Sunday July 22, 2012
Row over admissions to premier colleges
By COOMI KAPOOR
It is not easy to fix a broken education system. Kapil Sibal, Human Resources Development Minister, learnt it on the job the hard way recently. He set out to right the flawed entrance exam to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, but met stiff resistance from all quarters.
The stand-off threatened to disrupt the functioning of the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), with its faculties taking up cudgels against the minister for trying to erode the autonomy of these islands of excellence in an otherwise bleak scenario.
Sibal, a lawyer-turned-politician, believed that the current admission test for the IITs was skewed in favour of learning by rote, and virtually ignored results at the school level.
Keen to change the system, he ordered that all the 16 IITs conduct a common entrance test which would consider marks obtained in the school-leaving 12th board exams.
Given the popularity of privately-run coaching schools, which prepare tens of thousands of students for the IIT entrance exam annually, the minister contended that the present system was like a lottery.
Anyone who happened to learn by rote the right answers get admitted, while even genuinely bright students failed to make it. Indeed, a number of small towns had come to be associated with private IIT coaching.
The most famous one in north India, for example, was in Kota, a small town in Rajasthan.
The entire economy of this hitherto little known town revolved around scores of coaching institutes which attracted tens of thousands of aspirants for various competitive exams, be it for the IITs, or the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Foreign Service, or various other competitive exams, from various neighbouring states.
For a hefty tuition fee, averaging about US$2,000 (RM6,200), coaching institutes made their recruits master the question papers of the IIT exams in the previous two or three decades.
In other words, by making them learn by rote answers to the entire gamut of questions asked previously, they put them on a higher footing than those who lacked the benefit of such coaching even if they had performed exceedingly well in the school-leaving board exams.
Sibal wanted to change this system of admission which relied heavily on the performance in the all-India Joint Entrance Exam for IITs.
How an applicant had fared in the 12th standard board exams ought to be fully taken into account while evaluating his chances for admission into the IITs, he argued.
Immediately the IITs were up in arms, protesting that the minister was tinkering with a system which had served their cause very well. Besides, he had no business to interfere since they enjoyed autonomy from ministerial interference.
IIT graduates are so valued that major Indian and foreign companies operating in India snap them up for huge pay packets at annual campus recruitment camps.
Notably, the IITs had carved a special niche for themselves in the otherwise broken educational infrastructure in the country, with its alumni making a huge mark globally.
In particular, the US corporate world was teeming with IIT graduates in various top-notch positions. A number of IIT alumni had gone on to become billionaires, with quite a few of them making million-dollar endowments to their former alma maters.
So, when Sibal announced his intention to drastically alter the IIT entrance system, public opinion was overwhelmingly against him.
He was asked to mend the broken elementary school system suffering from a high drop-out rate, non-payment of salaries to teachers for years on end, widespread teacher absenteeism, non-existent school buildings, poor quality of instruction, etc. IITs, it was argued, were the only bright spots in an otherwise depressing educational landscape.
Egged on by the adverse public opinion against ministerial interference, several IITs rejected Sibal’s proposal to introduce the new system of entrance examination from the 2013 academic session.
They said they would stick by the present system under which some half a million aspirants armed with a first class school-leaving certificate (60% pass marks or above) sit for a stiff written exam for admission to 16 IITs.
The IITs are graded by the degree of excellence and specialisation in various disciplines, with the top ones in Mumbai, Kanpur, Delhi and Chennai bagging the best and the brightest from among the successful students.
Given that there are about 10,000 seats, only one among 50 manages to get admitted to the IITs every year. A 5% to 10% concession in entrance exam for students belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes ensures that the reserved quota seats are duly filled in these much-valued institutions.
After initial rejection, the IITs were engaged in an informal dialogue by the HRD Ministry. The resulting compromise saw both sides yield some ground.
From the 2013 academic season, instead of one there will be two tests, one Joint Entrance Exam, Main, and another Joint Entrance Exam, Advanced. The former would be conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education and the latter by the IITs, taking turns among themselves each year to conduct it.
The 150,000 aspirants who clear the preliminary test will be eligible to sit for the exam to be conducted by the IITs.
However, a list of successful candidates from these 150,000 examinees would be drawn taking into account their marks in the 12th board exam. Only those who figured in the top 20% of the successful board exams would be considered for admission to the IITs.
In other words, it is possible that even if someone who tops the entrance exam to the IITs, but does not figure in the top 20 of that year’s successful candidates in the 12th board exam, will be denied admission into the IITs.
Critics point out that instead of lessening the role of coaching and learning by rote, the new system for IIT admissions would actually enhance it further.
For there will be pressure on students to go for private tuitions and coaching even at the school level. This in turn would cause further financial burden on parents, especially given the woeful quality of schools in large parts of the country, especially in small towns and rural areas.