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Time to Kota-proof IITs?
Once upon a time IITians stood out for being drop dead smart. They still do, but there are concerns about these centres of excellence being invaded by coaching class clones, who may be able to solve the toughest math problem at the speed of light but are unenlightened about the world around and their role in changing it.
Afew years ago, two freshly minted IIT graduates walked into the CEO's office on their first day of work. To put the 20-somethings at ease and break the ice, the CEO turned the conversation to the day's headlines and, to his utter astonishment, drew blank stares from the duo.
Then there are guys like Shantanu Jha, a Doon School alumnus and IIT Kanpur graduate, who felicitiously quotes Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' poem In My Craft or Sullen Art to make the point that engineering is as much craft and art as it is about mathematics and intelligence. Jha, 46, a senior executive at a hightech Bangalore firm and an expert in microelectronics, had, as an 18-year-old, seriously weighed reading English at St Stephens before opting for engineering. Less than three decades down the line, one can assume with a fair degree of certainty that not one of the 4. 68 lakh who took the entrance exam to the IITs this year even remotely considered English as an alternative to engineering.
It's the uni-dimensional nature of this modern lot of engineers that is the reason for much hand wringing among corporate chieftains and policy wonks. Students study relentlessly for two to three years to crack the feared Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and those who do arrive at the IITs are fatigued and exhausted, with little enthusiasm for the learning process itself. Not to talk of the trauma caused to the majority who don't make it after going through the grind and paying through their nose for coaching.
Coaching centres, which intensely drill IIT aspirants, are back in the news because of the storm kicked up by Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy's recent comments about the declining quality of IIT engineers.
But coaching centres are only part of the problem. They are market responses to a highly skewed higher education system. While the demand for quality engineering colleges has exploded, the supply has only incrementally enhanced. This means today nearly five lakh students vie for 9, 600 IIT seats. Such an extraordinarily narrow funnel fuels the demand for intensive coaching, a model that the city of Kota in Rajasthan seems to have perfected.
Getting into an IIT was never easy. Not even in the 1960s. Narayan Ramachandran, an IIT Mumbai graduate (1985 batch) and former head of Morgan Stanley's India operations who is now chairman of Inklude Lab, a social business firm, says, "There has always been coaching. What has changed is the intensity of coaching, and its integration with the existing school syllabus. Earlier, you did school, and went for coaching on the side. Now you get coached, and schooling happens on the side. " School, in fact, has become an afterthought as IITs give no credit for the 12 years of schooling students go through.
The coaching industry thrives on this. Vallish Herur, director of the Bangalore-based JEE coaching institute, Base, says, "When people say coaching institutes are bad they forget why they are needed in the first place. Board exams in our country don't have the kind of syllabi or the kind of in-built rigour required to crack JEE. Any coaching system exists because there is this gap in education. "
Nobody blames the children for doing what it takes to get in. And it isn't as if youngsters are happy wasting their teen years preparing for JEE. Nishan Hegde, 23, who passed out of IIT-Madras this May and works in financial services, puts it bluntly: "We do it because we don't have a choice. Four lakh students are writing JEE, including lots of smart people. So it takes a lot of hard work for even the bright ones to get in. "
The dramatic increase in the demand for IITs is a 10-to 15-year old phenomenon. Earlier, only the truly bright or the ones really interested in the sciences took the JEE. Then, the Indian middle class discovered that the opportunity cost of forgoing IIT for a normal engineering degree was too high. It would mean closing the door to several things - full scholarships to the best colleges in the US;investment banking jobs that pay 10 times as much as a normal engineering one;a chance to start companies that could be sold or IPOed for millions;and, not to forget, fantastic matrimonial prospects.
The rise of Kota coaching classes for the IIT entrance exam coincided with the achievements of alumni and the millions they were making regularly hitting headlines. IITs were the subject of celebratory covers in local and international publications. The Vinod Khoslas, Nandan Nilekanis, Rajat Guptas became the poster boys for the brain power-driven New India.
Now that the strobe lights have dimmed, questions are being asked about the 'quality' of recent graduates. Some IITians argue that 'quality' in the current debate is an euphemism for "poor communication and social skills". Unlike the earlier IITians - urban, cosmopolitan, English speaking - many of the current lot are from smaller towns with poor command over English. The technical skills might well be the same, but the lack of soft skills becomes the basis for judgement and perception.
As an erstwhile IT CEO explains, "The Kota children are bright, but go through rigorous camps. They have never had a life, no social life, are one-dimensional compared to the earlier lot who did theatre, arts and had the street smarts to do well later on. " It's the "policy dysfunction that's creating distortion".
IITs are well aware of the crisis. Ramachandran says, "IITs have been working on somehow making the exam Kota-proof for five years now;to come up with an entrance exam that is truly reflective of a student's knowledge and ability rather than merely coached ability. " He even questions "how without a rigorous analysis, do you determine old students to be better than the new?" But coaching will not go away even if the exam pattern changes. If there's a gap, the market will fill it. In the US, for example, SAT coaching is big business now.
The solution, say educationists, is in a dramatic expansion of higher education capacity. Education is being seen by Indians, especially the poor and middle class, as the best route to upward mobility. There's a huge demographic wave going through primary, middle school and heading to college, whereas the capacity is woefully constrained. In the US, for instance, the University of California system has 50, 000 students. All of the IITs put together are less than 10, 000.
Despite all the angst, Ramachandran believes there's plenty of reason to still celebrate Jawaharlal Nehru's temples of learning. He says, "IITs have remained organisations with great integrity. In the Indian context, where anything can be bought and everything's compromised, you can't buy your son/daughter an IIT engineering seat. That's phenomenal. IITs are governed by an invisible Lokpal. " Students seem to endorse the sentiment. Hegde believes the two to three years of intensive study he did was totally worth it as the gap between IIT and the next best is huge.
But, without doubt, many who go to IITs today look more to the returns than to the learning. As a young IIT student says, "Murthy cannot know the quality of current IIT students. Infosys pays so little, I am not even sure they are called to our campus for placements anymore and if they do come and get some, it's from the bottom of the class. "
To those who dream only of the fat salaries IIT spells, perhaps it's apt to recall what the man who made the IITs happen, Nehru, said. "We also want you (engineers ) to infuse your work with something, some higher spirit of doing a fine creative job, with the fulfilment of certain objectives and ideals that immediately infuse into your work something which is bigger than you. "
With inputs from Shrabonti Bagchi in Bangalore and Hemali Chhapia in Mumbai.
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