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EDUCATION:
Looking Beyond: The Quest for IIT

The recent changes in Joint Entrance 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 superstar IITians in our midst. India as a nation, will, however continue to clock below average marks if we keep producing only some who manage to get 100 percent and many more that languish below zero levels, writes Siddharth Srivastava.


Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi

The vaunted Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are known globally for their strict adherence to merit, excellence and high achieving alumni. The IITs have created super stars and super achievers that have served brand India well globally.

The big names include Narayana Murthy (founder of software major Infosys), Rajendra Pawar (head of NIIT, a major software training outfit), Vinod Khosla (founder of Sun Microsystems), M.L. Bhaumik (co-inventor of the revolutionary Lasik surgery process) and many more that have excelled as entrepreneurs, technology czars, professionals in the corporate sector, science and politics. Quite a few who have made their fortunes in the U.S. are deeply involved in philanthropic activities in India, still a pre-dominantly poor country.

Hundreds of thousands of aspirants appear every year for the common IIT Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), considered one of the toughest in the world simply due to the sheer numbers that seriously prepare for the exam. Only a few thousand make it.

A debate, however, ensues in India about changes in the entrance exam of the IITs. Under the new method, weightage will be given to marks obtained in Class XII, the final year of schooling in India. This is an attempt to reduce burden on students and bring about primacy of the school system and education.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): A student reviews the schedule at a Joint Entrance Exam center in Howrah, West Bengal, May 22, 2011. [PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons]

Presently, the Joint Entrance Exam pattern is completely divested 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, the IIMs and medical schools in India.

The changes in JEE have been severely criticized by cross sections of society, some of the IITs themselves, the alumni and others. Predictably, some of the most virulent criticism of the new paradigm is from those that are linked to the coaching centers. One must add 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 IITs has an inherent urban bias given far better private schools available in cities. The rural schools are shoddy as they are run by the government. The argument, underlining the India versus Bharat divide, is that the JEE, as it has existed till now, is an equalizer as it places both the deprived and the better off in an 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.

The IITs have created the superstars. However, the many thousands, especially in rural centers, that fail to qualify do not have a hope in hell 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-starrer 3 Idiots and also spelled out in some detail in writer Chetan Bhagat’s books.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Students and family at a Joint Entrance Exam center in Howrah, West Bengal, May 22, 2011. [PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons]

In any case, those who qualify for the IITs 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 more who don’t make it. 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 contribution of schools in developing personalities is sub optimal.

The over emphasis 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% marks in school and continue to struggle to find admissions in a good degree college. Some make it into the prestigious Delhi University while others endowed with money power add to the count of the thousands that head abroad for studies in the U.S., 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 exposure to English language, rounded knowledge of subjects, extra curricular 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 and tourism. Some are over qualified for the work they do – selling Maggi noodles or Coca Cola, after years of toil to make it through the highly competitive, yet distorted system.

The changes in Joint Entrance Exams has 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 superstar IITians in our midst. India as a nation, will, however continue to clock below average marks if we keep producing some 100 percenters and many more that languish below zero levels. This is the much bigger failure pushed under the carpet by the policy makers.


Siddharth Srivastava is India correspondent for Siliconeer. He lives in New Delhi.



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ENVIRONMENT: Preserving Our Parks
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FICTION: The Dot
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TRIBUTE: Ghazal Maestro Mehdi Hassan
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