The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the human resources development ministry appear to have reached a compromise on selecting students. Unless students rank among the top 20% in their state or school-affiliated board, they will be ineligible for an IIT seat. Superficially, it might seem that the IIT faculty and the government have both got their way. The marks obtained in the board exam will only function as a cut-off, not a determinant for preparing the merit list of examinees aspiring to an IIT seat. The IIT establishment was belligerently against giving weight to board examination marks in preparing the merit list. The government, on its part, will be happy that it’s now impossible for students to neglect their school examinations. Either way, the key purpose of these “reforms”, as articulated by none other than Union minister Kapil Sibal, was to reduce the multiplicity of examinations and curb the influence of private coaching institutions.
In a letter that was publicized by Sibal before the new plan was announced, he said: “Coaching institutes have gradually replaced our secondary schools. If there is no importance given to performance in school for access to our best institutions, then our schooling system will wither. We are creating an army of children adept at cracking examinations, but can they think critically?”
Newspaper advertisements already show that coaching institutes are offering newer, costlier packages that promise to train students to tackle the school and the double-barrelled IIT entrance exams. In the short term, unless and until the states eschew locally administered engineering entrance tests, there will be more, not fewer, such tests. The government expects schools and coaching institutes to align themselves more closely in the way they train students for engineering entrance examinations, but for that it must dramatically shore up the quality of the average Indian engineering institute.
More importantly, as several independent studies repeatedly point out, India’s school education on average is pretty pitiful. An embarrassingly large number of fifth graders are unable to tackle first-grade math and reading comprehension. There’s no reason to expect a poorly performing elementary school system to offer dramatically improved higher education. “One-nation, one test” is meaningless without a majority being equipped for it.
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