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Sunday, June 17, 2012

139 - Cacophony, And The Sound Of Silence - India Today

Cacophony, And The Sound Of Silence
The IITs: where many students cower under the glare and heat of brightness

A decade ago, when 19-year-old Devendra Prasad first walked into IIT Kanpur from his village in Orissa, he was amazed at the level of intelligence of the people there. With a limited ability to converse in English, the village boy was apprehensive. His tension increased when, at the hostel, a senior asked him: “Where have you rats come from, with slippers and bags?” That, Prasad remembers, was just the beginning of a crushing stress that would stay with him through the four years of his tenure at India’s best known educational brand.

Despite being a brilliant student and a topper back in his village school, Prasad was always on catch-up mode in his IIT class, just another student in a sea of toppers and bright brains. The curriculum was tough and left little room for anything else. And the socio-economic gap with students from well-to-do families left him crippled with a pressure that he found difficult to get out of.
Often, Prasad thought of running away from the academic gaol he found himself thrown into.
“The IIT admission was a passport to a good life. But there was so much expectation that we could not run away and it was difficult to integrate with the system, academically, socially, emotionally. The stress was difficult to handle,” he recalls.

In many ways, that is the situation facing a large number of students studying at the IITs and leading educational institutions today. A majority of students are under tremendous amount of stress. Many find ways to deal with it, but some give up and run away. Worse, others resort to extreme measures like drinking or drugs. Cases of suicides are also not unheard of.

The initial stress derives from the fact that from being toppers in their school, students come into a pool where everyone is a topper and they have to compete with people smarter than them. Added to that is the extreme demands of the IIT engineering curriculum. The expectations from outside, from family and social circles, which expect IITans to come up tops in everything in life, put back-breaking pressure on kids. Says psychiatrist Dr. Nimesh G. Desai: “The problem is there in all apex institutions. When you put together a bunch of toppers, the pressures work strongly and the mechanism to handle this condition of the high achievers is not present at the institutions. Some institutions have counsellors to aid students. But many have nothing at all.”

“At IITs, you need your peer group to pull you along. Not graduating with your peers carries a serious psychological burden.”Nalin Pant, Professor, IIT Delhi
The statistics are shocking. In IIT Delhi, about 600 out of 853 students have gone through counselling because of excessive stress. Obviously, this has a direct impact on students’ academic scores. According to some professors, in some IITs, on an average, 20 per students fail in two subjects. They are sent for probation and lose a semester. Worse, a large number of students do not clear their degree in four years. And that leads to further problems. Says Nalin Pant, a professor of chemistry at IIT Delhi: “IIT is a place where you need your peer group to pull you along. Kids who do not graduate with their peer group suffer serious psychological burden and are not equipped to deal with it.”
Some teachers also blame the ‘system’ for the stress. Says a former IIT student on the condition of anonymity: “The academic pressure at the IITs has not changed in the last 40 years. What has changed is the skills set of students. Because of the changes in the system and quotas, you are getting students with a very poor skills set into an environment that is extremely demanding academically.”

There are other systemic issues. The number of students has increased to such a level that direct or individual attention by teachers is impossible. For instance, 20 years ago, IITs had, on an average, 40 students to a class. Today that number has risen to 300, while the number of teachers has risen by just by 20-30. This is leading to gaps in students’ understanding of course material and lack of feedback to teachers.

Also to blame, say experts, is a coaching culture which prepares students to just crack the IIT-JEE without building a sound foundation in science. Says Arjun Malhotra, chairman, Headstrong, and an IIT alumnus: “Today, kids have been trained only in the objective method of answering questions. Ask them to write an essay answer and most of them just do not know how to do that. Subjective skills are just not there.” And that puts pressure when they are swamped by the IIT curriculum.

A large number of IITians don’t clear their degree in four years. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
Students also feel that much of the pressure is from the academic curriculum and tough routine. Says Nikunj, a student at IIT Delhi: “Stress is roughly equal to number of courses per semester. One course contains lectures, tutorials, three exams, quizzes, submissions, presentations, and a lot of cut-throat competition. Multiply it with six and you have a stressed out student.” While the IITs are aware of the situation and are taking measures like introducing counsellors, they are far and few between. At present the government has permitted only one counsellor per IIT—considering the number of students, this is grossly inadequate.

Teachers are equally stressed out. An IIT professor says on the condition of anonymity: “One of the reasons higher education is reeling is because we are dealing with a large number of first generation learners. There are issues about caste and quota and economic class. You have serious problems in dealing with it as there is no story-telling in technical education.”

Somewhere around, technology is also to blame. Sandipan Deb, a former IIT Kharagpur alumnus, feels that too much access to laptops and the internet has cocooned students within their hostel rooms, instead of allowing them to mix with their peer group. “Before the internet, in the ’80s and ’90s, students formed strong friendships in class and hostels and a support group was there to share emotional, academic and other problems. Now every student has a connection in his room and without interaction, students lead a far more lonely life. There is no way to let out the pressure.”

The silver lining is that many students are back to forming niche groups within IITs where they discuss everything, from academics to theatre. Some IITs have introduced social sciences and subjects like English and psychology as stress busters. But the final detox formula is yet to be written. As things stand, we’ve got some serious thinking to do about our premier institutions—beyond bickering over common entrance tests.