Tuesday, April 24, 2007


The latest issue of Outlook magazine has a terrific story on the IITs' prestigious entrance exam, JEE (Coaching Factories Are Dumbing Down The IITs).

Sugata Srinivasaraju reports that two distinguished IIT alumni (one of them B Muthuraman, Tisco MD and an alumnus of IIT Chennai) have said that standards at the IITs have fallen.

Their remarks have questioned the calibre of students who make it into the IITs by subjecting themselves to the killing rigours of coaching factories in places like Kota and Hyderabad. The alumni seemed to conclude that these products of coaching factories—who now form, according to Wikipedia, 95 per cent of students at IITs—had a blinkered approach to education, did not recognise new ideas and had lost the spirit of inquiry and innovation. In short, elements that had built Brand IIT over the decades had now gone missing.

The root of the problem seems to to be the JEE and the sort of students who are able to make it through the JEE.

The JEE tests are said to be of an irrationally high standard, which makes students depend on intensive coaching at the cost of systematic scientific education and normal teenage activities.

Take a look at the critique of three IIT Kanpur professors on the JEE system in an in-house journal. Prof Vijay Gupta writes: "Teaching and coaching are two different kinds of things. Even the best coaching does not attempt to clarify concepts. It does not inculcate the spirit of inquiry. It does not train persons in starting from first principles. Instead it relies on pattern recognition. Do enough problems so that when you see a problem in the exam, you can recall the special trick required to obtain the answer.... Most entrants into IITs have not read a single book in their last three years or so."

Prof B.N. Banerjee touches upon his classroom experience: "JEE has spawned a system that reduces young people to automatons, in more senses than one. They not only become robots in academics, as all of us can see in our core teaching encounters, they even resemble one another in personality. Gone are the sparkling eyes and scintillating engagements that used to be the teacher's joy

Strong words, these. As somebody who has the same concerns about the IIMs and their CAT, I have no difficulty endorsing these. Getting through CAT is largely a matter of intense preparation, perfecting a certain drill. Those with an engineering background and, for some reason, an IT background, are better equipped to get through. But these are not necessarily the cream of managerial talent. There is a great deal more to being a good manager than clearing an aptitude test.

One of the concerns of faculty at the IIMs is that the proportion of engineers in a batch has been rising relentlessly- it is said to be close to 90% now. About a decade ago, the proportion was much lower. There are some who counter this by saying that in India, the better students opt for engineering or medicine and only the rejects to go other streams, so such an outcome is only to be expected. Even if this is true, the best among the other streams do not stand a chance of making it- and that is a tragedy.

A possible solution would be to have differential cut-off scores for engineering and other streams. This, I am told, is attempted but there are limits, we are told, because if you take in people with very low quantitative scores, they may not survive once they get in.

Another possible solution is to increase the short-list for the group discussion and interview stage. That would give an opportunity to talented people who miss out today because they are not in the top percentile in CAT. In other words, call, say, 2000- 3000 people for interview instead of 900, as happens at IIMA. The limitation here is faculty time. As it is faculty are stretched over weeks to do the GD/interviews.

A big problem for IITs and IIMs is the sheer size of the applicant pool. When you get 200,000 applications, you simply can't evaluate each application. At the top US schools, the total number runs into a few thousand. So, after applying a cut-off GMAT score, they are able to screen applications closely.

There are no easy solutions. Besides, you are bound to end up with good students and they are bound to get fantastic placement salaries, so the incentive to find solutions is rather weak. But whoever is able to propose an alternative approach to talent spotting will at IIMs will be making a big contribution.


Paresh said...

I don't see any problem with students slogging it out to get admission into some of the coveted places. If you relax this situation, what is the meaning of a competitive exam? And when you have only a handful of institutions with such high quality of academic standards while all remaining are lagging behind by a long distance, this situation is inevitable.
Now, in this IIT case, there are two players making comments: An alumnus (who I assume is not speaking as an employer) and some professors. Although their comments hold a lot of weight (especially the comments of faculty, as they are the best judges of students' abilities), when it comes to dilution of 'brand IIT', I think its the industry whose opinion counts. If the employers start complaining about the quality of students (as in they are narrow minded, not curious, not creative etc. etc.) then its a serious problem. And I haven't read any employer raising doubts about the quality of IIT grads.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Paresh, as I mention in my post, the complaint did emanate from a leading employer, B Muthuraman, MD of Tisco. The Outlook story mentions, among other things, that a group of IIT students he met could not name the authors of their text-books. The cause for concern precisely is that Mr Muthuraman has declared that he would not like to recruit from the IITs.


Unknown said...

Critics of the JEE seem to forget a few things. The JEE is not perfect, but are the alternatives any better? Coaching for JEE may not be teaching, but can you seriously argue that teaching for XII board exams are any better? Indian schools make children learn by rote, at least JEE asks students to solve problems - not regurgitate material!

And finally, IITs do have mediocre and disinterested students, but the toppers are real stars, and many go on to real greatness.

Anonymous said...

I know you may not appreciate this so much, but I think you need to take a cue from ISB here. They have a much more holistic admission procedure compared to IIMs.

Anonymous said...