Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thoughts on IIT JEE

 Tried to make few changes based on inputs that I received later. I probably should have indicated  that the first one was only a beta version of the post :-)  .... A follow up post appears here (Link).

Thanks to all the contributors!

The decision making process for new IIT JEE appears more interesting to me than the proposals themselves. Each of the proposal I read in various forums has its own merit and all contributors deserve thanks from the IIT community. It shows the amount of concern people have for IITs and this goodwill, perhaps is the single most achievement of IIT system in 60 years of its existence. Contribution develops an ownership and when you own it, you care for its well being. Thank you all the contributors in various forums. You own us, you won us!

The dilemma

I tend to agree with almost all the proposals when I find how strongly the arguments are put in their favour, even if they contradict each other!! The decision makers need to take a final decision after weighing pluses and minuses of each proposal. The maxima and minima of different objectives being articulated may not converge to the same point. For example, the maxima for getting the best students to IIT and the minima to be achieved on coaching centre effect may not lie at the same point. There must be some cost-benefit analysis for this before it swings from one direction to other.

Should I, should I not?

Do I have an opinion of my own? I believe that I need NOT have an opinion on everything and comment on it. I may not have sufficient expertize. It could be so that I could not study the issue enough or I lack ground raw data to build an hypothesis. However, being a part of IIT system for long, taking IIT-JEE in 1986, graduating from Electronics and ECE of IITKGP in 1990, working for PhD here during 1994-1999 and serving as a faculty member for little less than 10 years now, I may share a few words not as an expert, but as a simple onlooker who is with the flow.I don't know what I say is in synch with the time - it may be ahead of or it may belong to the time we have left behind. But history repeats! Does it not? :-)

Not my cup of tea

It may not be easy to curb coaching class effect by introducing any change in IIT-JEE. This is more of a social issue. The parents who can afford, will go all out to give any extra edge, even if it is minuscule 1-2%, for their wards in a highly competitive examination like this so that the probability of getting admitted increases. Way back in 1986, I have seen parents who can afford, engaging three private tutors for single subject - each tutor was assumed to be expert in one aspect of the subject. The corporatization of coaching came to take advantage of this space where entrepreneurs saw an opportunity . If some benovalent group provides free but quality IIT-JEE coaching then there will be coaching centres to prepare students to get admission into those free coaching centres. I read in some post (Link) of Times of India that higher dowry associated with IITian label, is the motivation for some. I believe that with the single child family on the rise, the burgeoning and aspiring middle class creating an assertive space for itself and the high stake involved in clearing the exam. will not allow the coaching centres to close, even if you, I and they wish to. They will evolve to fit into any new paradigm to cater to the demand of you and me.

Core issue asking attention

We may speak ill of many things, but when our own turn comes we usually do not fall short of using it, to make our son / daughter reach an advantageous position relative to other children who may be equal or more meritorious. This is my take on the society which is yet to stress on man-making, character-building education and is trying to address the symptoms - not the cause. My little experience is that the young are very good, are more ready to embrace an egalitarian society, give people their due and they need to be nurtured well from early age. We elders inject selfishness into them to protect our interest and cry foul later when they become too selfish, more than what we wanted to make of them.We expect that all challenging jobs will be taken care of child of somebody else, not mine. All comforts and no hardship for my child in life's journey - after all, it is a competitive environment where other children are opponents! But, in this land of Mahabharata, a son goes to his mother to seek blessings before a do-or-die battle. Life's sadhana, tapasya made the mother so powerful that had she wished the son would have won. But in her lips came, "Yatha Dharma, Tatha Jay" i.e. whoever is fighting for the dharma (truth, justice) should win and she knew that the son was not exactly following dharma. I am talking about Mother Gandhari when son Duryodhana goes to her before the battle of Kurkshetra. And we know how Dhritarashtra's unfulfilled ambition was channelized through Duryodhana. I cannot help if it sounds idealistic, but we cannot achieve an ideal system (the motive behind IIT JEE or any reform) without adopting idealism ourselves, in our dealing with our children who are the future of the nation. It will be like pushing the garbage from one corner of the room to other corner and never getting rid of it. With reform in the education sector on the anvil, we can give a deep, hard look at the core issue without which the much discussed 'inclusive growth' will just be a matter of statistics obtained from parametric adjustment of few control variables. The future of the nation depends on how we educate our youngsters, how we educate ourselves before that.

