BRTS for Mumbai and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s Technical Advisory Committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority. He was member of Bombay High Court appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He is member of the committee constituted by the Bombay High Court for making the Railways, especially the suburban railways system friendly towards Persons with Disability (2011- ). While he has been an active campaigner against Noise for more than a decade, he is a strong believer in functioning democracy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)