IIT Education, IIT Brand or Engineering [What do we want?]

[Part of our coverage of Education Industry in India]
One of the many questions that freshers at IIT have to grapple with during the enjoyable first few weeks is “Hawa Kya Hai”. Hawa (Hindi for air) is a play on AIR or All India Rank in the IIT JEE, the most hallowed amongst all examinations in India. There is hardly a student in the 10th or 12th grade who has an interest in Science and has not heard about the IIT JEE. Even Dilbert thinks that the IITs stand for excellence in the land of elephants and snake charmers.
Through this post, Pratyush, Naman & I look at what Joint Entrance Exam of Engineering conducted by Indian Institute of Technology is all about and what it should aim to be in future.
All this for our fortnightly theme on education. Delving into details of the examination, we’d also look at Engineering as a career to reveal the devil that sits before and after the exam. Something which one often hides away from or speaks less about under the influence of IIT brand (Except for Chetan Bhagat, of course).
Dilbert's Asok on IIT

Dilbert's Asok on IIT

From social point of view, the vertical of Engineering today is fraught with extreme scarcity – atleast in quality. IIT education is much sought after by Indians and that makes it one big-business opportunity for the smart money mongers (Need we elaborate more on this?). Talk to any B-School prof and he will vouch for guaranteed success in education business. From an uber point of view, the divide that such a model (of a premier IIT) brings about for kids makes it undesirable in a way that can be likened to what Cricket does to other sports in India. But are these close to reality?
Here are some sections which we base our arguments on

The Guiding Light of the IIT JEE

Search any regular Indian newspaper or Google, and you’ll find hundreds of advertisements for IIT JEE. Most of them from coaching institutions and record breakers of the exam. Figures like 400, 000 contestants, only 1 in 60 qualify for a seat at IIT and things like that are rife in education advertising. They talk about epitome of competition in an already competition-stricken country. The feelings are compounded by endless stories of successful kids, and about having spent a few years of life at IIT and carrying the tag forward. All of them harp on quality of JEE.

While coaching is not a bad thing at all, but is engineering (education) only about cracking a particular exam like JEE and not about creating a sense of technology in the young ones? Thankfully IITs (JEE) have remained focused on getting brains since the beginning, but how do they evolve in future to get the best brains only and not the most prepared ones? Dealing with such a question requires one to look at things from higher social (and mental) pedestal. Something that our ministry of education is probably clueless about when it talks about only one examination for all engineering colleges.

JEE is Lifeline of Brand-IIT?
Let us answer this question in the first line itself: Yes, it’s the most important brand for the IITs. Most other factors like research initiatives compared to similar universities in the US, infrastructure (even the mess food sucks), connection of syllabus to industry, the work that engineers finally land with, and the other choices in career that are at disposal of a young engineer i.e. MBA, USA or Services Industries are nothing to write home about. To feel the impact of terrible infrastructure around brand IIT, one would recommend reading Five Point Someone again after removing the inane love story of the characters.

On the flip side, the one-off exam and only few available seats build a lot of pressure – while an erudite prospect is supposed to easily handle such pressures, the non-qualifiers are thrown to trudge for years in absolute deprivation (or atleast that’s what we are led to believe). This is a very flawed approach to induct engineers and also something that needs an urgent fix. And our politicians think of killing coaching centers, like in Bihar recently, addressing the symptom instead of the inherent issue.

JEE is a great leveler

It doesn’t consider prior examinations or marks and knowledge of anything apart from Physics, Chemistry or Mathematics – the “core” science subjects. There is also no weightage assigned to 10+2 board exams (and all for good reason).  However, is that all there should be for engineering? An exam?

A rampant struggle of JEE middle rankers who get into various streams of engineering like Chemical, Civil, Metallurgy, Mining etc. is another dilemma which even industry cannot resolve: Most students in these streams scored exactly the same marks in the JEE exam and just for the sake of ranking, randomization by means of computers algorithms is applied to give lucky ones mechanical engineering and the unlucky ones civil. And yet another irony of engineering in India is that even though only 10% of JEE qualifiers were Comp Sci graduates but a remarkable 70% of IIT graduates are in Computer Science industry i.e. coding related jobs – aka Google, MS, Infosys, Wipro & TCS types.

The Main Question

Most of the students at IIT (department notwithstanding) join a software job after IIT. Some others take the long flight to the US to do a PhD (and hopefully some research). This begs the question – Should Civil or Metallurgical engineering be put on the back-burner for the sake of software? Do the avenues to conduct real research exist in India (so that the researchers do not go abroad)? Lastly, inspite of their answers in MBA interviews, entrepreneurship is subconsciously inculcated but surprisingly not fostered at IITs. There has been a lot of change in this lately – however we are still way behind vis-a-vis colleges in the US. Read our post on how entrepreneurs are best young.

Barbarians at the Gates – Politicians and their interests

IITs typically function autonomously – therefore the interference is quite minimal from our democratically elected leaders. However they do come under the ambit if the HRD ministry. We have a simple question – if the system has functioned so well and blossomed with minimal intervention – why are the present incumbents so bent upon changing it? Had they been from a “knowledge” industry – they would have come across the adage “If it aint broken – dont fix it”. However Knowledge and Politics are two words we don’t usually put in the same sentence in India. Hopefully they will see some light.

The stakeholder called Society:

Remember the old Bollywood movies where Dharmendra was more often than not a doctor? Every parent wished their child could be a doctor. Now that has changed. One can see there is a major fall in PMT applicants for medical courses. The Governments in past thirty years have screwed the medical infrastructure, quality of career, and charm of this highly accomplished service whereas the world is taking strides in genetic & medical research. Deliberate or not, is a different issue. This is going to happen to the field of engineering too if we continue to have decision making by the un-informed. Proactive analysis of the needs of our nation and planning for it are the need of the hour and NOT simply setting up more IITs (or AIIMS).

Is there a way forward?

Banning competitive coaching classes is surely not the way. We should aim to make the social infrastructure around engineering more robust. And the direction has to come from the government. It is also a fact that the IITs are a well established brand worldwide. However this brand was not created by the government – but by the stakeholders themselves. So why the resistance to the idea from the Yashpal committee to develop IITs as models of all round excellence ?
Similarly, for the sake of argument (and against our criticism above), why not experiment with just one engineering entrance exam for all private & public colleges in the country? A JEE score can guide students into applying and selecting the courses & colleges of one’s choice.
Most of these decisions are extremely important. That is the premise that guides most of our arguments and passionate thoughts above. All of us can make decisions – however its the informed ones that make the difference.
What do you think?
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