More than ritual

If we try to go beyond ritualistic celebration of 150th birth anniversary of Vivekananda, it will do us a world of good to listen to him and direct policy implementation related to education on what he said as essence of education, "We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one's own feet." We need not interpret the last point of the sentence as making enough money. Standing on one's own feet goes much beyond that in making men out of boys. If we want to listen to Tagore who conceptualized Vishwa Bharati, we hear, "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence". The very first point of Radhakrishnan Report (1949, Link) on education says, "The quality of a civilisation depends not on the material equipment or the political machinery but on the character of men. The major task of education is the improvement of character." He further says, "Education is the means by which we can tidy up our minds, acquire information, as well as a sense of values. Education should give us not only elements of general knowledge or technical skills but also impart to us that bent of mind, that attitude of reason , that spirit of democracy which will make us responsible citizens of our country. A true democracy is a community of citizens differing from one another but all bound to a common goal." It is high time to do what is necessary to benefit from the wisdom our greatest teachers. For us, the teachers, the Radhakrishnan's birthday should be more than the celebration of Teacher's Day to remember what he said, "The right kind of teacher... not only loves his subject, he loves also those whom he teaches. His success will be measured not in terms of percentage of passes alone... but equally through the quality of life and character of men and women whom he has taught." or "The real teacher is like the gardener who nurtures the plant and not a carpenter who cuts pieces of wood to fit into certain locations .... Unless the tutor stimulates thinking rather than mere memorizing, deeper intellectual interests rather than aversion to thought, better perception of values rather than in appreciation, he serves no useful purpose but may nourish wrong habits which will be difficult to eradicate. The tutor has to bear in mind that he is not merely teaching a subject, but is educating men and women to take their places as intelligent citizens of the nation." and ask ourselves how far we are conforming to this.
Back to specifics

IIT-JEE can focus on achieving what it is supposed to achieve i.e. getting the right kind of students for themselves. Will inclusion of board exam. marks solve the problem? It may. What about the concern of some that there may be issues with some board? The answer given is that this exercise will make those boards do better. To me, it is a risky proposition in a high voltage situation like this. But the proposer must have thought about a way else there may be litigation one after another. Will it give rise to state quota? Nothing wrong if we are talking about inclusive growth and it may not compromise with meritocracy too as we the top 1-2% of a board will be under consideration. But the smarter among the population may try to migrate to certain boards which may appear to provide some extra edge. Probably, higher board percentage (than 60%) or percentile as eligibility to IIT-JEE can be a middle ground.

Virtue of ISEET

I like the idea of the pan-India common test like ISEET which if treated as precursor to IIT-JEE, becomes important and gets proper recognition. I like it because this prepares some sort of national level merit list and takes away much of the load from All India Rank of IIT-JEE and obsession around it. AIEEE is there but it does not get that much of an attention as it is not linked to IIT. Whether IIT will conduct another test with top x percent student of ISEET etc. and with short and/or long answer type questions is another issue. Probably they should conduct such a test to decide and it should be a subjective type. I see all coaching centre executives seeing red in this proposition. I wonder if they worry more about something else than subjectivity of evaluation. People who talk about golden days of IIT-JEE where best of the best could be selected, are talking about those days where subjective test were held. Also when the nation keeps watching every move related to IIT-JEE there is no such scope. The debate we had before was not on evaluation of answer-script but arriving at cut-off marks. And now perhaps IIT-JEE is the most transparent of all. My interaction with students here show that they appreciate the importance of subjective test and not worried about subjectivity as part marks are well defined in the evaluation procedure. If we are talking about evaluation of scripts of top x% then it can certainly be ensured. On one hand we talk about incorporation of 40% marks from Board Exam., and on the other hand we doubt the credibility of examiners of the nation's most credible entrance exam. - it does not go together. That the coaching centres do not want it (if I could hear the noise) tells that this is the solution.

Importance of 1st Year

Those who are in IIT know that all Dept.s are not equal in demand. I would like to go with the suggestion where institute is chosen based on ISEET IIT-JEE rank and Dept. is chosen after 1st year based on 1st year rank. This will give a major incentive to study in the 1st year where students tend to relax after rigorous IIT-JEE preparation. Once they slip in 1st year, with no parental control and new found freedom with high bandwidth internet and LAN working on body and mind, it is very difficult to recover. If they get into the habit of studying once in IIT, a new environment (parents too will be watchful as a lot is at stake on 1st year result), they are expected to continue with it. The other rationale is that the students go through common curriculum, stay in same environment in 1st year and thus there is a 'level playing field' (Link). The best way to judge their relative merit is at that time which will reduce the noise in merit list due to wide diversity of their background when they enter IIT system.

