(Mint file)
(Mint file)

Opinion | What do you do about this 'IIT dream' madness of parents?

This craze is a systemic and social problem and we need to address it for the sake of our children

A piece I wrote last week in this paper on the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) craze among the Indian middle class has provoked intense discussion on social media. In brief, I had argued that over the last 25 years, millions of parents, under the delusion that a seat in an IIT is a ticket to paradise on earth, have disregarded their children’s real talents and interests, robbed them of a normal childhood and adolescence, forced them to go through the years-long grind of coaching classes and, at the end of it (even if they do get into an IIT—a 1% probability), left many of them psychologically damaged, possibly permanently. And that, despite the hype, an IIT degree by itself hardly guarantees you a hotshot career.

Among those who responded to my piece, those unaware of the trend expressed shock. A couple of them proposed that the article be translated in vernacular languages (an IITian has, in fact, already sent me a Hindi translation) so that it can reach many more parents.

A former deputy chief of army staff suggested that the article should be recirculated every week. Nearly everyone who was, or is, part of the IIT system thought that what I had written was correct.

What are the solutions? A very senior educationist asked why we couldn’t have 50 IITs instead of the current 23 — wouldn’t that ease the problem a lot? But in recent years, even the top IITs have been finding it hard to hire quality faculty. So, that’s easier said than done. Besides, a BITS Pilani or a Delhi Technology University could be providing better education than the newbie IITs, and recruiters know this. Parents need to inform themselves, and not stay mesmerised by the IIT brand.

But there is no way parents can realize their folly in coercing their children to study engineering, unless large numbers of children themselves rebel.

Till perhaps the mid-1990s, engineering and medicine were seen by the middle class as the only careers that could “guarantee" their children a good life. Today, there are many more professions that pay very well for talent and merit. These parents must be shaken awake.

Studies like a recent one done in IIT-Kharagpur on students’ mental health issues must be widely publicized. The survey found that 84% BTech students felt that mental health was a real problem on the campus, 72% had experienced anxiety or depression and, among them, 24% had thought of suicide. Several respondent statements are cries for help: That society must make parents aware that they “should not force their dreams onto their children and give them the freedom to make mistakes and fail from time to time".

Others speak of severe stress about living up to parents’ career aspirations post-IIT, and their inability to pursue their own passions.

On to the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) itself and the coaching class system that feeds off it. The coaching industry must be hit mercilessly. In 2011, the government suggested giving weightage to the candidates’ Class XII board marks for IIT admission. This made poor sense, and was dropped. One good idea is that, in addition to physics, chemistry and math, the JEE should test for IQ and general problem-solving skills, which the coaching classes’ rote learning methods will be unable to teach (or take some years to catch up). This is easy to implement, and should be considered.

What IIT-Bombay professor Kannan Moudgalya, himself an IITian, suggests is far more radical. He proposes that Class XII students sit for the JEE Main (the JEE first stage), which is kept comparatively simple, and offers admission to 100-200 select engineering colleges, with, say, 50,000 seats.

They sit for the JEE Advanced at the end of their second year and, those selected, go to IITs to complete years III and IV, and get their BTech degrees (maybe joint degrees with their colleges).

The JEE Advanced tests engineering aptitude, so only bright and motivated students will get through. In their first two years in college, desirous students can be mentored by IITs free of cost. Teachers, too, can be guided and the colleges can aim for higher accreditation.

This will reduce pressure on school students, and give them more free time to play or pursue other interests, while IIT science professors, with lower work load, can work with school students interested in science research.

This innovative idea kills many birds with one stone, but requires a complete rethinking of the IIT system, as we have known it, for the last 68 years.

We have a huge problem on our hands with the IITs, one of the finest achievements of post-Independence India, a problem affecting a large swath of society.

We need to bell that cat and find some solutions, quickly. And, bureaucrats can’t do that.

The IITs are a unique system, and only direct stakeholders understand it fully—perhaps most of all, the alumni. No one knows the system and cares for it more than they do.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder -editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines and an IIT alumnus

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