Taking the ‘quality @ IIT’ debate to the next level

Being an Engineering student myself, INFOSYS founder Mr. Narayan Murthy’s comments on the quality of students at IITs and the debate that followed interested me. Mr. Murthy commented that the coaching institutes that prepare students for cracking the IIT JEE entrance examination are the primary reason for the decrease in the quality of students entering IITs. Expectedly, the comments caused furore. Some opposed and some supported this view. But that’s it. That’s how debates happen in our country. People talk pros and cons of a topic, stress on trivial issues and the topic dies a premature death. Debates are rarely taken to the next level here.

My personal opinion on this issue is that coaching institutes are definitely not the reason for falling standards. These are the symptoms of a larger problem in the IIT entrance system. These institutes just exploit the loopholes in that system. The larger problem is the unnecessary importance the IIT exam system gives on the rank secured in the JEE. If single factor decides your entry to prestigious institutes like IITs, then everyone will try to score over others on that single factor. And that is when the third parties like coaching institutes come into the picture promising you to help in this cut-throat race. The present entrance system ensures only ruthless competition but no one ever pondered: Is this competition worth it? Does IITs get what they deserve? And most importantly, do the students who deserve IITs get there through this system?

There is one more issue, in my opinion, that is responsible for the falling quality of IIT students. Do people genuinely interested in engineering get into Engineering institutions? The answer is no. When you say, the present quality is not like what used to be, it really means previously those interested in pursuing career in Engineering used to enter such institutes and others chose other options. But the case is different now. Most of the students joining Engineering do not join it because they love it but because they (and their parents, relatives and ‘well wishers’) find Engineering course ‘glamorous’. Have you ever wondered why the quality of IIT students is more than the quality of students at state engineering colleges and the quality of the latter more than the quality of students studying in private colleges? The reason is the same. No wonder, more uninspired engineers are produced from the local private colleges.

But never ever a debate happens over this. We are only interested to know whether Narayan Murthy was right. But thankfully, IIT Guwahati Director has taken the debate to the next level. This morning, an interview of Mr. Gautam Barua, Director, IITG appeared in the Sunday TOI. I am reproducing the interview here and urge you to read it. Emphasis has been added to the parts of the interview that I found most important.

The Interview of Gautam Barua to TOI

TOI: Do you agree with N R Narayana Murthy’s comment that the quality of students entering IITs is poor?

Gautam Barua (GB): I don’t agree with the comment that IIT students are not good. I don’t fully agree with what Narayana Murthy said. The issue really is how the obsession with coaching is affecting the students entering IITs.

TOI: How is the coaching culture affecting students?

GB: It makes its impact on students after their selection. On entering the IITs after undergoing excessive coaching, the students are almost burnt-out and mentally fatigued. Then the IITs for them become a place to relax. Coaching is the primary reason that affects the performance of students. A mindset has been created that if they (students) do not opt for coaching, they may not have the chance to get admission to the IITs. That is why there is such a big business in coaching.

IIT has a brand value. Parents and students want to enter IIT without thinking what they will do. So after they graduate from the IITs, many of them don’t go for engineering jobs; they rather go for the finance sector, management or do jobs which have no connection with engineering. We have seen that about half of the students from IITs are really not interested in engineering.

TOI: Isn’t that undermining the excellent engineering education imparted by the institution?

GB: It is time for the government to create IIT-like institutions in the field of humanities. Let there be IIT-like institutions in economics, philosophy and other fields of humanities, with IIT-like campuses and branding. Then it will no longer be necessary for students to get admitted to IITs and later join non-engineering jobs. 

TOI: Does coaching by private institutes make entry into the IITs easier?

GB: IIT coaching is an industry now. But it doesn’t matter to us when it comes to student admissions. Even if there are no coaching centres, the IITs will fill up their seats with students.

TOI: Is there a move to make changes in the selection process of IITs?

GB: Yes, the government and the IIT council discussed the issues of the entrance examination and coaching institutes in September. It was decided to change the admission process where the current JEE will be replaced by the school board results and results of an aptitude test. Since there are 30 school boards in the country, a common method of standardized board results has to be decided upon. The method proposed by the council is to use the percentile ranks of students. There is little arithmetic in this. In this method, the absolute marks will be decided as the rank of the student in his/her board along with the size of the board (i.e., number of students taking the examination in the science stream in the board).

TOI: Will this method reduce the students’ over-dependence on coaching?

GB: Once this scheme is in place, the coaching part will be part of the board exams. So, with this method, school education becomes very important. I think it will be fine for schools to prepare students for the IITs.

TOI: Has the IIT brand changed or lost its sheen in recent years?

GB: Two decades back, the IIT as a brand solely depended on quality BTech students. Today, more than half of all the students in the IITs are in post-graduate courses. So in the 21st century, the IIT is in the process of building its brand through research and development, rather than through BTech output.

*End Of Interview*

I will be an engineering graduate in less than a year but admittedly I never loved engineering. Now I want to do an MBA but this time it is a conscious decision unlike the one I took 4 years ago. People often ask me why do I want an MBA after ‘wasting’ 4 years in Engineering (asking this question has become fashionable after the 3Idiots). I am blamed to have wasted Government’s money by joining engineering in a prestigious state govt. funded college and then shied away from doing engineering jobs. But the BBA/B.Com stream (students of which stream should logically get into the MBA bandwagon) was never made ‘glamorous’ for me to join it. This world always gave priority to the B.Tech+MBA degrees. So where is my mistake in choosing Engineering as my launchpad for an MBA degree? People join Medical or Engineering after Higher Secondary education simply because these fields are glamorous. If there had been any other glamorous and seemingly productive way available to go the MBA way, I (and many like me) might have used that. This is effectively the reason why the quality of engineers is dropping day by day. We, the ‘uninspired’ engineers, block the seats of those who might have loved engineering more than us. But the system gave neither us nor them an option. As Mr. Barua said in the interview, let there be top class IIT like institutes in every field of education so that students can pursue career in an area of their choice. Only then you should expect students of quality expected by IITs joining IITs.

[Sorry to the regular readers for not updating this blog for last one and half months. Academic pressure kept me away from the blog even though a number of incidents happened during this period that I would have loved to cover. The compulsions are not going to end anytime soon. So it may be hard to keep this space updated. May be till February next year. My target will be to find time to write at least one post per month till February 2012.]


2 thoughts on “Taking the ‘quality @ IIT’ debate to the next level

  1. Harsh says:

    Mr.Sundar you just have hit the core of the problem. Its hightime that IIT-JEE should be complemented with personal interviews. JEE is very much famous for its pattern of questions. It is very good and also it would be better to test the creativity of students.
    The other issue is lack of proper professors. I am not lamenting about their knowledge and experience, but about their absymal teaching skills, lack of student teacher interactions at IIT.
    Meeting such profs will kill creativity of students thus killing their interest.
    Students need to understand that IIT’s are not for showbiz. They are for tech geeks. Glamour behind IIT’s come from fact that students at IIT work very very cleverly and very hard. IIT tag does not secure your life. Getting inside IIT is far more easier than getting out for those who dont love engineering.
    Parents need to understand this very much. Please donot force your child for IIT. If your child doesnot like engineering encourage him in his field of passion. Please dont let your child suffer trauma of IIT-JEE preparation and failure. If he cracks JEE with out interest in engineering and if he joins IIT, you have forced your child to take highway to the most torturous hell.
    Politicians can never understand IIT life, they do what ever they wish with out seeking proper advice. When all this problems would be solved then people please debate abt IIT standards

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