Update: Had a discussion with a group of 2nd year IITKGP UG students this morning on various aspects of these. They do not like allocation of branch after 1st year. As a student they may want to go to a newer IIT to get a branch of their choice if rank is low and movement across IITs may be difficult. However, they fully subscribe to the idea of giving more incentive to 1st year result. Their suggestion is to increase the current 10% Dept. change (from a less preferred branch to a more preferred branch) option to 20% so that a larger number of students have a realistic chance to go for Dept. change and work for that. The students appear to have a more practical sense than me on this and I am sure on many other things too :-)

From the view point of a commoner

How does people unconnected to IIT-JEE, who outnumber IIT-JEE aspirants, look at all these? The common man in the street is entitled to think that these public funded institutions with huge capital and operational expenditure behind them, should do more than shaping the career of certain select individuals. How can the RoI (Return on Investment) for the country be improved? The Mission statement at IIT Madras website (Link) says,
The purpose of educational programmes in the IITs should be
  • to develop in each student mastery of fundamentals, versatility of mind, motivation for learning, intellectual discipline and self-reliance which provide the best foundation for continuing professional achievement;
  • to provide a liberal; as well as a professional education so that each student acquires a respect for moral values, a sense of their duties as a citizen, a feeling for taste and style, and a better human understanding. All these are required for leadership;
  • to send forth men and women of the highest professional competence with a breath of learning and a character to deal constructively with issues, and problems anticipated in the next decade relevant to the programmes of development of our country.
We need to ensure that we have the right ingredients in place to achieve this purpose in letter and spirit. Since the nation looks up to IITs as role model, such achievement will have a snow ball effect and will positively influence secondary and higher secondary education. The leaders i.e. IITs should show that its students acquire 'a respect for moral values, a sense of their duties as a citizen, a feeling for taste and style, and a better human understanding ... a character to deal constructively with issues, and problems anticipated in the next decade relevant to the programmes of development of our country'.

Maximizing RoI for the country

Is competence in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics enough to ensure right kind of human input to IITs? Is it possible to inculcate the character qualities at UG level at IIT or should it start earlier? Could there be any way to evaluate that? Could there be a personal interview of 2y (y = no. to be admitted) people, similar to current GATE interview which will look into extra-curricular, involvement in community service activity, attitude? Who will conduct these tests? The IIT faculty needs to be trained. Even if the student do not enter the IIT system with the above character qualities, it is the duty of IIT faculty to impart them and thus the training cannot be avoided. The more we empower, the more is our responsibility to see that a student is groomed as a responsible citizen of the country and a good human being. Each IIT has extra-curricular program at 1st year level like NCC, NSS etc. It can be revitalized as it provides the scope for the two worlds to meet - the privileged and the underprivileged. Due weightage can be given to participation to this which is to get counted in the Dept. selection.

The pitfalls

Doesn't the proposed flow chart contain flaws? Yes. But it may have less flaws and can be worked upon. My experience is following: In any two populations A and B of sufficiently large size (say 1000 or so), the top z% of B will always be better than bottom z% of A. Consider, A as the ones who clear IIT-JEE and B who do not clear IIT-JEE but some other exam. The aim of the selection process is to minimize z but it can never be made zero. Coming back to the flow chart, one possible criticism could be the increased stress level in a multi-tier test. Closer scrutinee will show addition of only one personal interview to get admitted and that carries only 10% of the weightage. This is to send a message that the attitude and extra-curricular are important and students should develop healthy life style in parallel. The offering of Dept. at the end of 1st year is to tell that getting into IIT is not enough - one has to work hard here too. If required, the end of 1st year ranking may consider x% weightage from 1st year score and (100-x)% from IIT-JEE.

Past projected to future

Let us see the genesis of IIT JEE and how students were admitted when it first came into being in the year 1955. We may see that it had a flavour of what is talked about here. I quote from one article of April, 2012 issue of Twastha, a journal of Technology Alumni Association, IIT Kharagpur. In this, a senior IIT KGP faculty pays tribute to the institute.

"Admission to the institute were on considerations of merit only. Till 1954 admissions were made on the basis of recommendations of Regional Interviewing Committees which met at 9 different centres throughout the country. On 3rd July, 1954 the Board of Governors resolved that from 1955 admission be made on the result of a competitive examination held at various centres at the country followed by an interview and medical examinations of candidates successful in the written examination. However, on the suggestion of the Ministry of Education, it was agreed that 15 percent of the seats be reserved for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students and 37.5 percent of seats be reserved for backward sates. Under technical cooperation scheme of Colombo Plan some seats were reserved for students from Nepal, Burma and Indonesia."


Let me come back to the decision making process with which I started this post.  IITs should do what it needs to do to serve the country as a whole so that the benefit is accrued to the common man and not to select individuals. Today at the cross road, when decision is being made to get the finest manpower for the finest institution of the nation, it is worth remembering father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?"

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