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Is the quality of IIT students declining?

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Yes, thanks to coaching classes and, paradoxically, the IIT brand but let’s also give credit where it is due.

Gautam BaruaGautam Barua
Director, IIT Guwahati

Students get used to a system of ‘spoon feeding’, prevalent in coaching classes and they are slow to adapt to the Institute’s way of teaching

The quality of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) students is certainly declining. We have to, however, first clarify what we mean by “quality”. Since IITs are technical institutes, for me the quality of students as engineers is the defining criterion. Students may be intrinsically good or brilliant, but their quality as engineers is definitely declining. The first reason is the impact of coaching classes on students entering the IIT system. Most of the students are mentally fatigued when they enter an IIT. Many are already burnt out and are no longer able to perform to their potential. Students also get used to a system of “spoon feeding”, which is prevalent in coaching classes and they are slow to adapt to the Institute’s way of teaching, where emphasis is laid on extra reading, on showing creativity, and on applying reason and logic to solving problems. Students, therefore, do not work as hard, or learn as much of their subject, as earlier students used to.

There is another major reason the quality of students is declining. The strength of the IIT brand has made admission into one of these institutes a dream goal for many students and their parents. This dream is independent of the career path that a student may wish to follow. An IIT degree, it is felt (and with some justification), will automatically enable the student to get a lucrative job in the area of her choice. Most of the time, the career choice is made based on the perceived financial benefits. Therefore, at the top of the agenda is a career in finance. Many others go into management after graduation. Then there is a fraction that is looking for an Indian Administrative Service selection.

In my assessment, about 50 per cent of the students in a batch are not interested in a career in engineering after graduation. Another 30 per cent are not sure what they want, or are struggling through their programme owing to handicaps they have brought with them, or because they are burnt out. So, only 20 per cent of the students are “good”. N R Narayana Murthy has come up with a similar figure.

So how do we improve the “quality” of IIT graduates? Based on the points above, the obvious answers are to increase the numbers of those who are really interested in a career in engineering or science, and to reduce the cases of mental fatigue. As far as the latter is concerned, the IIT Council has been discussing this issue and it has been decided in principle to do away with the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and instead use school results and the results of an aptitude test to decide admission. The wide variety in school board exams is sought to be handled by using the percentile rank of a student as the absolute marks of the school result. This will mean that the marks a student obtains will depend on her rank in her Board and on the size of the Board in which she is appearing.

Will coaching disappear then? I feel that coaching institutes will then have to convert into schools. A student will then be “coached” at only one place, his school (well, “taught” rather than coached!). But that is the aim of schooling, isn’t it? How to handle the first issue? The problem here is not only the attitude of students and parents, but also of those who hire. Industry and business “know” that hiring an IITian will ensure quality, and so corporations hire IITians irrespective of the area of their business. So what we need to do is spread the “good” students over a larger number of institutes, each specialising in different fields. We already have many institutes (colleges and universities) teaching courses in economics, commerce, sociology, and so on. The challenge is to improve their brand value. This is a larger issue requiring a wider debate. One tongue-in-cheek suggestion is to convert the IIITs (Indian Institutes of Information Technology) into IIBLESITs (Indian Institute of Business, Law, Economics, Sociology and IT), increase their sizes, and invest heavily in building and marketing them. Or maybe the Indian Institutes of Management could add undergraduate courses in their programmes, as one of them has already done?

S PrasadS Prasad
Former Director, IIT Delhi

To describe the entire student community as not being up to the mark is uncalled for. It hardly does justice to the excellent students in these institutions

It is nobody’s case that the admission processes of the IIT system are perfect. Having reduced the question paper to a multiple-choice, objective test, imperfections have crept in, which the coaching institutions have exploited. Therefore, it is impossible to guarantee that everyone who has cracked the Joint Entrance Examination is brilliant. There is no doubt that there is great scope for improving our admission processes and factoring in more information about the candidate than performance in a single test. Perhaps factoring in school results, as is being considered, will help. Perhaps we need to include a component of subjective testing, as used to be done in the past. There are many dimensions for bringing in such improvements.

But to describe the entire student community as not being up to the mark is uncalled for. It hardly does justice to the excellent students that these institutions harbour and in whom they can take pride. It can unnecessarily demoralise the students and faculty alike. Having been an IIT undergraduate myself and having spent some 40 years as a teacher in the IIT system, I can say with first-hand knowledge that the undergraduate student population today has broadly the same mix as it has always had. Contrary to popular perception, there has always been significant variation in the calibre of students joining the IITs, almost from day one.

It is, however, important to mention that two major transformations of the IIT system are under way. First, thanks to a parliamentary decision, there is a much greater “democratisation” of the system by design, replacing its earlier elitist character. Second, it has made an effort to reposition itself as a research university system, in which postgraduate education and research are as important as undergraduate education.

The democratisation has obviously been designed to make quality IIT education accessible to a much more diverse student population and will, therefore, necessarily lead to admission of students who are less prepared. It is hoped that it can fulfil the aspirations of the young population with a wider base, and provide an opportunity and a gateway to the brightest and the most ambitious of the masses to rise in social and economic status. In essence, therefore, while reforming the admission process should be an important agenda for the IIT system, an even greater task is to quickly learn to handle this wide diversity in the campus. There is clearly a need to devise educational paradigms, which make the entire, enlarged body of students to become equally competent. Moving forward, this has to be a key agenda for the IIT system, even as the nation needs to make parallel efforts to improve the schooling system, especially in the rural areas. The curriculum changes at the IITs increasingly reflect their sensitivity to this need.

Coming to the second aspect, IITs today are equally concerned about their image as research universities. In fact, the older IITs today have larger numbers of postgraduate and research students than undergraduates. This contribution in building a solid and useful technological human resource base needs to be acknowledged as much as their contribution to admitting and nurturing elite undergraduates. It can be argued that the IITs are nowhere near the likes of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford in their research output. However, for a country that has started to make reasonably serious investments into research only in the last 10 to 15 years, IITs have not done too badly, considering the usual parameters to measure this success — the quantity and quality of research publications, PhDs and so on. Let us not forget that before the advent of the Internet, and owing to inadequate opportunities to travel abroad, IIT faculty (and for that matter, most Indian scientists) and research students were terribly out of sync with the rest of the world in terms of access to latest research and availability of quality infrastructure.

While introspection and self-criticism are important tools for making progress, it is important to give credit where it is due. IITs are rightly evolving to the next stage: becoming research universities in the global sense, where admission to undergraduate programmes becomes “difficult” rather than remaining “impossible”, and where motivated students pursue advancement of knowledge in well-equipped labs, and are mentored by good researchers.

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First Published: Wed, October 19 2011. 05:28 IST