Friday, June 15, 2012

So long, and thanks for all the fish

So the JEE is in mortal danger. At this point when each of students, faculty and management are busy voicing their opinions, I was wondering whether we are even asking the right questions.

The stakeholders in this game are (a) the students (b) IITs (c) society. It is queer to note that ministry and management are not first level stakeholders by any measure. They are supposed to 'represent' the society in this equation, but given that they seemed to have stopped listening and are coming up with brilliant ideas all on their own, lets cast them aside.

So what do each of the stakeholders really need? Lets start backwards.

Society needs 'qualified engineers, scientists and leaders' to serve the nation. How does the process of changing the JEE format answer that need? Once you think about this, you'll realize that the connection is not at all obvious. The ministry supposes that by changing the format of the exam they will be able to induct students 'with a genuine love for engineering' into the elite institutions, which will end up serving the aforesaid purpose since they wont be deviated towards alternative career distractions (read 'white collar') which has been the growing trend. 

Both these assumptions are highly dubious and debatable. Firstly, at a +2 level, rarely anybody knows that they are 'genuinely interested in engineering' - I never did, and neither did hordes of my friends. At best, students know that they love basic sciences. Society-defined status quo and peer pressure, coupled with the utter lack of world class institutions for undergraduate basic science education (with due respect to the few St Xavier's, Presidencies and Annas scattered in a discombobulated manner) dictates that such students take up engineering or medicine as a career. I would like to know what process can filter out students who were 'born to be engineers' with a high level of confidence, especially in India where high school education is deeply theoretical and only a small fraction of students engage in science fairs, modeling projects and the like (note - no ministry ever thought of looking into that as a background).

As for the point of lateral attrition, it is worthy of note that the students 'genuinely interested in engineering', especially from IITs, end up pursuing graduate studies in foreign shores (read USA) and more often than not settle there. Those who do stay back suffer from a lack of challenging and rewarding 'core engineering jobs' within the country. No wonder that large numbers of them switch tracks to finance or management in order to earn well and live respectably while staying within India. The ministry does nothing to promote jobs and RnD, and pushes off-the-shelf resolutions without even an attempt at getting the appropriate ground work started.

Now what do the IITs (aka, hopefully, faculty) need? Having been through the system, the IITs actually need very little by way of undergraduates. The current process inducts students who have been through such a rigorous process of training that they end up being successful almost regardless of anything else. From personal experience, I know that the students who topped the JEE will continue to do the same regardless of the format. These students are not dumb you know. You change the format and they will adapt within days. Especially when the stakes are as high as being admitted into the only chain of undergraduate colleges in India known on a first-name basis throughout the world.

What IITs really need today is a drastic increase in the focus on research. While IITs have made a formidable reputation in undergraduate education, one has to squint to evince their presence in post-graduate studies. It is of immense import that the M.Tech and PhD students graduating out of IITs actually end up working in the IT industry and faculty positions across the nation. If the ministry were to do anything about increasing the output of quality engineers into the Indian workforce, this should be the stream they should attack first. Better resources, collaborations, industry liason, meaningful and productive research translating into stories of success and impact. To me, the fact that this crucial hinge has been all but overlooked is deeply disturbing. 

Finally the students. Students are much smarter than you think. They easily realize that the door to the IITs is synonymous to financial stability, social respect and professional success in India as well as the world. While the prudes may groan at students using the 'IIT stamp' to get places, I do not see how they are to blame given that the IITs are among the only universally recognized colleges from India across the world, and an almost lack of RnD in India. So while it might sound very sympathetic to 'reduce the stress of examinations', one cannot forget what is at stake is worth a whole lifetime. For that, students are NOT going to relax even if the entrance is made easy, but will only fight harder to shine above the rest of the populace. If the ministry thinks including school scores will make a difference, students will only reorient themselves to ace both (personally, board exams were a joke after the preparation we went through for JEE). Throw what you will, the best of the crop will adapt themselves to find their way. The ministry is making the crucial mistake again of expecting mediocrity out of a chain of institutions clearly set aside for elitism, and for all their efforts, students will only sing back 'so long, and thanks for all the fish'.