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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Getting things right about suicides in IITs - the Hindu

October 27, 2015

The Hindu

A view of IIT-Madras. Photo: M. Srinath

Innovative steps are the need of the hour, not a fault-finding outcry without any empirical backing, says the writer.

Two suicides in a month at IIT Madras is an unspeakable loss not just to the families of the deceased students but also to the society at large. As a student then, and an alumnus now, these incidents have always disturbed me a lot, and I believe that it is a cause of concern to everyone both inside and outside the institute.

I write this article in response to Arya Prakash’s ‘What has gone wrong with IIT-Madras?’ published on The Hindu Web Exclusives (23 October, 2015). I would like to express my disagreement with the author’s arguments not only on the grounds that the analysis is unsubstantiated, but also on the concern that such a misconceived approach to the problem would lead us nowhere close to the solution.

The recent suicides must be seen as a part of growing trend among all the elite institutes in the country, particularly the IITs. Various social, psychological, and systemic problems must form the context of our discussion. The author dwells upon the system of grading which needs an informed and comprehensive debate. One needs to question whether it leads to a sense of ‘relative deprivation’ despite having high intellectual quotient as Malcolm Gladwell puts it. At the same time, whether absolute grading is any better for the students in terms of ameliorating them from academic pressure and the sense of relative deprivation, needs a thorough examination. This should point us towards an imperative need of reviewing our grading system so that quick and slow learners have a fair chance to excel, and the system is not causative of erosion of confidence.

Instead of making a case for the review of grading system, the author simply puts the blame on the relative grading system as the cause of ‘a sense alienation’ among students. This is too reductionist, for loneliness and alienation are simply not a function of academic performance, they can as well stem from various psychological, social and personal problems. The author perpetuates the orthodox approach to associate every problem faced by the student to academic pressure alone. This is counter-productive to address the problem because some students experience loneliness and a sense of alienation despite having a good academic track record.

On the issue of the academic pressure faced by the backward caste students, a recent on-campus survey by Insight, IIT Bombay shows that students from SC/STs and OBCs end up experiencing more academic pressure than the general category students. Unfortunately, no study has been conducted so far to examine if there is any correlation between suicides and social backgrounds of the students. While this remains a point of concern, one should also acknowledge the efforts being made by the administration to change the situation. IIT Madras offers a basic English course, and recently a ‘Life Skills Course’ was introduced which is first-of-its-kind to enable students manage themselves better. Also, apart from class-room learning, students have access to almost all the courses on the NPTEL platform, which provides an opportunity for going through the lectures as many number of times as needed. Almost all the IITs have professional counselling services in one form or the other. Perhaps, the Professors should also be sensitised to ensure that learning experience in classroom is inclusive and responsive to needs of all students. Such innovative steps are the need of the hour, not a fault-finding outcry without any empirical backing.

The author alleges that MiTR (Guidance and Counselling Unit) of IIT Madras has been counterproductive by turning into a spy agency without any lack of respect for the principle of confidentiality. The Lead Core of MiTR with whom I’ve spoken completely refutes this allegation. Similar counselling services are offered in other IITs too, and they have made a positive impact in many students’ life. The danger of an outright and unsubstantiated allegation on such services is that it prevents the students from approaching these organisations when they are desperately in need of help. In an article titled ‘Depression - An Elephant in the Room’ of Insight, IIT Bombay, the counselling coordinator laments on the perception of a ‘stigma’ associated with seeking counsel. Allegations of these sort only compound that stigma with an added sense of fear. These counselling services must be further strengthened by inducting professional psychiatrists who can render full-time services on campus. Moreover, involving students who have recovered from depression in the counselling services would make the process more effective.

On the issue of attendance criteria, how logical is it to argue that asking a student to attend classes is putting excessive academic pressure on him or her? The attendance policy of IIT Madras is guided by the idea that being a residential institute, the potential of classroom learning experience must be fully tapped. Exemptions to this criteria are available on medical grounds, even if one falls short of 85% attendance. All that a student needs to do is to produce a medical certificate which the on-campus hospital provides. I think by saying that the “students are thrown out of campus”, the author has exaggerated the issue unnecessarily. The stringent rule of asking a student to vacate the hostel applies only when one fails to secure minimum attendance in more than two courses in a semester. Moreover, a thorough background check is done on the student before taking such a decision. Clearly, the criteria and the process tell us that the spirit of the rule is not to pressurise the students but to set a deterrent against absenteeism.

As pointed out at the outset, this phenomena of suicides in elite institutions is a great loss for both families and society. Only a correct diagnosis can help us find a correct treatment for the problem. Being residential campuses, premier institutes like IITs should ensure that the campus ecosystem has the capacity to positively shape individuals’ personal and social life without confining their focus to easing academic pressure. Neither a fault-finding exercise demanding some ‘radical change’ without any constructive solutions, nor the treatment of such cases as personal problems which have nothing to do with the administration are justified. One needs to be pro-active and constantly engage in dialogue with all the stakeholders to ensure that the most transformative phase in an individual’s life doesn’t lead to a tragic end.

The writer is a dual-degree holder in mechanical engineering from IIT-M and a founding member of the discussion group The Colloquium. He is currently preparing for his civil service exams.
This article is in response to an earlier article by an IIT-M student on the atmosphere at the campus post the suicides - What has gone wrong with IIT-Madras?

Keywords: IIT MadrasIIT suicidesMitrstudents counsellingIIT JEEpremium institutes