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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Anjuli Bhargava: Indian Institutes of Technology or Trouble? - Business Standard


Are teachers, parents, govts, academicians and society trying to break down a 65-year old institution?

July 15, 2015 Last Updated at 21:48 IST

As one reads about the plight of students who make it to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), those who fail to do so and those who make it through the system once in, one can't help but wonder whether this was what was intended.

Let me start with one big question: are the IITs actually for training and producing engineers? Most IIT-ians I know - and this is a fair number - are not pursuing engineering. They are bankers, consultants, angel investors, senior level executives or even heads of non-governmental organisations. I don't know a single civil, mechanical or electrical engineer for that matter. The engineers India produces are primarily from the regional engineering colleges. So if the idea is to churn out good, capable managers, do they really need an IIT-education?

A few weeks ago, I was following the story on an IIT Mumbai student who took his own life, unable to cope with the stress of the system. Television channels put out statistics that revealed that suicide rates among IIT students are quite high - again something unheard of in the 1980s and 1990s.

Then last week, IIT Roorkee identified and asked 73 students who could not cope with the curriculum or were evidently disinterested in it (one student quit to join acting classes) to leave. Without going into the rights and wrongs of the issue, I presume if the institute took such a drastic decision it must have had valid reasons.

I know a few students who failed the dreaded Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and some who made it. And they have an important point to make. The moment a child shows some interest or aptitude in the sciences, parents start talking of the JEE examination at home. Teachers add to the decibel level. Before the student fully realises what he is signing on for - or whether he actually wants a career in engineering at all - he is brain-washed into enrolling for the classes. Others around you seem to be in the same boat, so peer pressure builds up. It's a fait accompli for those demonstrating aptitude in math and science. Career choices are made ridiculously early.

Students at ages 14-15 start attending these classes. They are in a sort of pressure cooker situation for at least four years before they actually take the test. Thankfully, several - probably not cut out for it anyway - fall by the wayside.

But some who finally do make it find it a bit of an anti climax. Exhausted or burnt out, many begin to question whether this is what they wanted in the first place. Older and wiser, some begin to question why engineering. Yet the pressure of performance - and the IIT curriculum - continues to build. Semesters seem to merge into one another and one examination follows the next.

Far too many crack under the pressure. As one student I know put it "you are on a treadmill that refuses to stop" but there's no time to do anything about it.

Then there are those who are disappointed with what they find once in. A post by a former student who passed out in 2014 talks of the "academic void" his IIT education left in him. He found himself surrounded by people who were more interested in the "job" and the "package" post an IIT stint rather than evolving into a better professional. He says that he enjoyed everything about being at an IIT except the academics.

Academic standards at almost all the IITs have dropped steadily through the years (IITs have been slipping in QS World University Rankings every year). So if Pradipta Banerji, director of IIT Roorkee, managed to cull out the students who failed to cope or were not interested in learning, we need someone across the IIT system to cull out those who failed to teach or were not interested in teaching.

Instead of quibbling with student bodies, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani should look at some of these real problems plaguing the IITs and save this 65-year old institution from virtual collapse.