Do IIT reforms deliver?

Do IIT reforms deliver?
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First Published: Mon, Nov 16 2009. 11 05 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Nov 16 2009. 11 05 PM IST
The ministry of human resource development (HRD) is nudging the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to change their admission process to give greater weight to the class XII examination results. Key reasons put forth: to improve the quality of intake into IITs and to control the growth of Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) coaching centres. The question is whether these “reforms” and those made in the last several years by IITs actually deliver on the stated objectives. Coincidentally, this kind of “reform” is now spreading beyond IITs, too.
Since 2006, JEE comprises, almost entirely, “objective-type” questions. This would have been sacrilege in days gone by, when professors expected students to be able to describe the steps to get to an answer, allotting more marks to, say, a more elegant proof. But, with one change to JEE, IITs decided that the means were less important than the ends, thus diluting the very exam’s worth. And it is easier to coach a student to get the result than to teach one to understand the process: Coaching centres delivering “highly synthesized inputs” naturally mushroomed as a result.
This brings us to two fundamental problems plaguing the system: a fixation with “selection ratio” and lack of focus on nurturing the brand.
Selection ratio is the proportion of the number of candidates selected to the total number of applicants. IITs, with active prodding by the HRD ministry, have come to the conclusion that they are not selective enough. One way to reduce the ratio—making IITs statistically more selective—is by “popularizing” JEE and increasing the number of applicants. But once the applicants increase, it is difficult to evaluate the greater number of answer scripts with detailed answers; hence, the conclusion of “objective-type” questions. Lo and behold, the coaching centres see an economic windfall and the gold rush begins.
A related problem is the lack of focus on the brand. The brand ensures that only candidates who believe they have the wherewithal to get selected apply. One of the pillars of the IIT brand has been JEE’s toughness; with that gone, the brand starts to lose its sheen.
Even Indian IT companies appear to be on a similar path. Infosys claims on its website: “Last year, over 1.3 million people applied for a job at Infosys. Only 1% of them were hired. In comparison, Harvard College took in 9% of candidates”. Surely, the suggestion is not that people are forgoing their Harvard graduate programmes for a job at Infosys. It is sad that a fine brand in our industry is getting carried away by marketing spin rather than raising entry barriers on the supply side.
To really understand the exercise of true brand-building, take classical music and sports. In golf, an individual screens oneself through a handicapping system. The enormous hard work involved in becoming a professional golfer is quickly realized and the individual disqualifies oneself from the process. This results in a very high quality of output of golfers provided to the audience: So players, golf organizations, sponsors and audience gain. Similarly, very few find their calling in classical music. Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, the great Dhrupad exponent, was once asked what is required to make Dhrupad more popular. He refuted the very idea of making Dhrupad popular and said Dhrupad is a very difficult art; hence, he wanted only the committed to listen or learn. This was not a popularity contest.
Educational institutions and businesses are not popularity contests either. So how does it matter if the intake ratio is 1% or 100%?
Puranika Narayana Bhatta runs a finance and operations consulting firm in Bangalore. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Nov 16 2009. 11 05 PM IST