The seeds of technological and business excellence, for which the alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are known worldwide, were sown by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950. In 1946, the 22-member Satkar Committee of the education ministry was formed to consider the setting up of top-notch technical institutes for post-war industrial development in India. Based on its recommendations, the first IIT was founded in Kharagpur, West Bengal, in May 1950.
As Nehru summed it up at the first convocation of IIT Kharagpur in 1956, “IITs represented India’s future in the making.” A nation is known by its academic institutions and an institute is known by its alumni. In league with Takshashila of ancient India and other, present-day, top British and American universities, the IITs have helped India acquire intellectual and technological prowess. The achievements of IIT alumni have brought unparalleled glory to not only the IIT system but also to the nation. More than 2 lakh students have cleared the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and graduated in the past 60 years from the seven older IITs. It’s unlikely that even one of them won’t swear by the institutions’ success.
The JEE is the examination that all of them took to enter into the IIT system. Unlike almost every other competitive examination in the country, JEE has no history of any allegation of corruption. However, for reasons best known to his ministry, human resource minister (HRD) Kapil Sibal recently announced that from 2013, the JEE will be replaced by a Common Engineering Test (CET). This examination will be held for entry into the National Institutes of Technology (NIT), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT) and other centrally-funded technical institutions.
Sibal attributes the decision to the IIT Council, which, though a statutory body, is given only an advisory role regarding the admission process to the IITs. But he fails to give a satisfactory reply on how the Council can give a unanimous decision when the IITs, whose interests the IIT directors are expected to represent, have dissented on the decision on the CET and that too in writing. Six out of the seven older IITs have refused to allow any change in the entrance examination before 2014 because of the lack of deliberation; five out of seven disagree with the move completely. However, the HRD ministry claims that there is unanimity in the Council and it has gone ahead with the proposed plan, which is a body blow for the statutorily granted autonomy to the IITs and is, therefore, illegal. This is the second major decision by the ministry to dilute the IIT brand as it is known worldwide. The first major — and successful — decision resulted in the creation of eight new IITs, perhaps guided by the ridiculous belief that just naming an institute IIT makes it one.
The older IITs are struggling to keep pace with demands for facilities of their counterparts in the US and other south Asian countries due to lack of funds. As a result, they are slipping in global rankings. But instead of coming to their rescue, the government is diluting the IIT brand and its standards by dropping the JEE, which helps in ensuring that only the best candidates make it to the institution. That IITians are revered worldwide can be gauged from the fact that the US House of Representatives passed a resolution on April 26, 2005, to formally acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of IITians to their country in every profession and discipline.
Any change in the admission process of students to the IITs can only be done by the process as laid down in the Institutes of Technology (IT) Act, which compulsorily warrants an ordinance by the senates of the IITs to state the details of the admission mode, which they wish to opt for to admit students to their undergraduate courses. Any deviation amounts to a violation of the legislative mandate. However, the introduction of the CET is one such deviation which has shocked the IIT fraternity and the nation. Various stakeholders believe that this decision has been construed as an attack on the IITs’ autonomy, which is pivotal to the institutions’ excellence.
Sibal claims that all senates were consulted before arriving at the decision. He further states that it is the IIT Council that has arrived at the decision and not the ministry. However, this does not qualify as a decision arrived at by following due process in view of the laws governing IITs. This means that the decision is likely to get shot down if scrutinised judicially. It is worth noting that the ‘fraud’ of giving the senates’ views a go-by has been going on for years. The IIT Council meeting on September 14, 2011 has minuted that the Joint Admission Board (JAB) is authorised to frame the policies, rules and regulations of JEE under the guidance of the Council, which is against the legislative will.
The majority of the Council members, which is chaired by the HRD minister, are not IIT directors. Surely, the autonomy which has been given to IITs by an Act passed in Parliament can’t be secured by a council where IIT directors are in a minority. Infosys founder NR Narayan Murthy, objecting to the ways in which the Council is being used to meddle with the IIT system, said, “Nobody is bothered about an institution more than its alumni. We must somehow persuade the Government of India to let go of its control and make sure a majority of the Council members are the IIT alumni.” But Sibal seems to be in no mood to heed Murthy’s suggestion.
Also, the changes proposed in the admission process have serious flaws and will surely compromise the quality of the students entering the IITs. As a result, the IIT brand, as it is known worldwide today, will get severely and irreversibly damaged and will no longer be held in high esteem. Clipping the IITs’ autonomy won’t make students interested in studying or reduce their dependence on coaching institutes. IIT alumni, if invited, are willing to extend help to find solutions to the problems that the government believes will be fixed with the CET.
The HRD minister’s dream ‘one nation, one exam’ through the CET is a myth, as the CET will club only two exams —JEE and All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE). Students will still have to take a plethora of exams to enter regional and private engineering colleges. Institutions of the stature of the IITs need to be given more autonomy in their affairs to help them compete with other world-class institutions.
(Somnath Bharti is advocate, Supreme Court of India and president, IIT Delhi Alumni Association)
The views expressed by the author are personal