India’s top engineering schools have shed their cloak of secrecy and become more transparent about their admission criteria.
Last week, the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, disclosed on their website the results of the gruelling test they administer to 17-year-olds to select the country’s future managerial, scientific and entrepreneurial elite.
The disclosures, which were being demanded by people under the three-year-old Right to Information Act, are a step in the right direction. The statistics should be of immense use to planners and politicians for they do reveal that India’s caste-based affirmative-action programme in higher education isn’t levelling the playing field. The economics of a talent search is loaded against discovering gems that lack the polish of tutoring.
Following the Union government’s instructions, IITs have, starting this year, introduced a quota for “other backward castes.”
These are artisan-peasant communities that have, in the past couple of decades, used their growing political and economic clout to wrangle concessions from the state.
To fill the seats reserved for them, the minimum cut-off for the backward caste candidates was relaxed to 172.
By contrast, students from the “general category” needed a total of at least 180 marks in mathematics, physics and chemistry, the three testing subjects, to make the final cut.
With new IITs being set up, the size of the opportunity is expanding for all aspirants. However, the reservation policy also gives backward caste candidates an advantage in selecting their majors. That puts general students at a disadvantage in highly sought-after programmes, such as computer science.
Any heartburn from this can be ameliorated by a much-needed capacity expansion of some programmes. To eliminate the problem, selection of majors could be postponed to the sophomore year.
What’s not going to be as easily fixed is the anti-poor bias that has—without any deliberate effort by selectors—crept into the examination process.
This is reflected in the abysmal test scores of candidates from the really oppressed sections of society—the so-called scheduled castes and tribes.
According to statistics released by IIT authorities, the minimum cut-off mark had to be reduced by a whopping 42% to admit about 850 students from these two groups, or less than 10% of all successful candidates.
Coached to perfection
It’s an irony that in a country where returns on higher education have probably never been higher, many of the IIT seats reserved on the basis of caste haven’t been filled this year, according to a 24 July report in Mint newspaper.
A big part of the problem is that the IIT entrance test has now become an estimated $2 billion (Rs8,380 crore today) industry.
This creates an unfair system.
Students from poor families who can’t afford private coaching stand a small chance against their more affluent peers who start preparing as early as the seventh grade to get ready for a test they won’t be taking for another five years.
Many IIT professors now wonder if their testing system— the one they have proudly proclaimed as the toughest in the world—is preventing the discovery of real, but untutored, talent.
As M.S. Ananth, director of IIT Chennai, told The Times of India recently, coaching classes are producing masters of “pattern recognition.”
“With this, you can’t get students with raw intelligence,” he said.
There are no quick fixes.
If IITs scrap their admission test, how do they select fewer than 7,000 students out of 300,000 aspirants?
Ananth’s proposal is to limit competition to the top 1% of high school students in the country. Even this is problematic. The state school system is in disarray. If acing the IIT entrance tests has degenerated into mastering pattern recognition, doing well in school exams has become synonymous with rote learning.
Indian educationists may have to think of more innovative ways to discover raw talent, especially now that the domestic economy has the capacity to make use of their aptitude.
Surveys show that IIT graduates are now more likely to stay at home and contribute to the local economy than in the past when every third alumnus went abroad, mostly to the US and western Europe.
Transparency in selection procedures is a good first step. The next move should be to retool the process. (Bloomberg)
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