IIT Entrance Exams: Through The Wrong End of the Telescope!

Courtesy: Wikipedia
Education minister Kapil Sibal’s plans to revamp the system of entrance examination to the IITs has stirred up a fair bit of criticism, debate and an unfortunate display of emotions. It is quite possible that minister Sibal might just be barking up the wrong tree. But, even if you grant that, it is also true that the armies of the aggrieved are possibly looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
Minister Sibal has proposed that marks/grades obtained at the entrance exams should not be the only qualifying criterion for students aspiring admission into IITs. The Institutes should also take into account school performance, because while a particular student might have shown consistently good academic results in school, she could just be having a bad time on the day of the entrance exam.
Fair enough. But, that invites its own set of problems. A bulk of India’s school-going students attend institutions which report to their respective state education boards and the grading pattern, thereby, differs vastly across states. While some state boards are lenient with grading, some are exceedingly tight-fisted. This writer should know: the West Bengal state education board mistakenly believes (or, used to believe) that low marking was a virtuous sign of quality education. Therefore, there is a felt need to regularise grades across states.
The ostensible reason behind minister Sibal’s exercise is to stem the growing informal industry of coaching classes, which help students focus – through boot camps – exclusively on cracking the entrance exam. This, it’s felt, is diluting the quality of students entering IITs and, thereby, the quality of engineers entering the job market.
This whole process has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The IIT faculty and alumni have voiced their outrage: they feel that the new system will not only harm the IIT cache but also spawn a new breed of coaching classes that will focus on fetching superlative grades at the school level. IIT alumni members are all influential members of society and therefore this has triggered off a different kind of power politics.
It is true that Kapil Sibal might need to revisit his proposal because if the quality of students is an issue, then the rot starts at the school level, especially the government schools. There is an article written by Ravish Tiwari on this in The Indian Express (read it here). Also, will incorporating the school-leaving academic records stem the rot in the system? Unlikely. In fact, it runs the danger of even breeding an entirely new breed of elitists, who will be selected by IITs for reasons that might be only borderline meritorious but sneakingly subjective. But, undoubtedly, something needs to be done.
Even the IIT faculty and alumni need to introspect. The Express article mentions that the faculty and administration did indeed start debating the quality of students they were taking in every year. How do you change that? One unavoidable option is to overhaul the entrance exam. For instance, should the entrance exams include a separate paper on English? Also, if the quality of engineers graduating is a concern, then the faculty should also take equal responsibility. These students spend four very critical, and impressionable, years of their life in an IIT campus. It is therefore up to the faculty to re-engineer (sorry, that was an unintended) the syllabus, the mix of courses and the pedagogy.
Now, for the other end of the telescope. One reason for the mad rush to get into IITs is the assurance of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And, here the pot of gold are the IIMs, or the Indian Institutes of Management. These premier institutes also have a common entrance exam that is contentious. The structure of the exam shows that it’s weighted towards engineering students – or, it helps you score marks if you are an engineer. Also, given the tag of premier management institutes, students graduating here have a shot at the best jobs – make that the best-paying jobs – in the employment market. Therefore, the rush to get into IIT since admission in this hallowed institution is a guarantee of sorts. It definitely smoothens the path into IIM. Or, so is the perception.
It is this end of the telescope that Kapil Sibal and all education experts need to be tackling. Because the end is justifying the means.

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