IITs may be ‘centres of excellence’, but that is no reason to stall the move for a common admission exam with other central colleges, many of which are top notch as well.

The new norms for admission to the IITs and other central engineering colleges, expected to come into force from next year, are an exercise in obfuscation. The May 28 notification had proposed a common entrance examination for IITs and other institutes, taking the results of the Class 12 exam into consideration. However, to call the exam ‘common’ is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than move towards one exam, like, say the UPSC, and base the selection on ranks, what we are seeing is a situation where the candidates give one exam but are assessed in different ways to determine whether they will enter the IITs or the other institutes. It cannot be more absurd. The IITs had all along opposed a common exam, fearing the loss of their control over selection, and thereby their distinctive identity. They did not want the Class 12 results to influence the admission process. Now, they seem to have got what they wanted – of fully being able to control the selection process despite a so-called common exam for all institutes. This has been made possible through a recent order that raises the number of candidates that are eligible to write the JEE (advanced), the exam to be administered by the IITs after the candidates go through an elimination round called JEE (main). By raising the number of candidates that should be cleared in the JEE (main) to 150,000, the weightage given to the Class 12 exam would have implicitly been diluted and the JEE (main) reduced perhaps to a farce. So, after much sound and fury, nothing much is likely to change. The coaching classes would thrive as always, preparing students for the JEE (advanced), just as they do for IIT-JEE.

The government should not have backtracked on its May 28 order, which was right on two grounds: Having a common exam by which all candidates and institutions can be judged and giving due pride of place to the Class 12 exam. At present, students focus on the entrance exams rather than their higher secondary exam, and attend any number of coaching classes, some of which have acquired a dubious renown for being able to ‘crack’ the IIT-JEE paper. Besides privileging the well-to-do student over an economically deprived one, this has led to selection of students of uncertain quality. The IITs may be ‘centres of excellence’, but surely their candidates can be picked from an exam common to other central colleges, many of which are regarded as top notch. They should work together with other institutes to evolve a more robust JEE, and not look down upon them.

True, the school-leaving exam is known to promote rote learning over conceptual understanding. If the IITs feel that a weight of 40-50 per cent for the school-leaving exam is excessive, one can peg it at, say, 30 per cent now and gradually increase it, while simultaneously improving the standards of the Class 12 exam. The IITs should take an active interest in improving the quality of the school-leaving exam. The issue at hand is to raise the level of technical education across the country – to not merely preserve excellence but to spread it.

(This article was published on June 29, 2012)
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