Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fading interest in engineering, entrance test blamed for IIT slide

A day after Infosys Ltd.'s Chairman Emeritus N.R. Narayana Murthy rued the quality of students at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), experts and IIT officials said coaching centres that help students enter these elite engineering colleges are only partly to blame. The entrance examination, inadequate training in high schools and falling interest among students to pursue careers in engineering must also share the blame, they said.

Addressing a global IIT alumni meet in New York, Murthy said on Monday that most IIT students now fare poorly in jobs and global institutions of higher education. Test preparation centres, he said, are to be blamed for creating a pool of rote learners who enter the IITs. “Thanks to the coaching classes today, the quality of students entering IITs has gone lower and lower,” Murthy said, advocating a change in selection criteria, as reported by PTI.

The IIT-joint entrance examination (JEE) is one of the most competitive in the country, with just about two out of every 100 candidates finding a seat at one of the 15 IITs. In the last academic year, 475,000 students took the test, vying for around 10,000 seats. Many successful candidates rely on private coaching centres to perform well at the examination. Students at these centres are trained through a combination of rote-learning and calculated guess work to score the maximum in a limited time.

For the last eight years, the IITs have chosen a multiple-choice format for the JEE, compared with an earlier version which tested students’ indepth subject knowledge. “The drop in quality intake at the IITs can be attributed to its selection process,” said C.V. Kalyan Kumar, Director of FIIT-JEE Ltd., a prominent chain of tutorials. “Earlier, the selection process was subjective, but in the last eight years, it has gone completely objective.” One correct answer, according to Kumar, fetches three mark, while a wrong answer leads to one negative mark. “This means students don’t hesitate to guess answers. By guessing, you can get 25% right answers,” he said.

The need of coaching centres arises mainly due to poor schooling, but the “government is not strengthening that because it is difficult. If you select students based only on school boards, then the quality will go down further as some boards grant marks without judging the (student’s) calibre,” Kumar said.

Vishal Chandra, an IIT-Delhi graduate who heads a start-up, said the current examination only required students to have a limited understanding of physics, chemistry and mathematics. “You don’t need to understand these subjects in great depth. Tutorials prepare you to tackle these formats.” He, however, added that the IIT-JEE tutorial he attended taught him science better than his school.

Rajiv Kumar, a professor at IIT-Kharagpur, said he agreed with Murthy. “But you cannot only blame coaching centres for the mess. IITs have to put their house in order first before blaming anybody else. The exam is yours and the selection process is yours too,” said Kumar, who was suspended five months ago for criticizing the IIT system by using the Right to Information Act. He has filed a public interest litigation asking for reform in the IIT system.

Gautam Barua, Director of IIT-Guwahati, said Murthy was only partly right on the quality of students. “It’s a concern that at least 50% of the students are not interested in pursuing a career in engineering courses offered by IITs. They are good students interested in some other fields. They come to IITs for a good brand name, great peers and it helps them crack exams like CAT (common admission test for the Indian Institutes of Management).” The 2010-12 batch of IIM-Bangalore’s flagship postgraduate programme has 375 students, of which 20% are IIT graduates.

But Ashok Gupta, Dean of Alumni Affairs and International Programme at IIT-Delhi, said neither the IIT brand name nor the quality of its students has gone down. “People should check ground realities,” he said. Gupta said it has always been true that the top 20% of students are excellent, 60% are very good and the rest are average. “India’s market situation has changed,” he added. “Earlier, the top 15-20% IIT pass-outs used to go out to the US and other countries, either for jobs or further studies. Now they get quality local jobs. So those who are going abroad may be average students.” Gupta also said students cannot be blamed for choosing careers in management if they pay better.

But Murthy is not the first to criticise the IITs or the impact of coaching centres. On 14 September, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and the IIT Council said in a note that they were considering reforms in the entrance exam and that coaching centres were playing havoc with the quality of student intake.

Source: Mint, October 5, 2011

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