The recent change to the IIT admission procedures affects a small percentage of Indians. However, it is a glaring example of how politicians and we as a nation have scant respect for excellence.
The IITs receive disproportionate attention is because they are our symbols of excellence. The institutes have, over the last few decades, built an extraordinary brand for themselves in India and, to a certain extent, even abroad. It is hard to imagine they are state-owned.
Sure, the IITs are not without their flaws. They suffer from issues like lack of creativity, elitism, conservatism and excessive focus on grades. However, for the large part, the institutes are excellent. It is a middle-class Indian dream to get admission into them, which in turn opens up career opportunities and is a stamp of excellence for life.
This success has been due to the autonomy provided to the institutes, their resources and the quality of people who work there. The other big reason is a strong, almost draconian joint entrance exam (JEE) system. The college attracts and is able to filter top students who have the ability and determination to excel. On the other hand, given the desirability of the place versus the number of seats, the exam stress for students is immense.
In a bid to reduce this stress, the HRD ministry has recommended changes to the admission procedures. The changes include a common entrance exam for the IITs and the NITs, a two-paper format including the main test and the advanced test. These changes may bring some streamlining and are not harmful. However, one big change can be a threat to the IITs— giving a 50% weightage to class XII board examination scores.
These scores would be normalized and could be from any of the 42 state and national boards across the country. Thus, the core component of the IIT selection, its own JEE would be immensely diluted. What will come in its place will be exams based on CBSE or other boards. To score well in board exams, application of concepts or analytical abilities —important indicators of student excellence — are not often required. There is sheer arbitrariness too. In my class XII science subjects, 30% of the weightage was for practicals. Those who were liked by the teacher obtained full marks. Now these marks will count in the IIT selections.
Needless to say, all sorts of bizarre issues will emerge with this change. Students will fight to get high board marks as well as do well in JEE exams. The stress will not fall; it will in fact rise significantly. Coaching classes will not reduce but multiply, for now they will prepare students for the entrance exams as well as the boards. All purported benefits of this move are non-existent. In scientific terms, it introduces a high element of randomness in the selection procedure, versus the talent of the student.
The stress can only be reduced if we have more A-grade colleges, with strict quality control. If there are thousands on a train platform and only one train, making the doors wider is not going to help the situation. You have to add more trains.
And of course, this is the harsh reality our politicians want to hide. The real difference will come if the IITs multiply, or at least help create another engineering college brand. Change will come if Delhi University doubles its intake. Why can’t Delhi University open satellite campuses in Gurgaon or Noida? What is stopping the government from doing so? Why are the rules for education in the private sector so shady? Why don’t good people want to enter private education? These are the questions that need to be answered.
However, the politics of symbolism has become a lifestyle. Dalit meals, cartoons, temples, entrance exam changes, elite school quotas — all are dished out so that people don’t face the real issues.
The irony is few Indians care about this violation of excellence. Many even support the move — partly believing fallacies about reducing stress and partly because we don’t think it really matters either way. More than anything, we as a society do not value talent and excellence as much. We feel someone elected to power has the right to control, interfere and even murder excellence. In fact, the bigger question is this — why can’t we let the IITs run themselves? Why are we forcing things down their throat, which will hurt their brand in the long-term?
The fact is that if the minister announced a lottery to get into the IIT rather than an exam, the majority may support it. After all, most cannot get into an IIT, so a lottery improves their chances. Should we do it then? The current changes are akin to a lottery element being added to the entrance exam. It may even enjoy some public support. However, over time, it will destroy the IITs and make them less excellent. And when some of the excellence that we have in India dies, it hurts.