The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) have been in the news recently over the Centre's proposal to replace the multiple engineering entrance tests with a common entrance test (CET). While it goes without saying that the IIT brand name attracts only the best, one question arises: why is it that the faculty associations and alumni of the IITs are so agitated over the question of institutional autonomy, the brand and the JEE?
Under the 1987 National Policy on Education, the government was committed to set up a National Testing Service for conducting a CET for admissions to higher education institutions. The purpose was to have an all-India criterion for admissions, minimise the stress level of students (who are forced to appear in the various admission tests) and to integrate curricula and teaching. It is important to have a globally-acceptable accreditation standard so that it becomes easier for Indian scientists and engineers to explore opportunities abroad. So a CET is desirable and essential.
The IIT-JEE is one of the toughest tests globally. The JEE is a test of elimination, rather than selection, and certainly not of aptitude. If a student wants to succeed in the JEE, she will require learning a drill that only coaching centres can provide. Consequently, the JEE continues to favour the urban and rich. Endowed with the best students, the best faculty, excellent infrastructure and enormous funds, the IITs provide good, basic education. However without practical and technology skills that students acquire in post-graduate (PG) training in institutions in the West, the IIT alumni would not have achieved their remarkable professional success. In fact, students from the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and other engineering institutions have also done well in life thanks to their PG studies abroad.
No global university conducts admission tests, even the best ones like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accept the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
Some years ago, the Centre had succeeded in introducing a 'common' entrance test, the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE). This credible test is used by the NITs and most technical universities. But the IITs and state institutions have stayed out of it. Why should the IITs not consider it a national responsibility to mentor a periodically conducted AIEEE-like CET covering a range of grade 12 competence levels? Any cut-off formula based on board results is not a practical solution since it will be difficult to synchronise the results of the different boards. But why should a nation deprive any aspiring student the level-playing field experience of a CET?
Going forward, the IITs should concentrate on PG education. The IITs produce only about 1% of India's undergraduate engineers, but contribute 90% of India's MTechs and 95% of the PhDs. Since privileged IIT BTechs do not prefer to pursue PG studies in the IITs, national interest demands that the IITs should consider making it mandatory for the entrants to commit to dual degrees when they take admission.
The brand name and academic autonomy of the IITs have already been diluted through mandatory, increased intake and admission of 49% students under a quota.
A country is known by its institutions of higher learning. The IITs may be the best in India, but not in the world. The generously funded IITs need to concentrate on quality higher education and creating translational and transformational knowledge for the Indian economy. This calls for tectonic changes in the governance and management of the IITs to make Nehru's vision of "IITs as India's urges and India's future in the making" a reality after all.
Kasturi Chopra is a former director of IIT Kharagpur
The views expressed by the author are personal