India's Elite Tech Entrance Tests

Concern is rising in India over changes in the entrance exam for the vaunted Indian Institutes of Technology that are known globally for their strict adherence to merit, excellence and the achievements of those who pass it.

Hundreds of thousands of aspirants appear every year for the common Joint Entrance Exam, considered one of the toughest in the world simply due to the sheer numbers that seriously prepare for the exam. Only about 10,000 make it into the schools annually.

The changes in the exam are being severely criticized by cross sections of society, some of the institutes themselves, the alumni and others. Educational groups have been revolting against the planned changes, which are due to go into effect next year. One parents’ group in Mumbai is planning to sue to stop them.

Under the new method, 40 percent weightage now will be given to marks obtained in Class XII, the final year of schooling in India, with 60 percent from the test itself. This is an attempt to reduce the burden on students and bring about primacy of the school system and education. The objections arise partly from the fact that the standardized tests will be graded by different boards across the country, which vary substantially in style and standards.

Presently, the entrance exam pattern is completely divorced from the school curriculum. This has spawned a multi-billion rupee business of coaching institutes specializing in helping aspirants crack the very tough engineering entrance code.

It is a similar story for the entry to the top management institutes and medical schools in India. Thus some of the most virulent criticism of the new concept is from those that are linked to the coaching centers although it should be added that that some of these learning points have done a brilliant job opening opportunities free of cost to many poor and brilliant kids who have gone on to make it. Such efforts are commendable.

The sore point is that the new marking method for entry into the technology institutes has an inherent urban bias given that students have access to far better private schools in the cities. The rural schools are shoddy as they are run by the government. The argument underlining the India versus Bharat divide is that the joint entrance exam as it has existed till now is an equalizer as it places both the deprived and the better off in even competition.

This, however, is a fallacious view that does not seek real solutions to India’s suboptimal schooling infrastructure and over-reliance on costly coaching centers that should at best be peripheral players.

In any case, those who qualify for the technology institutes invariably do well in the much simpler school examinations. And, they will continue to perform, wherever. The focus inevitably has been on those who make it rather than the many many more who don’t.

Poor families incur massive debts to meet the expenses of coaching institutes. If the wards make it, they turn into gods. If they don’t the options are very limited as the contribution of schools in developing students’ personalities is sub optimal.

The technology institutes have created superstars and super achievers that have served brand India well globally. However, the many thousands, especially in rural centers, who fail to qualify do not have a hope in hell of success due to the abysmal levels of India’s overall education system. Their childhoods are robbed preparing for the engineering entrance exams, depicted very well in the Aamir Khan movie 3-Idiots and also spelled out in some detail in the author Chetan Bhagat’s books.

The overemphasis on the super bright, especially in rural pockets, is because the government driven schooling has virtually collapsed. There is no way out of the morass unless one is a genius. But life in general is not about super men. The majority need to be imbued with skills that can equip them to earn reasonable livelihoods.

It is very heartening to hear about the child of a rickshaw puller making it to the IIT. What about the millions of kids who do not even get to go to primary school?

In urban India bright students score near 100 percent marks in school and still continue to struggle to find admissions in a good degree college. Some make it into the prestigious Delhi University while others endowed with the power of their families’ money add to the count of the thousands that head abroad for studies in America, the UK or Australia.

Yet the proliferation of quality private schools in urban India means that there is a bigger corpus of young people with reasonable exposures to the English language, rounded knowledge of subjects, extracurricular skills and sports.

The IITians, IIM graduates and the urban elite form the numbers that are absorbed by MNCs, software, outsourcing, telecom and service sector jobs such as hospitality, travel & tourism. Some are overqualified for the work they do – selling Maggie noodles or Coca Cola, after years of toil to make it through the highly competitive, yet distorted system.

The changes in the joint exams have unwittingly brought attention to the bigger failure of the government to set up quality schools for the poor across India. It is great to have the super star IITians in our midst. But India as a nation, will, however continue to clock below average marks if we keep producing some 100 per centers and many many more that languish below zero levels. This is the much bigger failure pushed under the carpet by the policy makers and more.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)